Jeff Francis continues to be a member of the 2012 Colorado Rockies rotation. I know we've said it a thousand times this season, but it still catches me by surprise a bit. Jeff Francis is back in Purple Pinstripes, and it still makes me happy.
It's a bit of a weird way to start off an article where I'm about to point out that Francis hasn't been terribly good this season, but I figure if we can sandwich the negative with some positivity, we'll come out ahead.
So Francis was brought in after requesting his release from the Reds' AAA affiliate to help a young, struggling Rockies' pitching staff find some sort of direction. For a little while there, it seemed like a good idea. For the months of June and July, Francis posted an unsightly 5.43 ERA, but posted a very solid 31 strikeouts to only 8 walks in 55 innings pitched. August has been pretty bad for Jeff thus far (10.57 ERA in 2 starts), but the month is young yet.
What amuses me about Francis is the fact that his major Achilles heel still exists: the 1st inning. In 2012, batters have CRUSHED Francis, posting a 1.222 OPS against the Canadian southpaw. Once he gets out of that 1st, though, opponent batting numbers drop to .745 OPS in the 2nd, .662 in the 3rd, and .658 in the 4th. Past the 4th inning, the numbers climb back into the .900+ OPS level.
Strangely, if we want to look at more splits, leadoff hitters, #3 hitters, and #6 hitters have hit Francis over 1.000 OPS (#3 hitters' lines against Jeff: .448/.514/.966), but #2, #4, and #5 are all under a .715 OPS.
Clearly, this doesn't really mean anything. Something about Francis' first time through a lineup still sucks, though, and it has sucked since Francis has been in the majors (career .900 OPS against in the 1st).
I wish I knew what it was about the 1st inning that kills Francis so much. It could be that hitters are a little more eager in the early going, and let's face it, Francis has never really had jaw-dropping stuff (outside of that changeup). Mistakes get punished in the majors, and if batters are a little more ready to swing in the early going, just getting the ball over the plate isn't good enough. Once Francis has them thinking, though, they're done for. He still has the pitching savvy to get batters to swing at his pitches. The problem is that there's no guarantee anymore that his pitches are good enough to turn that swing into an out.
We do see, however, from those 2nd-through-4th inning splits that he's doing SOMETHING right, though. This has me wondering again if it could really be more eager hitters causing Francis trouble in the early goings, or if he just hasn't had enough time by that point to get an idea what's working and what isn't (or what batters are swinging at).
Is there a 1st inning mentality, similar to the 9th inning mentality? Debates still crop up here and there over whether or not a pitcher can just perform the Closer job without really "being" a closer - do they have that bulldog mentality to close out a game. Is there something about STARTING a game that's reserved for a true starting pitcher? For example, if we took Mike Ekstrom or Matt Reynolds and had them start a game and go their standard inning, maybe two, could this give somebody like Jeff Francis enough advance scouting of what the opposing lineup is doing to help them formulate a better game plan? I understand that a starter needs to see what's working and what isn't during that first inning or so, but Francis has downright respectable numbers outside of that 1st inning.
This is a silly idea, I know. Reorganizing a pitching plan around 1 pitcher seems foolhardy. However, spotting the opposition a run or two right off the bat almost invariably is also foolhardy for a team that wants to win games. It isn't as if this season is going to completely go off of the rails if some other ridiculous adjustment takes place - this train has been trying to run on a gravel road for 3 months now. Furthermore, Jim Tracy said this:
"The most important thing right now is for me to have the realization that nothing is off-limits," Tracy said. "Try anything, see what it is you want to see, so that moving forward, there's not an opportunity for you to explore something and you didn't do it."
I don't really think that letting Francis take the 1st inning off is going to solve anything. But really, what's the harm? If we can get 2nd-4th inning Jeff Francis to take the mound after watching somebody else NOT give up several runs, he could have had the time to make those adjustments while watching/warming up from the bullpen and come out better prepared.
This DOES call into question the viability of bringing Francis back in 2013, and I mean that from the Rockies' standpoint. A 6.06 ERA isn't terribly nice to look at. His peripheral numbers suggest better production, regardless of performance (4.75 FIP, 4.34 xFIP), so the big questions this offseason will be along the lines of "How much is a mentor pitcher worth to our team, what role will Francis be willing to play, and how much are the Rockies willing to pay for that combination?" Given Colorado's push to try and "fix" their pitching, organization-wide, I wonder if that makes Francis more valuable to the Rockies than other interested clubs due to the added bonus of experience pitching at Coors Field. It could be worth it, but 2013 expectations will be much different than 2012 expectations.