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How Tampa Bay Rays’ Nick Franklin Could Stop Switch-Hitting

By Robbie Knopf
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Tampa Bay Rays middle infielder Nick Franklin is a switch-hitter that is decidedly better from the left side. That is something that we have known for a while now, and it isn’t up for debate. In 391 plate appearances against lefties in the minors since 2011, Franklin has just a .228/.301/.313 line against lefties as a righty batter compared to .300/.384/.476in 1161 PA’s versus righties.

The Washington Nationals’ Danny Espinosa finds himself in precisely the opposite situation. Another switch-hitter, Espinosa has just a .213/.283/.362 line against right-handed pitchers in 1450 major league PA’s compared to a stout .271/.343/.460 line in 509 trips to the plate versus lefties. After seeing those numbers for years, the Nationals have finally had enough.

We have heard over the last few days that the Nationals will attempt to convert Espinosa into a pure right-handed hitter. At this point in his career, that certainly makes sense. Espinosa has gone from being a valuable young player to providing no value at all at the plate the last two years, and Washington is desperate to turn him around. If the shift fails, he may be nothing more than a utility infielder the rest of his career.

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The Nationals’ process to make Espinosa a purely right-handed hitter is quite simple. He is beginning by taking batting practice as a righty versus right-handed manager Matt Williams, and then he will take as many reps as possible against righty pitching in spring training. It will take time for Espinosa to adjust to right-on-right matchups–breaking balls are one particular concern–but the Nationals are trying to expedite that transition as much as possible.

If the Rays wanted to, they could easily be doing the same thing with Nick Franklin. They could announce that he will be a pure lefty batter, have him take batting practice against another lefty, and then find him as many left-on-left reps as possible this spring. The Nationals have laid out the plan for them and all they would need to do is follow it.

There are no indications, however, that Franklin is going to stop switch-hitting this spring. Is that because the Rays particularly believe in his right-handed swing? We can’t say that it is. Instead, they could be looking at the other adjustments he needs to make and how even his weak performance against lefties is better than several of their other hitters.

It is enough of a challenge for Nick Franklin to attempt to become a regular shortstop. He is capable enough at the position, but he played almost exclusively second base with the Seattle Mariners in 2013 and also saw most of his time at the keystone after joining the Rays organization last July 31st. Franklin needs all of the preparation he can get to ensure that his fielding will be up to par when the season begins.

It would be quite a challenge if the Rays asked Franklin both to move back to shortstop and to become a pure lefty batter in the same spring training. Clearly the Rays have decided that Franklin’s glove is more important than his bat for the time being, although they could still consider having him stop switch-hitting in the future. That is especially the case when we get to our next point.

Nick Franklin is much weaker versus left-handed pitching than he is against righties. However, as the Rays try to win the most games that they can this season, the comparison they need to make is not between Franklin’s two swings, but between how Franklin and the Rays’ other hitters perform against lefties.

Franklin had a .210/.296/.303 line in 135 MLB plate appearances against left-handed pitching in 2013. That amounted to a 70 sOPS+, meaning that he was 30% worse than how an average hitter playing half his games in Safeco Park would do against lefties. That is bad, especially given his 102 sOPS+ (2% above average) versus righties, but the Rays have four hitters that are worse that that.

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David DeJesus hasn’t been any better than 56% below-average versus lefties the last four seasons. John Jaso‘s best sOPS+ versus left-handed was 71 back in 2010, and he has been at 35 or worse the last three years. Kevin Kiermaier hit to just a .203/.213/.284 line (40 sOPS+) against lefties as a rookie, striking out 20 times while walking just once. And while James Loney managed a 107 sOPS+ versus lefties in 2013, he put up just a 71 mark in 2014 and couldn’t reach 60 any year from 2010 to 2012.

Kiermaier in particular has the ability to be better than that–his .246/.345/.319 line against lefties in the minors since 2011 compared to Franklin’s .228/.301/.313 line provides some optimism. Kiermaier is also a spectacular defender in the outfield while Franklin is just hoping to be average. However, given that Asdrubal Cabrera is a horrible fielding shortstop and would prefer to play only one position anyway, it could make Franklin to receive some starts versus lefties despite his flaws.

Franklin is below-average against lefties, but he is not a lost cause like DeJesus and Jaso and could even wind up being better than Loney and Kiermaier. If the Rays made him a pure lefty hitter now, he could be better in the long-term, but he would be worse right now, when the Rays need as much offense as they can get. The Rays can also hope that with more time as a right-handed batter, Franklin could show signs of improvement and make a future change unnecessary.

To be clear, 30% below league average is never OK for a starting player. This entire conversation makes the case for Tim Beckham as a righty-hitting backup shortstop look a lot stronger. However, the Rays can ill afford to risk harm to Franklin’s solid glove at shortstop and promising outlook against right-handed pitching when they know that things could be far worse for him against lefties.

In a perfect world, the Tampa Bay Rays would have excellent situations at both middle infield spots and Nick Franklin would start 2015 in Triple-A learning how to hit lefties as a left-handed batter. However, given their present situation, the Rays couldn’t take Franklin’s attention away from his defense at shortstop and are satisfied enough with how his righty swing is now. The current Nick Franklin has the ability to help the Rays in 2015, and they don’t want to ruin that.

Next: Rays Will Go As Far As Their Pitching Takes Them

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