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Wander Franco is destroying the baseball (in a good way)

MLB’s youngest player showings massive signs of improvement, and he was pretty good to start with

17 games into the season the 2022 Rays can probably be best described by two words: Wander Franco. As the youngest player in MLB, Franco has been spectacular for Tampa Bay. Mike Trout is the only AL player who has been more valuable than Franco so far, according to FanGraphs WAR.

In his short big league stint last year, Wander was showing us flashes of how great he could be. What was clear watching his 2021 debut was that he was not a player content to rest on his accomplishments. In the recent This Week in Rays Baseball podcast, Rays broadcaster Brian Anderson commended Franco for his steep learning curve — his ability to adjust not just between games, but between plays and even within at-bats.

Now, not even one year later, we’re seeing that learning curve pay off. He’s making acrobatic defensive plays (the guy who, it was thought, might not stick at shortstop!) or hitting clutch extra base hits seemingly every night. So many aspects of his game are blossoming, and it’s all happening at a very rapid rate.

One of his most remarkable improvements to date is how well he is striking the baseball. If you were to nit-pick at his hitting profile from last year, the only area that could have used a bit more oomph was probably in the power department. While he did hit for some power in 2021, some of his batted ball metrics were more average than great.

I’m here to tell you that the 2021 book on Wander is officially closed, and he is already showing signs of drastically improved power output. It’s still very yearly, but take a look at some of the trends with how he is impacting the baseball:

eds note: all data as of 4/25/2022

Wander Franco Batted Ball Stats

Metric 2021 2022 Difference
Metric 2021 2022 Difference
Average Exit Velocity 88.2 mph 91.6 mph 3.4 mph
Median Exit Velocity 90.0 mph 95.0 mph 5.0 mph
Maximum Exit Velocity 109.6 mph 112.4 mph 2.8 mph
HardHit% 37.6% 50.8% 13.2%
Sweet Spot% 33.9% 39.0% 5.1%
Barrel% 4.9% 10.2% 5.3%
Data Source: Baseball Savant

While he may not hold all of these huge gains throughout the long season, the early returns on his power output are fantastic. His new maximum exit velocity mark is particularly interesting, as it now establishes a new baseline for just how hard he can hit the ball. The only other player in baseball who has raised their max exit velocity as much as Franco has this year is Jarred Kelenic.

In addition to that metric, every other stat on the table is trending upwards as well, which led me to look under the hood of his batted balls even further. Below is a histogram that buckets each of his batted balls into exit velocity groups broken down by both of his big league seasons:

Data Source: Baseball Savant

This visual makes it easy to see just how hard Franco is hitting the ball in comparison to last year. He is hitting a larger percentage of his batted balls at higher exit velocities this season, including huge increases in all of the 100 mph+ buckets.

Another encouraging sign for Franco is that he is crushing the ball from both sides of the plate. His right handed swing has produced an average exit velocity of 88.4 mph and a .417 xwOBA (expected quality of contact) while his left-handed swing has resulted in marks of 92.8 mph and .478, respectfully.

Maybe the most remarkable part of all of this is that while Franco’s power is most certainly on the rise, he has not sacrificed contact to go along with it. In fact, Wander owns the third-lowest strikeout rate in baseball at a miniscule 7.6%. That’s nearly five percentage points lower than his strikeout rate from last season too. The combination of his surging power and excellent contact skills is not something we see many hitters achieve at the big league level.

The other aspect to impacting the baseball is the angle at which the balls are hit, and what do you know, Wander is excelling in this area too. In the table above you’ll notice that his Sweet Spot % has increased about 5 percentage points over last year. What this metric measures is the % of batted balls that are hit at launch angles in between 8 and 32 degrees, in other words, the batted ball angles that result in hits the most often.

This metric is important because it helps tell us which players are likely to record base hits more often than others, and Franco looks to be one of them. The chart below plots each 2022 qualified hitter’s Sweet Spot % against their expected Batting Average on Contact (xBACON - sorry if you’re now thinking about breakfast):

Data Source: Baseball Savant

We can see that there’s a decent correlation here, which means that Sweet Spot % has merit when it comes to getting base hits to fall. The plot also shows that Franco ranks well in both of these metrics, which ultimately explains how he is tied for the third most hits in baseball thus far.

More evidence of Franco’s improving batted ball skills lies in his line drive rate. Per FanGraphs, he is currently sitting at a 32.2% line drive rate, which ranks in the top 10 among all qualified hitters this season and is significantly higher than his 20.4% rate from last season.

To summarize his tremendous start to the season, Franco is hitting the ball harder than he ever has, hitting balls at better angles, and is also striking out at an absurdly low rate. The one knock on his profile so far has been Franco’s high chase rate, which has led to a decrease in his walk rate. He is swinging at more pitches in general this season, and his excellent contact skills are leading to balls in play in early counts, thus minimizing his opportunities to draw walks.

Considering how well he is hitting though, this shift in approach probably isn’t something to worry about long-term for the youngster. He has already shown the ability to draw walks at an average clip in the big leagues, plus pitchers will likely be giving him less to hit if he keeps this torrid stretch of hitting going, which should lead to more free passes.

As well as Wander Franco played last year, it’s hard to believe that he is already tapping into yet another level of stardom this early in his career, but it certainly looks like that’s where he’s headed. If he is already showing this much improvement 85 games into his big league career, how good is he going to be? The 2022 Wander Franco MVP watch is officially on.

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