The skill propelling Wander to stardom

March 21st, 2022

Wander Franco stepped to the plate for the first time on June 22 of last season, 20 years old at the time and baseball's No. 1 prospect, and did not strike out. By the end of 2021, he'd batted 307 more times. He kept not striking out.

Franco's bat-to-ball skill made his 43-game on-base streak possible. It's the foundation of his 80-grade hit tool (he's one of only two players to receive that top-of-the-scale mark in the 10 years since MLB Pipeline started assigning scouting grades, along with Vladimir Guerrero Jr.). It's why the Rays shortstop is an easy pick to be one of the breakout superstars of 2022, and maybe a dark-horse MVP candidate.

Here's a look at why Franco's contact hitting stands out, and why that puts him in such good company as a hitter, at such a young age.

As a rookie and the youngest player in the Majors in 2021, Franco had a strikeout rate of just 12%, while making contact on five out every six swings. He struck out only 37 times in his 308 plate appearances.

It was one of the lowest strikeout rates in MLB -- eighth-best among hitters with 300 or more plate appearances -- and one of the best marks down the stretch, as Franco sparked Tampa Bay to a second straight American League East title.

He struck out less often than plate discipline extraordinaire Juan Soto. He struck out less often than both batting champions, and the reigning National League MVP and star of the soon-to-be World Series winners. He struck out less often than his top-prospect predecessor and breakout 2021 slugger Vlad Jr.

Notable K% from June 22, 2021 through end of season
Wander Franco -- 12.0%
Yuli Gurriel (AL batting champion) -- 12.6%
Freddie Freeman (best hitter on the World Series champs) -- 12.9%
Juan Soto (145 walks to 93 strikeouts) -- 13.7%
Trea Turner (NL batting champion) -- 14.2%
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB's No. 1 prospect before Franco) -- 15.1%
MLB strikeout rate -- 22.6%

Soto and Guerrero are the two names your eye should jump to in connection to Franco, as fellow phenoms whose rise to superstar status was driven by plate discipline. (Soto's discipline has been his headlining skill from the beginning, and improved pitch selection for Guerrero was one key to him making the leap to MVP-level hitter last season.)

Franco is already there. No matter what pitchers throw at him, he puts the bat on it. 

  • Against fastballs (four-seamers, sinkers and cutters), he struck out just 25 times in 172 plate appearances -- 14.5%.
  • Against breaking pitches (curveballs and sliders), he struck out just 11 times in 77 plate appearances -- 14.3%. 
  • Against offspeed pitches (changeups and splitters), he struck out just once in 59 plate appearances -- 1.7%. 

Yes, Franco had just one strikeout all year against offspeed pitches. Here it is, in case you were wondering. (It was a changeup by the Orioles' Conner Greene, and it was a good one.)

On the other end, he had extra-base hits off offspeed pitches like Robbie Ray's changeup (a double on July 4), Nathan Eovaldi's splitter (a triple on July 31), Cesar Valdez's "dead fish" (a home run on Aug. 7) and, in the playoffs, Eduardo Rodriguez's changeup (an RBI double in Game 1 of the ALDS).

From the date of his MLB debut through the end of the season, Franco struck out against fastballs less often than two-thirds of the league. Against breaking balls, he struck out less often than 95% of the league. Against offspeed pitches, he struck out less often than the entire league.

He stops pitchers from getting free outs with the stuff they use to get their K's. The league-wide strikeout rate against breaking and offspeed pitches in 2021 was 28.7% (31.4% against breaking balls, 22.9% against offspeed). Franco's strikeout rate was 8.9%. Franco missed on only one out of every five swings against breaking and offspeed pitches. MLB hitters overall missed on one in every three.

Here are just some of the two-strike pitches Franco spoiled: a home run off Ray's slider, which got more strikeouts than any other slider in 2021 … a base hit off Emmanuel Clase's 100 mph cutter, the fastest cutter in pitch-tracking history … a base hit off Adam Ottavino's slider, which breaks 19 inches … a home run to dead center at Fenway Park off Tanner Houck's sinker, which generates the second-most drop of any pitcher's.

The next step for Wander, since he's already making tons of contact, is to make harder contact. His hard-hit rate of 37.6% as a rookie was above league average, but top-tier hitters make hard contact closer to half the time, or even more.

But don't worry about Franco -- Vlad Jr. had a 38.7% hard-hit rate as a 20-year-old rookie, and Soto was at 41.9% at the same age. Both made leaps to over 50% in the next few seasons. If Franco's progression follows theirs, he'll be an elite hitter soon enough.

He's on the right track. Franco's 40.3% hard-hit rate in September was his highest in any month, and he hit six balls over 100 mph in the Rays' four-game playoff series against the Red Sox -- including two home runs, a double and two singles. Franco's 37.5% clip of 100-plus mph contact in the postseason was much higher than his 21.6% mark in the regular season.

There's a reason the projection systems think Franco could be a top-10 position player in baseball in 2022 -- Steamer, for example, projects him for 5.3 Wins Above Replacement, tied for eighth-best with Carlos Correa. With the skill set he's showing, Franco's 80-grade hit tool could translate onto the Major League field sooner rather than later.