Wander's breakout is happening in real time

Rookie's 24-game on-base streak is longest active in MLB

August 24th, 2021

On June 21, the Rays called up shortstop Wander Franco, who at 20 years old was widely viewed as the consensus best prospect in the land. In his first game, he showed why, as he homered, doubled, walked and started an impressive double play while playing third base. It seemed like he’d fit right in on one of baseball’s best teams.

Except ... he didn’t, not exactly. Not right away.

Franco went hitless in his next four games, then didn’t show much production for most of the next month. There were moments, certainly, but from that second game through the end of July, over 123 plate appearances, Franco hit all of .230/.285/.363.

"Franco has shown flashes of that extraordinary talent but overall been nothing special,” wrote the Tampa Bay Times on July 31. “It hasn’t taken long for the hype to fade,” added The Athletic on Aug. 7.

If you’d checked out around that point, or even if you pulled up his stats page today and saw .266/.329/.447 with six homers and 29 RBIs, you might be wondering what all the hype was about. You might be wondering why the numbers aren’t there.

The thing is, they were there. They are there. His season line gives him a 120 OPS+, making him 20% better than the average hitter. He's currently got a 24-game streak of getting on base at least once, the longest active streak in the Major Leagues.

Even if you haven’t quite noticed yet, Franco, at 20 years old, has been one of baseball’s best hitters for the past month. He is, in a lot of ways, doing exactly what we thought he’d do. Sometimes, these things just take a little time.

On July 31, we found this chart, and tweeted it out. Franco had entered the day hitting only .230/.290/.381, though he’d had two extra-base hits in a Tampa Bay win over Boston the night before. The point that was being made was that even though the baseball card line looked poor, it was clear, based on underlying metrics around quality of contact and amount of contact, that Franco’s trendline was headed up (above the red line indicating “MLB average.”)

Franco got two more hits that night against the Red Sox, and two more the next night on Sunday Night Baseball as the Rays finished off a sweep. He’s hitting .329/.391/.582 since the start of that Boston series on July 29, and if you’re wondering how that stacks up across the Majors, the answer is: Incredibly well.

From July 29 through the start of play on Monday -- which works well enough for our purposes because more than half the Majors, including the Rays, had the day off -- 110 players collected at least 80 plate appearances. Only eight of them hit better than Franco.

It’s an interesting list of players. C.J. Cron is a 31-year-old veteran having the best hot streak of his life, while Dansby Swanson and Amed Rosario have some post-hype breakout qualities going on. Teoscar Hernández is perpetually underrated; Bryce Harper, Juan Soto and Yordan Alvarez are known quantities among baseball’s elite hitters.

Then there's Franco, who will enter next year's Spring Training still at 20 years old. (His birthday is March 1.)

We’re not putting Franco there with Soto and Harper just yet, of course, because we’re talking about a few weeks of hot play, and there’s plenty of time for things to go wrong. But given the expectations and the hype, this is exactly what you were hoping to see. That’s especially true because of something important: This isn’t about luck. Franco wasn’t especially ‘unlucky’ at first. He’s not getting terribly ‘lucky’ now. He’s just figuring out the Majors and performing the way all the scouting reports indicated he could.

The most important way to show that is to sort that list of 110 hitters with 80 plate appearances since the start of that Red Sox series by lowest strikeout rate. Franco has whiffed in 9.2% of his plate appearances over the last few weeks, which is the fourth-lowest of any hitter, and that tracks very well with his prospect pedigree -- in three seasons in the Minors, he struck out only 75 times in 945 plate appearances, walking 95 times, an 8% strikeout rate.

But simply “not striking out” isn’t valuable all by itself, because poor contact isn’t always better than no contact. That’s part of what limits David Fletcher and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, the two best contact hitters on the list. Franco, however, is pairing that with a .582 slugging percentage, and that's the 17th-best on our list.

So over the last month, a 20-year-old rookie is striking out less than almost anyone, and slugging better than most hitters in the Majors. Now, this isn’t where we show you a swing change, or or a massive difference in plate discipline, because there's probably not a great deal more to this than "we all expected him to play like a legend from day one, and that just doesn't happen too often."

We are, however, going to show you the strikeout trend. It's headed in the right direction, and it wasn't terribly high to begin with.

The Rays, by the way, took over first place in the middle of that Boston sweep, and have held it ever since as the Red Sox have continued to collapse. They have the second-most wins in the Majors since the All-Star break, but for once it’s not about their pitching, which has a merely-okay 13th-best ERA in the second half.

It is, to the surprise of many, about their offense, which has been baseball’s best second-half unit. Look how they’ve changed since the first half:

First half Rays
16th-best slugging, 2nd-highest strikeout rate

Second half Rays
Best slugging, 14th-highest strikeout rate

They’re crushing the ball a lot more and making more contact while they’re doing it. That’s not entirely Franco, to be sure; it’s also that the quartet of Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau, Yoshi Tsutsugo and Taylor Walls struck out in nearly a third of their combined 505 first-half plate appearances, slugging a mere .326 while doing so, and none of them are currently in the picture.

It’s that Brandon Lowe has been on fire, cutting his first-half strikeout rate from 32% to 20%, while upping his slugging percentage by 120 points. It’s that Lowe, Yandy Díaz, Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows and Mike Zunino have all cut their strikeout rate by at least seven points from the first half. (Not that this is a one-way ticket to success: Randy Arozarena is striking out more and he’s been one of baseball’s best sluggers since the break.)

But it’s about Franco, too, and the incredibly quick improvements he's made.

To even get to the Majors at 20 is rare. To get there and stick for at least 300 plate appearances, as Franco will likely get before the end of the season, is even rarer. (Just sixty-six times in the 74 years since integration in 1947.) But if he keeps this up, and finishes the year 20% better than average, in at least 300 plate appearances? Only 18 players have ever done that, and we're talking today's stars (Trout, Soto, Acuña, Tatis and Harper), and yesteryear's legends (Mantle, Mays, Kaline, Griffey and others who don't even need first names.)

Again: Franco isn't there yet. But he doesn't have to be, either. He's right where he needs to be, which is playing shortstop and hitting well for a first-place team. The rest of it can follow. Based on what we've seen, it's not hard to think it will.