Analyzing any performance from 2020’s shortened sample is arguably reading tea leaves, because every sample is one third its usual size. So you need to take every sample with a grain of salt. So if you’re choosing to analyze a partial 2020 season sample, considered small even by 2020 standards, make sure to check your blood pressure first for the sodium intake.
Yet still, incredible performance in small samples can often be meaningful, and is reflected in 2021 valuation. Just look at the surging draft day stock of Drew Smyly (215 ADP), who pitched just 28 incredible innings and 5 starts, or Ke’Bryan Hayes (135 ADP), who put on a spectacular surge in 95 debut plate appearances. Both of these players had serious concerns about their abilities before 2020, but their backers argue that you just can’t luck your way into the skills they showed, even with expected regression. As the saying goes, “Once you display a skill, you own it.”
But this article isn’t about Smyly or Hayes, who already have a fair amount of hype. It’s about someone who has an admittedly even smaller sample, but one who has experienced a perfect storm of factors suppressing his draft day value, even though he has star potential and may finally be on the verge of a breakout. If you guessed that it’s Franchy Cordero, it’s probably because you looked at the giant cover graphic of him. I’m not good at clickbait.
A Statcast Darling Scorned
Why do I think he’s on the verge of a breakout? After all, he hit just .211/.286/.447 with 2 HR and 1 SB in 42 PA. I’ll tell you why. It’s because Franchy Cordero was the unluckiest player in baseball (well, besides Hunter Pence, who hit .096 and already retired, anyway). Here were Cordero’s luck-adjusted stats according to Statcast.
|MLB Rank (Min. 25 PAs)||326th||153rd||2nd||8th|
That’s not a typo, his actual slugging percentage was the same as his expected batting average. The difference between his .307 wOBA (MLB rank #225) and his .426 xwOBA is massive. The latter ranked 4th best in baseball.
Sure, the sample was small, but for most other players who performed well in a small sample, it’s the actual stats that seem ridiculous, not the expected stats. Just look at Sam Huff, Bobby Dalbec or the aforementioned Hayes, and you see an xAVG and xSLG that gives you a still bullish but considerably more guarded expectations. As for unlucky players (measured by wOBA -xwOBA), Cordero is the only extremely unlucky player whose actual performance wasn’t also extremely terrible. In the Top 20 unluckiest players, Cordero was the only one with a wOBA over .300.
Even after adjusting for luck, only one player on that list had even a league-average xwOBA, which was Tommy Pham (#14) with a .345 xwOBA. In the top 40 unluckiest players the only player near Cordero’s .426 xwOBA is Bryce Harper at #40, with his .307 xBA, .657 xSLG, and .435 xwOBA. Franchy Cordero is Bryce Harper, you heard it here first folks.
In all seriousness, it’s easy to laugh at how absurd those Statcast numbers seem, as he’s obviously never going to hit that well, or else he’d be a top 5 draft pick. But let’s look at what we might expect given his history.
Sure, Franchy Cordero’s 2020 season was a small sample, but then again his whole career in the majors has been. While he’s no longer considered a rookie because he just barely passed the 150 Plate Appearance threshold in 2018, a combination of injuries and lack of available playing time has left him with just 315 career PA (284 AB). That’s a half of a season total across four seasons. So it’s easy to understand why the excitement about the toolsy youngster has cooled off.
But let’s not forget why we were excited in the first place. He’s the rare player that offers big-time power with considerable speed. His max eV in 2018 of 117 mph was 13th-best in the MLB, while averaging an excellent 93 mph average eV, 45% HardHit% and 12% Barrel%. While his sprint speed of 27.5 ft/sec at 68th percentile is not world-beating, it’s similar to Kyle Tucker and Francisco Lindor, and his history of 9 double-digit SB stints in the minors signals he’s willing to put the wheels to use.
