Writer's Note: This article was written before it was reported that Jorge de la Rosa was returning to Colorado. That news now makes this article more of a tribute/farewell to a fan favorite Rockie.
Once upon a time, Jeff Francis was pitching Game 1 of the World Series as an ace of the Colorado Rockies. One remarkably subpar season later, the lefty affectionately known as "The Physicist" would succumb to an injury that is as grave as they come for pitchers - a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder.
In spite of his ineffectiveness in 2008 and pain during pitching in the offseason, the Canadian southpaw didn't decide to have surgery to repair the labrum until February 19, 2009. The surgery forced him to miss an entire season, and at this time last year, many expected he would have little to nothing to offer in 2010. The pessimism was reasonable, as one doesn't have to stray far from Colorado to find a pitcher who has struggled to return from labrum surgery.
At first blush, it seems Francis indeed didn't offer much in 2010, as a 4-6 record and 5.00 ERA does not excite.
Yet Francis had much more than "nothing to offer" in 2010, posting 1.9 fWAR in just over 100 innings. Much of that value came from posting a career-low 1.98 walks per nine innings, which placed him 13th best among MLB pitchers with 100+ innings. This accompanied a career-best K/BB rate approaching 3.00, a career-best groundball rate and career-best FIP and xFIP, which both were below 4.00 for the first time in his career. His tERA also suggested he was pitching close to the best season of his career.
Sabermetric peripherals suggest Francis might just be a quietly valuable starter, especially if slated at the back end. So why did Keith Law, one of the most sabermetrically inclined baseball writers in MSM, tweet the following a few weeks back?
@Camfrommaine: i think cleveland should go after brandon webb or jeff francis(plan b) what do you think?
@keithlaw Don't want either guy.
I asked why Law didn't like Francis as even a back-of-rotation starter.
keithlaw: @PoseidonsFist 2nd worst LD% of his career, because there's nothing coming out of his arm. FIP/xFIP break down at that extreme.
Law makes an interesting point. If a pitcher is grooving pitches and allowing line drives all over the field, does it really matter if he doesn't walk batters? But is Law right that "there's nothing coming out of his arm?" This is a question that is probably best answered by someone with a better scout's eye than I, but from what I have seen, it is a reasonable ascertation.
Statistically speaking though, it is dead wrong. Francis has never been a hard thrower, so while his 87.2mph average fastball is far from overwhelming, it also represents the hardest average fastball Jeff has managed since 2005. Seems more than nothing coming out of his arm, no?
What about fatigue? That's a reasonable concern. After going on the DL with shoulder tendonitis for a month in August, the Rockies' 2002 1st rounder returned in September on a strict pitch count to prevent further injury. In the 19 starts prior to that disabled list, Francis averaged almost exactly 6.0 IP per start, falling short of 5 IP just twice. From a fifth starter, that works just fine.
However, fatigue doesn't just manifest in longevity but effectiveness in longevity. It is a surprise to no Rockies fan that Francis struggled to get outs deeper into games in 2010:
Okay. But what about that pesky line drive rate Law cites? Law was not incorrect, per se, as Francis' line drive rated of 20.7% is indeed high and the second highest of his career. But is that really a concern? Pitchers can find success with high line drive rates, as shown by Yovani Gallardo (MLB-high 24%) and Josh Johnson (20.6%), though they tend to overcome that with strikeouts. Still, the Rockies own Jason Hammel found success in 2010 with a 20.3% line drive rate, and he is not a big-time strikeout pitcher.
Perhaps the best comparison for Francis' line drive rate is compared to Mr. Francis himself. It is not as if Francis was a low line-drive pitcher before. His career best was 18.5% in 2007 and his career rate is 20.0%. This comes over a successful 14 WAR career.
The difference between Francis' 20.7% line drive rate in 2010 and his career line of 19.9% (removing 2010 data) is just 2.5 line drives. Let's allow William Shakespeare to break it down. If just two line drives were either hit on the ground or higher in the air, he would have been right around his career line. Not only is that well within the realm of random variance, but there may have been a line drive that could have been classified as a "fly ball" instead. Batted balls are not always so clearly separated. So no, the line drive rate should not be enough to scare Rockies fans.
Grade: B. Francis produced more than reasonably expected.
2011: Colorado declined a $7million option on Francis on November 4, making him a free agent. Saturday, Troy Renck suggested there is a "50-50 chance" Francis re-signs with Colorado. That all changed last night, when the Rockies reached an agreement with Jorge de la Rosa. The Pirates, Mariners, Brewers and Astros have expressed interest in The Physicist, so he is likely to get guaranteed money elsewhere and will not be returning to the Rockies in 2011 in any capacity. Off the top of my head, I would rank the above four teams in order of likelihood Francis signs there as Pirates, Mariners, Astros, Brewers.
Typically with shoulder injuries requiring surgery, two years is cited as a good benchmark for when full control and stamina returns. That threshold would be reached by Opening Day, but from what I can tell, this "rule" is mostly tied to muscle related injuries, and would not necessarily be accurate with Francis' labrum. Regardless, the extra time away from surgery can only help, and his effectiveness later in games should improve.
I have to disagree with Keith Law here. Even accounting for the minimally increased line drive rate and underwhelming performance through the fan's eye, Francis would be a fine back of the rotation starter for any team. While he cannot yet be counted on for 200 innings, I believe there's plenty left in that tank.