Baseball

Jeff Francoeur and ANT

“I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone … so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.”

-- Albert Brooks character, Broadcast News

* * *

The other day, I was watching the visiting announcing crew call a Kansas City Royals game, when Jeff Francoeur came to the plate. Before it even began, I knew what was coming. The announcers started to praise Francoeur. You know, it was all the usual stuff -- great leader, plays terrific defense, bat coming around, wonderful guy. And, suddenly, a question came to mind.

What player in baseball do you think has the most ANT -- Announcer Nonsense Talk -- spoken about them?

By ANT, I’m not just referring to stuff announcers say. I’m referring to a sort of universal praise that does not tie to logic or anything tangible but instead to a sort of whimsical hope and powerful narratives. I remember in a playoff game against the Cleveland Browns, John Elway once dropped back, almost fell down, ran into his own offensive lineman, almost fell down again, flipped a short little pass to Mark Jackson who broke and avoided like 49 tackles on his way to a long and ridiculous touchdown catch. As soon as it ended, the announcer shouted: “John Elway did it again!”

That’s ANT.

You know ANT when you hear or read it -- it is when people start speaking in broad generalities about a player (“This guy just wants it more”) or when they start over-crediting a player for dubious achievements (pitcher wins and RBIs tend to be the sweet nectar of Announcer Nonsense Talk) or when they start to turn sports achievement into life achievement (“That was just a courageous pitch!”). And like I say, it’s not only announcers who do this -- far from it. You see it everywhere. I’ve spent plenty of time writing ANT.

Derek Jeter has been the recipient of a lot of ANT through the years -- I coined the word Jeterate based entirely on this -- but Jeter is a legitimately great player, one of the best shortstops ever, and he is a consummate professional worthy of respect and admiration. So you can understand why people would want to tack on some nonsense talk to make the record even more sterling. For a while, David Eckstein seemed to be the worldwide leader of ANT, but, heck, the guy is 5-foot-6, can’t really run, can barely throw the ball across the infield, and yet he was a shockingly good baseball player for a handful of years. In 2002, he finished 11th in the MVP voting and deserved it, maybe deserved even a little more. So, yeah, you could see why he got so much ANT. When a player defies logic or sparks intense emotion, nonsense talk often seems the only way to capture the awesomeness of it.

Tim Tebow has probably had more ANT spoken about him than anyone, ever.

But back to baseball … and Jeff Francoeur. At this moment, Jeff Francoeur is hitting .209 with five walks and one home run. We are about a quarter of the way through the season, so you can multiply those numbers by four to get a sense of where he would finish the year at this pace. He has an OPS+ of 48. The Pitch FX numbers show he can’t catch up to the fastball, can’t recognize the slider and cannot stay back on the change-up. He’s O-swing percentage -- that is, his percentage of pitches he swings at outside the strike zone -- is at a staggering 44.6%, a career high in a career of hacking. It is the third-highest percentage in baseball, behind only legendary free swingers Pablo Sandoval and Alfonso Soriano.

Those guys, however, tend to be bad-ball HITTERS. Francoeur, no, not so much on the hitting part.

Jeff Francoeur is also a great guy -- one of the greatest guys, really, impossible not to like him -- and he has a strong arm, and he once won a Gold Glove (six years ago) and he once hit 29 home runs (seven years ago) and he’s a great guy. One of the greatest guys. Really. Impossible not to like him.

And it is this trait -- Francoeur’s striking niceness -- that leads to an astonishing barrage of ANT. Anytime you watch the Royals play you will hear announcers find all sorts of ways to praise Jeff Francoeur. They will talk about how many runs his defense saves*. They will talk about how he’s a winner.** They will talk about how much he helps the Royals young players.*** They will talk about how he’s a good hitter have an uncharacteristic slump.****

*Last year, the Fielding Bible people studied every single play Francoeur and every other player made, and determined he COST the Royals 12 runs against an average defender (largely because he’s pretty immobile out there), making him the 34th best right fielder in a sport that only fields 30 teams.

