Written by: Justin Choi (@justinochoi)
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Spring Training is the ultimate source of hope, when, for a while, anything seems possible –– the potential breakout of an average player, the rapid ascension of a touted prospect, or that your favorite team might have a competent season. Of course, many things will go wrong over the course of the next several months. But right now, it’s a good time for optimism and excitement.
Wednesday, those emotions were drawn out by a remarkable home run. Not just any home run, but one authored by a top prospect in baseball, Wander Franco. In case you missed it, or want to enjoy it again, here’s that mammoth shot in all its glory:
WANDER FRANCO TO THE MOON! pic.twitter.com/0ix67pJYQl
— DRaysBay (@draysbay) March 3, 2021
At a glance, the home run is impressive. Even without Statcast data, you can tell its dimensions (launch speed, distance, angle) are majestic, the ball forming an arc above the field and landing somewhere far, far away. What’s also notable is how Franco attacked the pitch. Making contact with a fastball down and in is difficult enough, but lowering your hands to adjust the path of the bat, then being quick enough to dig it out is almost impossible. It’s an instantaneous two-step process that exemplifies Franco’s athleticism and baseball acumen.
All that made me wonder –– can we quantify the amazingness of that Wander Franco home run? How often does even someone in the Major Leagues produce a home run in a situation similar to that of Franco’s?
This is where Baseball Savant comes in, whose search function allows us to sort by numerous criteria. As a first step, we can look up how many home runs were hit off of fastballs in that specific part of the zone. It’s an estimate, but the pitch by Yajure seemed like it ended up anywhere within the combined territory of Attack Zones 16, 26, 19, and 29. Remember that this is from the catcher’s perspective, not the pitcher’s:
To not be too granular, however, I ended up using the Gameday Zone system instead, which combines those four zones into one Zone 14. Four-seam fastballs thrown in Zone 14 that ended up as home runs –– here are the results for the 2020 season alone:
Even in the shortened 2020 season, there were 11 unique instances of our query. Search for other years, like 2018 and 2019, and it seems like that a Franco-esque home run isn’t as rare as initially thought. After all, hitters become Major Leaguers because they’ve shown the capability to produce wherever and however a pitch is thrown. Franco is talented, but as of now, he’s still a prospect and behind the average MLB hitter. Case closed?
There are some details which have thus far been ignored, however. For example, we’ve been excluding both batter- and pitcher-handedness, which is a problem. You could argue that connecting with a pitch in Zone 14 involves vastly different skill for left-handed hitters than for right-handed hitters. One’s about triggering early and pulling your barrel through the zone to impact an inside pitch; the other’s about patience and maintaining the strength of your lower half to impact a ball on the outer third. In other words, the Wander Franco home run and this other one hit by Mookie Betts are (obviously) not the same:
So let’s update our search query, this time acknowledging that there’s a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed batter in the equation. I also added that the home run was pulled. There’s also a difference, in my opinion, between managing to golf the pitch to straightaway center and having enough strength to yank it. With those three criteria added, the field becomes much narrow:
Still, an event that happens four times across 60 games might not be what one considers incredibly rare. We’re not done yet, however, because I’ve been leaving out perhaps the most crucial aspect of the Franco home run –– just for the suspense. It’s something I noticed after a few absent-minded ogles. It’s the fact that he hit a home run on the very first pitch he saw.
Hitters will often defend themselves, striving for contact even on borderline or outside pitches in two-strike counts. It’s an attempt at survival, because one more strike and they’re toast, game over. But what Franco just did? Attacking that sort of pitch on a 0-0 count with complete authority? That takes confidence in two things: that you will successfully make contact, and that the quality will be good enough to make up for the opportunity cost of not working deep into a count. Plenty of hitters can’t do either, let alone have confidence while doing so.
Factor in the 0-0 count, and only one hitter stands: Tyler Naquin, who hit his against Scott Barlow on September 2nd. In 2019, both Freddie Freeman and Joey Votto pulled it off. Francisco Meija did it in 2018. It didn’t happen at all in 2017! Jake Lamb was responsible for 2016, and 2015 is an interesting year, because it happened on three separate occasions. Do the math, and in the entirety of the Statcast era, the Franco home run has been replicated just 8 times. That seems pretty special to me.
Looking at the names listed on Baseball Savant, it becomes tempting to make comparisons. Freeman and Votto pop up, and they represent flattering outcomes that are within Franco’s reach, but never a guarantee. The comparisons can also be negative. Take Naquin as an example, who’s a contact-oriented hitter with a bit of pop in the mold of Franco, but put up 60 wRC+ in 40 games for Cleveland in 2020 before being non-tendered this offseason.
There’s something special about Franco, though, that separates him from other prospects who have similar skills. Making loud, effortless contact with a fastball that looks outside the zone is indicative of a hitter’s talent, but it could be a sign of bad plate discipline. Not for Franco, whose Minor League track record is outstanding. He’s walked more than he’s struck out in three consecutive seasons, each one tougher than the last (Rookie Ball, Single-A, then High-A).
It’s extremely rare for a hitter to consistently make contact inside the zone, outside the zone, and have control over the zone as a whole to boot.
Now, I’m drawing all these conclusions from a single home run hit during Spring Training. Is it ridiculous? Sort of. If you must be pedantic, I guess there’s ways of making any random home run unique by pointing out when and how it was hit. But it’s clear what Franco accomplished on Wednesday isn’t something you’ll see from the average Minor Leaguer. Hitting a fastball in a 0-0 count, outside the zone, with perfect timing, launching it over the right-field fence –– that’s an amalgamation of skills worthy of praise. Plus, there’s a certain beauty in dissecting one at-bat into various parts, using them to celebrate the best prospect in baseball. It’s an ode to the dreaminess of Spring, when fans and analysts gather to marvel over the little glimpses we’re shown. Wander Franco makes you dream, and write articles, too.
Follow P365 Lead MLB Analyst Justin Choi on Twitter! @justinochoi
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
All data courtesy of Baseball Savant and FanGraphs
Featured image courtesy of the respective photographer and MLB.com