Royals go overboard in re-signing Jeff Francoeur

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Pay no attention to the mutual option behind the curtain.  From the day it was dreamed up, it had virtually no chance of being exercised.  What were the odds that both team and player thought said player would be worth exactly $4 million in 2012?

On Thursday, the Royals and Jeff Francoeur both decided the 27-year-old outfielder was worth well more than that.  They agreed to a two-year, $13.5 million extension that locked up the former Brave through 2013.

The dollar amount figures to cause a great deal of hand-wringing.  Francoeur is a polarizing player with his popularity and athleticism and occasional offensive outbursts never completely obscuring the fact that he’s a career .269/.312/.430 hitter.

This year, Francoeur has been considerably better.  Playing for his fourth team, he’s hit .277/.329/.463 with 15 homers and 66 RBI.  He’s also set a career high with 19 steals, nearly matching his total of 23 from his first 5 1/2 years in the bigs.  He’s still made more outs than all but seven American Leaguers, but he rates as an above average offensive corner outfielder for the first time since his rookie half-season of 2005.

One very important thing to remember here is that Francoeur is just 27.  He should have a few more prime years in front of him.  Since he’s 27 and not 30, it’s more likely that his 2011 performance represents real growth.

But this is also Jeff Francoeur we’re talking about.  He always talks a good game.  Every spring, he talks about how his plate discipline is going to improve.  And it usually does for a few weeks in March and the first week in April before he goes back to hacking away.  Francoeur has walked 34 times versus 94 strikeouts this season.  He’s on pace to break his previous career high of 42 walks.  However, he’s already used 462 at-bats in getting 34, so discipline remains a big issue.

Also, Francoeur has truly been above average only the quarter of the time he gets to face left-handers.  He’s batting .315/.379/.602 against southpaws this year, compared to .266/.314/.421 against righties.

Now, that .735 OPS against righties this year isn’t bad at all.  But a little bit of overall regression would be enough to turn him back into a liability against the majority of major league pitchers.  For his career, Francoeur has an .841 OPS against lefties and a .704 OPS against righties.

That’s where the deal falls apart for me.  Even this new and improved Francoeur wouldn’t be anything more than the sixth- or seventh-best regular on a contender, and there’s a realistic chance that the Royals would be better off with Lorenzo Cain in center and Melky Cabrera in right next year than with Cabrera in center and Francoeur in right.

On the plus side, the $13.5 million won’t kill the Royals.  They’ve lopped enough off their payroll over the last year that $6.75 million per year will be pretty easily absorbed, and while it may cut into the budget a bit, spending that kind of cash on such a well-liked player could actually make them a more attractive destination in free agency this winter.  They just need to target better players than Francoeur next time they open their wallets.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.