In his perfect-world dream season in 2017 at Triple-A El Paso, he hit .326/.369/.603 with 17 Homers, 15 Stolen Bases (4 CS), and most impressively, 18 Triples! While playing time has been sparse and broken up since, the thinking is, if only he could stay healthy and cut down on the strikeouts, he could offer the kind of mid-career breakout potential of Randy Arozarena or Tommy Pham.
But here’s the thing. In 2020, he did cut his strikeout rate. More accurately, he decimated it. In 2019, his K% was 35%. In 2020, his K% was 9.5%. That was 5th best in baseball in 2020, between Luis Arráez and D.J. LeMahieu. Again, this is Franchy Cordero.
Franchy Cordero: Contact King?
Of course, crazy things happen in small samples, and I’m not saying Cordero’s due for a sub-10% strikeout rate from here on out. It’s rare for a player to cut their K% in half, and Cordero cut it into just a quarter. Especially in smaller samples, it’s important to see if it’s backed by a change in Z-Contact%, the rate of contact on pitches in the strike zone. This per-pitch metric is faster to stabilize than K%, and is a strong predictor of K% when requiring a minimum of 100 PA, with a strong correlation coefficient of .82.
Below is Mike Podhorzer’s chart of last year’s top Z-Contact% improvers. His list did not include Cordero, because he did not get enough PA (42) to qualify. But let’s add Cordero anyway to see how he compares to the leaders.
|2019 K%||2020 K%||K% Difference||2019 Z-Contact%||2020 Z-Contact%||Z-Contact% Difference|
It’s true that Cordero having less than half of the required PA means that it’s unfair to compare his amazing small sample to players who had more chances for regression to kick in. But despite this, even in this size, such an extreme deviation from the norm is unlikely to happen by chance, for you Statistics 101 fans. To demonstrate, let’s assume that Franchy did get 100 PA, but for the next 58 PA, more than half his total PA, he forgot everything and devolved into his 2019 self with a 35% and 73.5% Z-Contact% and see how he does.
|2019 K%||2020 K%||K% Difference||2019 Z-Contact%||2020 Z-Contact%||Z-Contact% Difference|
|Franchy with midseason amnesia||35.0%||24.5%||-11.5%||73.5%||81.9%||8.4%|
So even in a scenario in which he regressed 100% for his next 58 PA, his improvement in the first 42 PA was still so drastic that it was still meaningful. Even if you made him this regressed for 108 PA out of 150 total PA (which frankly just doesn’t seem fair to him) his 2020 Z-Contact% would be 79.1%, which would put his 5.6% Z-Contact% difference just below Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 6.0% mark as the last name on the Top 12 leaderboard.
It’s also worth noting that improving contact isn’t always a good thing, as sometimes players achieve this by sacrificing their power. Tellez cut his K% nearly in half in 2020, but his Barrel% dropped from 13% to 8%. Riley’s barrel rate dropped from 14% to 10%. Only two players on this list didn’t lose their precious barrels: Bo Bichette and, you guessed it, Franchy Cordero. He maintained his strong career Barrel/BBE of 12%. Of course, that comes down to literally just 4 Barrels, but Barrel% is meaningful even in small sample sizes, and his Barrel/PA% of 10% ranked 32nd in baseball, one spot ahead of Bo.
While Cordero’s 2020 sample was certainly small, it’s been small every year. That’s because in San Diego he’d been blocked when he wasn’t hurt, and hurt when he wasn’t blocked. He doesn’t qualify as a rookie since he just barely passed the rookie threshold with 154 Plate Appearances in 2018. And sadly, that was his largest sample, with 99 PAs in 2017 and just 20 PAs in 2019. But piece them together and you’ll notice a trend.
It’s certainly not outrageous to surmise that even in small samples his discipline as well as contact ability are both trending in the right direction. The fact that his strikeout rate improvement is backed by strong per-pitch stats, which stabilize faster, and the per-pitch improvement in both contact% and O-Swing% over multiple years adds to its significance. A 28% O-Swing% is good, but there’s a reason it has me positively giddy.