**Jeff Francoeur’s first full year with Atlanta, 2006, was also the first time in 15 years the Braves did not reach the postseason. They also did not reach the postseason in 2007, 2008 or 2009 -- the three years Francoeur played with Atlanta. They did make it in 2010, the year after he was traded to the Mets, who were not good at all the two years he played for them. The Mets traded him to Texas with 15 games left in the season and the Rangers did go to the World Series, though I don’t think Francoeur deserved too much of the credit (he went three-for-24 in the playoffs with one RBI and one run scored). He then signed with the Royals, who have gone a combined 163-201 in his time. I should quickly add here I’m not BLAMING Francoeur for any of this -- that would be ridiculous, no one player wins and loses games. But I am saying calling Francoeur a “winner” is even more ridiculous.

***The Royals young players -- particularly Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas -- have been pretty big disappointments so far.

****He’s not. He’s a perpetual slump who has uncharacteristic hot streaks. That sounds meaner than I mean it … but Francoeur has been a pretty consistent player. His on-base percentages for full seasons are: .287, .293, .294, .300, .309, .329, .338. Those last two seem like the outliers to me. His OPS+ for full seasons (and remember 100 is average) are: 72, 81, 85, 87, 93, 102, 119. The last of those was the one that inspired the Royals to sign Francoeur to a multi-year contract.

It is tempting, based on all the ANT, to overcorrect and blame Jeff Francoeur too much for the Royals failures. They lost again Sunday -- gave away the game, really -- and dropped to .500 for the first time since the first week of the year. Their offense looks lost, really. The Royals have no power at all -- as a team, they only have 12 more home runs than Justin Upton -- and so must rely on a parade of good at-bats to score runs. Unfortunately, they are probably dead last in baseball in good at-bats. They swing at a higher percentage of pitches than any team in the American League and they put the ball in play more than any team in baseball -- which might sound like a good thing, but it isn’t when you have no power whatsoever. They have the fewest walks in baseball.

Francoeur represents the Royals troubles perfectly. Sunday, he came up with runners on second and third, two outs, and Kansas City leading by two. He had a chance to blow the game open with a single. And the frustrating fact wasn’t that he failed to come through, that happens to the best players all the time. It was that he had a miserable at-bat, swinging at the first pitch, an 88-mph fastball in a not-especially good location, and chopping a routine ground ball to short. That’s his season in a nutshell. That’s a lot of his career in a nutshell.

Let’s face it: He’s killing the Royals. Just killing them. No, he’s certainly not the only one killing the Royals, not by a long shot. If anything, the early struggles of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are hurting the Royals more because they had reason to expect a lot more. Hosmer is slugging .326 and at the moment does not resemble the can’t-miss prospect who pummeled baseballs as a 21-year-old rookie. And Mike Moustakas, whew, he’s another big-time prospect who looks completely overmatched -- he’s hitting .178/.252/.311. The Royals were counting on those two, perhaps more than anyone else, to take a step forward. So far it isn’t happening, and that’s as big a reason as any why the Royals can’t score runs.

But there’s little-to-no ANT spoken about Hosmer and Moustakas. Meanwhile, tune in and you will still hear people praising Jeff Francoeur relentlessly. Here’s something for you -- Jeff Francoeur has a career 93 OPS+ and before the end of the year he will have 5,000 big league plate appearances. Do you know how many other slow* corner outfielders with an OPS+ of 95 or less got 5,000 big league plate appearances? Just one. Bob Kennedy.

*Quite a few speedy corner outfielders who stole bases but couldn’t really hit -- Shano Collins, Vince Coleman, Stan Javier, Dave Collins -- got a lot of big league at bats as well. But they represent a little bit different category. Francoeur is a big guy who can’t run.

There are a lot of similarities between Bob Kennedy and Jeff Francoeur. They were both likable and strong-armed outfielders who started as phenoms (Kennedy played every day as a 19-year-old; Francoeur was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as The Natural) and kept finding teams that wanted to give them a chance even after they had made it crystal clear they couldn’t hit enough. They were just guys you rooted for. Hey, don’t take it wrong. I root for Francoeur too. You can’t help but root for him. He’s a very nice guy.

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