This skill has Wander ascending

Wander Franco stepped up to the plate for the first time on June 22 of last season, a kid barely 20 years old at the time and the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. He didn’t strike out. When he finished the 2021 season, he had hit another 307 times. And he still didn’t strike out much.

Franco’s ability to make contact with the ball made his 43-game on-base streak possible. It’s the foundation of his hitting. And why it’s easy to pick the Rays shortstop as one of the contenders to emerge as a superstar in 2022 and even a potential surprise AL MVP.

Here’s a look at why that hitting ability stands out so much and why that puts him in such good company as a hitter at such a young age.

As a rookie and the youngest player in the majors in 2021, Franco had a strikeout rate of just 12%, making contact on five of every six swings. He struck out just 37 times in 308 plate appearances.

It was one of the lowest strikeout rates in MLB – the eighth-best among hitters with 300 plate appearances – and one of the best marks down the stretch, while helping Tampa Bay win the AL East for the second time. year in a row.

Franco struck out less often than compatriot Juan Jose Soto, a master of plate discipline. He struck out fewer than both batting champions, the reigning NL MVP and the star of the team that would go on to win the World Series. He struck out less than his predecessor as baseball’s best prospect and one of the great figures of 2021, fellow Dominican Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Notable strikeout percentages from June 22 through the end of the season

Yuli Gurriel (AL batting champion) — 12.6%

Freddie Freeman (leading hitter for World Series winners) — 12.9%

Juan José Soto (145 walks for 93 strikeouts) — 13.7%

Trea Turner (NL batting champion) — 14.2%

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB’s No. 1 prospect before Franco) — 15.1%

MLB strikeout rate — 22.6%

Soto and Guerrero are the two names that should attract the most attention due to their relationship with Franco, since the rise of both phenomena to superstar status was driven by their discipline with the wood. (Soto’s discipline has been his main tool from the beginning, and better pitch selection from Guerrero was one of the keys to him making the jump to that level of MVP-caliber hitter last season.)

Franco is already together with them. No matter what pitch is thrown at him, he’ll put the ball in play for you.

– Against fastballs (four-seams, sinkers and cutters), struck out just 25 times in 172 plate appearances – 14.5%.

– Against breaking pitches (curveballs and sliders), struck out only 11 times in 77 plate appearances – 14.3%.

– Against slow pitches (changeups and spread-finger fastballs), struck out just once in 59 plate appearances – 1.7%.

Yes, Franco had only one strikeout all year against slow pitching. Here it is, in case you were wondering what happened. (It was against a trade for Conner Greene from the Orioles, very good pitching.)

On the other hand, he hit extra-base hits off slow pitches like this changeup by Robbie Ray (a double on July 4), a splitter by Nathan Eovaldi (a triple on July 31), a changeup by countryman César Váldez (home run on August 7 ) and, in the postseason, against a trade for Venezuelan Eduardo Rodríguez (RBI double in Game 1 of the ALDS).

From the day of his MLB debut until the season ended, Franco struck out against fastballs less often than two-thirds of major league hitters. Against breaking balls, he struck out less than 95% of the league. Against slow pitches, he struck out less often than all major league hitters.

Franco basically prevents pitchers from getting outs with the pitches they usually strike out opponents with. The strikeout rate in MLB against slow and breaking balls in 2021 was 28.7% (31.8% against breaking balls, 22.9% against slow balls). Franco’s was 8.9%. The switch hitter swung the breeze with just one of every five swings he took off slow or broken pitches. The average MLB hitter missed one in three.

Here are some of the two-strike pitches Franco punished: A home run off a slider by Ray, one that led to more strikeouts than any other slider in 2021 … a hit off a 100-mph slashing fastball by fellow countryman Emmanuel Clase, the fastest cutter since the shipment-tracking system existed… a hit off an Adam Ottavino slider, which breaks about 19 inches… a home run across Fenway Park center field off a Tanner Houck sinker, which generates the second steepest drop of any pitcher.

The next step for Wander, since he’s making tons of contact, is to hit the ball harder. His hard-hit rate (37.6%) as a rookie was above the league average, but top-tier hitters make hard contact nearly half the time, if not more.

However, there is no need to worry about Franco. Vlad Jr. had a 38.7% hard-hitting rate at age 20 as a rookie, and Soto at the same age had a 41.9%. Both rose above 50% in the following seasons. If Franco’s rise follows that same path, he will be an elite slugger very soon.

So far, it’s on the right track. His September hard-hitting rate (40.3%) was his best in any month, and during the Rays’ four ALDS games against the Red Sox he had six hits over 100 mph, including two home runs, a double and two singles. That 37.5% connection rate at 100 mph or more in the playoffs was much higher than the 21.6% he had in the regular round.

There are reasons for projection systems to believe that Franco may be one of the top 10 position players in the Major Leagues in 2022. Steamer, for example, projects that he will finish with 5.3 WAR, tied for eighth-best with Puerto Rican Carlos Correa. With the skills he is showing, Franco could take that next step as a hitter in MLB sooner rather than later.

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This skill has Wander ascending