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Jeff Francis, From Rockies Ace to Reclamation

Yesterday, we met the man who will hopefully take over the shortstop position for years to come. Today, we look at a different new Royal, and one with an entirely different story. Upon his arrival in Kansas City, Dayton Moore seemed obsessed with left-handed pitching. He even went so far as to give Horacio Ramirez almost $2 million to be in the rotation and provide that lefty presence. We can see the desire for left-handed starters in the rotation by the organization’s top prospect list which is littered with southpaws. But a bridge was needed to get to those younger players. The Royals unearthed Bruce Chen and hope he can duplicate last season’s performance, but they wanted one more lefty, so they signed former Colorado Rockies ace, Jeff Francis.

Francis was a first round pick of the Rockies in 2002, three picks after the Royals selected Zack Greinke. He signed quickly and was able to make his professional debut that season. He didn’t pitch much that year, but when he did he was absolutely dominant. He pitched 30.2 innings and struck out 39 batters while walking just eight and allowing just 21 hits with a 1.17 ERA. This was in A ball, so it isn’t like he was doing it against 16 year-olds who had never seen a curveball before in their lives. It was a legitimately strong showing to start his career. The next year, Francis moved up to high A and spent the entire season there, making 27 starts and throwing over 160 innings. He struck out 153 hitters, walked just 45 and was generally dominant. Francis was now on the map as one of the best prospects in baseball. He was coming up through a Colorado system that didn’t quite have the star power of the Royals right now, but was a very strong system. He was the leader of the pitching group of those players, and was seen as someone who could be a staff leader of a very good pitching staff. At the time, though, the humidor was not in play in Colorado so expectations were tempered somewhat for Francis since he’d be pitching in the greatest hitter’s environment in Major League history.

The next season, he split time in AA and AAA and was outstanding at each stop. In AA Tulsa, he went 13-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 17 starts. This was his first exposure to the level. He struck out 147 batters in 113.2 innings and walked just 22 while allowing just 73 hits. That is about as dominant as it gets for a starter. In his move to AAA, he wasn’t quite as dominant but was still outstanding making seven starts, striking out 49 in 41 innings and walking just seven. Francis was the real deal and was getting the call to the big leagues that season. He had the ability to strike batters out, he hardly walked anyone and he pitched with the magical left hand that mystifies so many.

What made Francis truly great in the minors was not quite as prevalent in the majors, and truthfully has never completely shone through. In his big league debut in 2004, he only pitched 36.2 innings, but struck out almost eight batters per nine innings and walked just over three. He gave up a fair amount of hits, but was pretty impressive for a rookie pitching in Colorado. He was good enough that the Rockies felt he didn’t need anymore seasoning before becoming a permanent member of the Rockies rotation.

Francis had a rough go of things in 2005 posting a 5.68 ERA, striking out only 128 in 183.2 innings and walking 70. While his control was adequate, it wasn’t pinpoint as we saw in the minors throughout his career there. He was still just a rookie, so there wasn’t much cause for concern, but there was no doubt that the organization was, at least privately, a little upset at the numbers being as poor as they were. He still was the same pitcher who has put together those brilliant seasons as a minor league prospect, but as a college draftee, 2006 would be a very important season for the career of Jeff Francis.

He responded pretty well with a 13-11 season with a 4.16 ERA. The strikeouts continued to drop, but the walk rate did as well to correspond. He allowed fewer hits than innings pitched and was generally very good for the Rockies as young talent began to permeate the team around some of the veterans. There were some signs that the Rockies as an organization were starting to turn things around and really build something special. I think everybody inherently is just better when there’s talent surrounding them, and Jeff Francis was probably no different.

2007 was a big year for both the Rockies and Francis. He went over 200 innings for the first time in his career, saw his strikeout rate go back up to almost seven per nine innings and saw his walk rate drop by half a walk per nine innings over the previous season. He gave up a ton of hits, but that’s sort of the Coors Field effect. He won 17 games for the team that won 21 of 22 down the stretch to make it to the playoffs and then ultimately the World Series. The extra workload, though, may have been a contributing factor to the shoulder injury he suffered in 2008. Francis missed the end of that season and then all of 2009 before coming back in mid-2010.

Last year, at first glance he struggled, which is to be expected after a shoulder injury. His peripherals, though, lead me to believe that he might be able to get back to his 2006-2007 form. Francis struck out about three times more batters than he walked last year, which is always a great indication of future success. He had a WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) of 1.36, which isn’t anything special, but it’s not terrible.

As a groundball pitcher, in front of the Royals improved defense, I think Francis has a chance to be very good for the Royals this year. With all the left-handed talent in the pipeline, I’m not sure that there’s a future for him in Kansas City, but it’s a good relationship. The Royals need innings from starters and Francis needs a place to reestablish his value before he goes on the open market after 2011. I’m not expecting amazing things out of him or anything, but I could see him putting up a 4.25 ERA and winning ten games for the Royals this season.

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  1. Joe
    March 2, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Since when is a 4.25 ERA considered to be decent? For the Royals to be winning when he pitches, they will have to get at least 5 runs in those games. I don’t think they can consistently score 5 runs or more per game. The potential is there, but it is really a long shot. If the Royals can average 5+ runs for every game, they WILL be playing in late October to early November. Wouldn’t that be nice?

    • March 3, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Well, last year a 4.17 ERA was good for an ERA+ of 101, so a 4.25 ERA would be right around league average.

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