The Sultan of Z-Swing%
A generally good approach to playing baseball well is to swing at strikes and not swing at balls. Franchy Cordero must agree with this statement. After all, he swung at strikes 85% of the time, which was 4th highest in the majors. One need not be a good hitter to do this: Billy Hamilton was 1st at Z-Swing%, which he accomplished by swinging at literally everything (and hitting it weakly).
This does not describe Franchy, who ranks only 80th in overall swing rate. But anyway, I don’t like citing swing rate, as it doesn’t differentiate from swinging at strikes and balls. What’s much more telling is Franchy has the 4th-highest Z-Swing% and the 295th highest O-Swing%. Franchy isn’t a free swinger, he’s a Z-swinger.
In 2018, analyst Ariel Cohen created a plate discipline metric called mPDI to measure a player’s plate discipline, which had Joey Votto atop the leaderboard. Since he didn’t answer my DMs about Franchy Cordero, I created my own heuristic plate discipline stat, with blackjack and hookah.
That’s because my list favors more heavily more aggressive hitters who can lay off bat pitches, as opposed to the Cavan Biggio/David Fletcher types who have good discipline by just barely swinging. That’s because I’m looking not for players who are great at drawing walks, but those most likely to optimize their batted ball outcomes with high batting average on contact.
|Z-Swing%||O-Swing%||Z-Sw% – O-Sw%||Z-Contact%|
Not even taking power or batted balls into the mix, no hitter in baseball beat the 2020 Franchy Cordero small sample’s Z-Swing% – O-Swing%, the ability to swing at strikes while avoiding chases. And that ignores the fact that of the players on the list, only Anthony Rendon had a higher Z-Contact%.
So even with some expected regression in all of these departments, Cordero may still be among elite company here. That’s also important because even in 2020, Cordero was pretty bad at hitting pitches off the plate, with a 54% O-Contact% (52% career). But with such a high 93% Z-Contact% (30th in MLB) combined with the fact he rarely took strikes looking, that 10% K% rate doesn’t seem quite as fluky, though it’s definitely not going to happen again.
The Franch Revolution
Let’s hope the Franch revolution goes better than the French one, and there’s still a fair chance I’ll eat crow instead of cake. After all, it took 6 months for me to make my first stock investment in Apple before getting sucked into the dangerous world of penny stocks.
The Athletic noted in 2018 that Franchy had been undergoing a swing change to cut down on his wild-swinging ways, but a continuing obstacle has prevented us from seeing on-the-field results: He hasn’t been able to stay on the field. He missed the majority of 2018 with bone spurs in his elbow, then missed nearly all of 2019 with first an elbow injury, and then while rehabbing got a quad injury that knocked him out. In 2020, it was a hamate bone that kept him out, though he did return with a big two-tater game in September.
The good news is that none of these injuries seem to be a long-term concern, and we’ve seen from the example of Corey Seager how quickly a player can shake off the “injury-prone” label. And compared to Seager, who dealt with hip surgery and back injuries that are more likely to lead to lingering issues, Cordero’s injuries have not been the recurring type, and more of the “freak variety”.
It certainly isn’t due to a lack of athleticism, and he’s expected to begin 2020 fully healthy, for once. And while he always was blocked from playing time in San Diego, Roster Resource projects him to be in the starting lineup on a team known for baserunning aggressiveness.
The bad news is that even if healthy, he is at risk of being platooned, due to his lousy career .182/.239/.333 vs. lefties, bad for a 54 wRC+ in 72 PA. But as much as it may contradict the crux of this entire article, I think the sample against southpaws is still too small to give up on him.
Not to mention, with Michael A. Taylor and Nicky Lopez currently penciled in as starters with the best bench bats being Ryan O’Hearn and Ryan McBroom, it’s not like they have better options. And if they do platoon him, at least as a lefty, he’ll be on the strong side, and his career .252/.322/.463 and 110 wRC+ against righties will certainly boost his rate stats.
