This former No. 1 prospect is proving he's the real deal

April 12th, 2023

Here’s what MLB Pipeline wrote in its scouting report of in 2021, when he was the No. 1 overall prospect in baseball:

Franco has the physical tools and natural ability needed to become the top switch-hitter of his generation. He creates electric bat speed with his exceptionally strong hands and wrists, and he knows how to manipulate his swing to put barrel to ball and make consistent hard contact to all fields. … Franco's plus raw power during batting practice should start to emerge in games once he learns to hit the ball in the air consistently.

Now 22 years old and in his third MLB season, the Rays' shortstop appears to be closer than ever to living up to the potential that made him one of the most hyped prospects in recent memory.

Franco has certainly held his own in the Majors since he debuted two seasons ago, even having some brushes with greatness. He reached base in 43 consecutive games as a rookie, tied with Frank Robinson in 1956 for the longest in AL/NL history by a player 20 years old or younger. He also started strong last season, slashing .331/.355/.525 in his first 28 games on the heels of signing an 11-year, $182 million extension.

But there’s something different about the 2023 version of Franco, who recorded a .311/.354/.667 slash with eight extra-base hits (four homers) over his first 11 games, helping the Rays to a historic 11-0 start.

Here’s why Franco’s excellent start to 2023 is built to last. (Stats below are through Monday.)

He’s being more selective with his swing decisions

Franco possesses rare bat-to-ball ability, but with an overly aggressive approach in his first two seasons, he wasn’t putting himself in the best position to maximize the value of that skill.

For example, Franco had one of MLB's highest contact rates (73.3%) when swinging at out-of-zone pitches across 2021-22. However, he hit .268 with a .390 slugging percentage when he put one of those pitches in play.

There's minimal upside and considerable downside when you swing at balls out of the zone -- something Franco did often in his first two seasons, recording a 28.5% chase rate in 2021 and a 30.1% chase rate in 2022.

But he showed improved plate discipline after returning from surgery to repair a fractured hamate bone in his right hand last September, not only offering at fewer out-of-zone pitches but also demonstrating increased selectiveness on balls in the strike zone. It has carried over into 2023.

Franco’s swing decisions since Sept. 9, 2022

  • 23% chase rate (30.4% previously)
  • 64% zone-swing rate (73.6% previously)
  • 45% overall swing rate (51% previously)

To put it another way, since Sept. 9, 2022, nearly 42% of Franco’s total swings have come against the best pitches to hit -- balls in the heart of the strike zone. Previously, that number was below 33%.

He's barreling the ball like never before

While Franco had a solid 123 OPS+ across 2021-22, his power was lacking. The youngster hit just 13 homers and posted a .156 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) in that span.

Franco delivered a high volume of batted balls over his first two seasons, but he didn’t often produce the most valuable type of contact -- barrels, batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, typically resulting in homers and extra-base hits.

In fact, Franco’s barrel rate (barrels/batted balls) across 2021-22 was just 4.7%, lower than the likes of Jackie Bradley Jr. (4.9%), Thairo Estrada (5%) and Robbie Grossman (5.9%), among many others.

Through 10 games in 2023, Franco already has seven barrels, more than halfway to his 2022 total of 13. His barrel rate is 20%, which ranks in the 90th percentile in the early going.

He's still producing a high volume of batted balls, too, with just a 13.6% strikeout rate through 44 PAs.

Perhaps the best indication of the difference between Franco in 2022 and Franco in 2023 is the contrast between his expected batting average and expected slugging percentage, both of which are based on quality of contact and K’s.

Franco this season has an xBA of .285, identical to last season’s number. But his xSLG is .658, up from .408 in 2022.

As the chart below shows, Franco has rarely been in this slugging stratosphere for an extended period during his career.

Franco’s career rolling xSLG average -- each point on the graph represents his xSLG over his previous 50 plate appearances.

Granted, it’s still early. The numbers can change in a hurry at this time of year, so we can’t draw any hard conclusions from what we’ve seen so far. But when a player this talented shows such encouraging trends, even over a small sample size, it could be the inflection point on the path toward superstardom.

It's a destination Franco has had in his sights for a while now.