If, by some hell-freezes-over scenario, Franchy is finally healthy and maintains even 75% of his 2020 contact rate stats, Corey Seager lite would actually be a decent perfect-world comp for his upside offensively. Hear me out! Until 2020, Seager was also known not only for his propensity for ailments, but also as someone who hits the ball hard, with a problematic groundball rate and chip-in speed.
I know this is a highly unlikely outcome for Cordero’s age 26 season, but Cordero’s contact rate in 2020 was just as unlikely, and Seager’s incredible .330 xAVG and .653 xSLG were close to Cordero’s .343 xBA and .631 xSLG. Granted, it’s not exactly encouraging that since the 2020 season, in Cordero’s larger sample of 76 Plate Appearances in the Dominican Winter League, he hit just .227/.316/.348 with a 28% K% rate. I mean, I know the AL Central competition was lighter than usual (moreso for pitchers), but was it really just a warm-up for Los Leones del Escogido? I mean, maybe.
But here’s the thing: Franchy Cordero is not being drafted at all in most standard mixed leagues. With an ADP of #382 this offseason (which in January has inched up to #378), he’s virtually free even in 15-teamer and draft and holds. If his 2020 wasn’t a total fluke, you have a potential breakout star. If, as most projection systems expect, he goes back to a near 30% strikeout rate, well here is what you’ll get:
|THE BAT X||421||13||8||.232||.295||.395||33%|
None of these projections are amazing, but also consider this: none of them are that bad, especially not for a pick currently being drafted behind Joc Pederson, Hunter Renfroe, and yes, even Michael Chavis for some reason. For a player who has yet to show anything in terms of surface stats, the floor has quietly risen.
It seems Steamer is the only one who believes in his batted ball ability, despite the fact that Franchy managed a 12% Barrel% and 45% Hard Hit% in his career with an elite 117 mph max eV. But all of these projections are expecting him to lose time, whether due to injury or replacement. If, by some eldritch miracle, he stays on the field for 600 PA, he would project for 19-22 HR and 11-12 SB in each projection. If that happened, Steamer’s .266 22/12 would outperform their projections for Ramon Laureano (ADP #138) and Kyle Lewis (ADP #133). Of course, I didn’t write this article about Franchy due to the projections, I wrote it due to the fantasy rejection.
With Cordero’s prodigious power, speed, and a chunky glimmer of hope for contact, he has displayed nearly all the pieces needed to become a breakout player, as long as he doesn’t break down to pieces. Most of his flaws are not too different from another popular wide-awake sleeper, Lourdes Gurriel (ADP #77), who also has missed time (albeit less) every year due to injury.
Lourdes is a similarly aggressive swinger with a 14% Swinging Strike%, and also drives the ball with a 9% barrel rate% and 46% Hard Hit%, and a few stolen bases despite a 34th percentile sprint speed. Franchy may hit for less contact, with a higher groundball rate, but over the same span (since 2018), Franchy has a similar 14% Swinging Strike%, a higher barrel rate (12%), similar hard hit rate (45%) and more speed. Nick Pollack suggested that I should write a Going Deep on Lourdes Gurriel, so Nick, well, here you go!
Sure, I understand the Franchy frustration, and he could again turn into a pumpkin, or hit the IL in mid-April with a sprained spleen. But he has rather obvious upside for a .250 20-10 season, an outside chance of a .270 25-15 line, and if the contact rates/expected stats were actually legit, a penny stock shot at .290 30-15. I think the hate has gone too far, and I’m loving the current hype-free price at #378. Heck, I would take him as high as pick #275, right ahead of Mitch Haniger. So I recommend scooping Cordero in every league, and encourage you to join my grassroots campaign to legalize Franch.
Photos by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire & Minda Haas Kuhlmann. Twitter: @minda33. Instagram: minda.haas | Design by Quincey Dong (@threerundong on Twitter)