Wander Franco is already the best young SS in Tampa Bay Rays history
Once MLB's No. 1 prospect, Wander Franco arrived with the Tampa Bay Rays in an emphatic fashion, with his sensational bat-to-ball skills, tantalizing speed, pure athleticism and an impressive, commanding presence in the box.
Franco recorded his first MLB hit, a three-run homerun, off of then-Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez on June 22nd, 2021 and St. Petersburg officially ushered in 'The Wander Years.'
It's easy to get lost in what Wander Franco has done at the time of this being written, over his first 83 games. But to put it into perspective, it's historic. Franco turned 21 in March, meaning he'll be 21 the rest of the season. There are five Rays to play at least 81 games before the age of 22, including Carl Crawford, who played 214 games, and Delmon Young, who played in 192 games.
Franco, so far, has accrued more value than all of them.
The above chart that I tweeted out, via StatHead, compares the five rookie sensations. Franco, considered a prodigy by many, is on-pace to have an eight win share via BBRef's WAR calculations.
The median Hall of Famer averages five WAR shares per 162, or the equivalent of a full-season in the Major Leagues. Franco is surpassing that pace still a long way from his prime. It's evident that there's something special.
The chart includes Carl Crawford, the first homegrown superstar to take the Tampa Bay area by storm—the 'Perfect Storm' as Rays fans christened him in 2003—who played in well over a full season for Tampa before his 22nd birthday.
He's the best player on that list, a five-tool left fielder who'd become a four-time MLB All-Star and make approximately $170MM. The Rays have already committed more than that to Franco after just seventy games at the industry's highest echelon, rewarding him with the most extravagant contract in franchise history.
Franco, through age, leads C.C. in WAR by 1.3 (and still accumulating), destroys him in rBat, already leads him in home runs, likely will reach him in doubles and, barring a slump, will lead him in batting average, OPS, OPS+, SLG and on-base by a significant margin.
Also on the list is the Woonsocket Rocket, Rocco Baldelli, who was a more refined hitter at an earlier age than Crawford, though he lacked the defense and baserunning prowess that Crawford provided that made Crawford the overall better player when the two arrived in the majors around the same time.
Through the first 81 games of their career, Wander Franco finished second on the Rays all-time hit list, at 100 hits, ten ahead of Akiniori Iwamura and just one behind the aforementioned Baldelli. The current Twins skipper played in less than a full season's worth of games for the Rays as the franchise turned around through his age 23 to 26 seasons before departing for Boston, perhaps the biggest "what if" story in Tampa sports.
Baldelli was on-and-off the disabled list throughout his tenure due to complications from a rare muscular and metabolic disorder and he retired at age-29.
If you take a step further and use the 81 game minimum prior to a player's 22nd birthday, but filter it so that it only examines shortstops, Franco looks incredible. Franco is the thirteenth most valuable shortstop through age-21 and still has ample opportunity to jump those ahead of him on the list.
The list includes Hall of Fame Brewer Robin Yount, a member of the 3,000 hit club who won two Most Valuable Player awards and made his MLB debut at a young 18, and Alex Rodriguez, a phenom for the Mariners who would go on to hit nearly 700 homeruns, collect 3,000 hits and win three MVP awards.
The switch-hitting dynamo is tied for 10th on the all-time WAR leaderboard for shortstops before their 22nd birthday, with former Cubs infielder Starlin Castro, according to research developed using Stathead. With nearly 90% of the season remaining, Franco has marvelous opportunity to further jump the competition in this regard, despite the competition being stiff.
The competition includes three Hall of Famers (Arky Vaughan, Travis Jackson and Robin Yount), a former three-time MVP (Alex Rodriguez), a five-time All-Star (Edgar Renteria) and two of the game's highest paid shortstops (Carlos Correa, Fernando Tatis), respectively.
Behind Franco on this list includes names such as Hall of Famer Alan Trammell, who played in 300 games before his 22nd birthday, Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese in a comparable amount of games (83 for Franco, 84 for Reese) and Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville over a 169 game stretch.
Franco will almost certainly clear Yount with ease, regardless of Yount's status of being one of the most potent bats MLB has ever seen. Of course, WAR being an analytically driven number that encompasses a variety of statistics to account for a player's entire game isn't contingent on any one 'rate statistic,' which makes sense because it's doubtful that Franco amasses the rate numbers that Yount did in his first three full seasons with the Crew.
Yount's defense wasn't the most spectacular at shortstop, which explains why he's one of the few players to win an MVP award at two different primary positions (Yount shifted to centerfield in 1987, winning his second MVP two seasons later). It is worth noting that despite totaling more hits and home runs, it's due to more playing time.
Yount didn't break out and post an OPS north of .800 until his age-24 campaign in 1980 and didn't hit .300 in the Majors until he hit .331 in his 1982 MVP performance. Franco's average in the Majors is currently over .300 and his OPS well over .800.
It's impractical to think that Franco's jumping to number one, seeing as Rodriguez put up a 14 win share from 1994-1997 after debuting at 18, seeing as he would have to have the greatest season in MLB history.
Carlos Correa's 11.8 across his first 252 games and Arky Vaughan's 10.5 over 281 games are also out of the question. Yet, Franco likely ends up in the top five barring injury. Franco needs less than 2.5 WAR the remainder of the season to surpass Travis Jackson and Donnie Bush for fourth place on the list.
In 2021, Franco had a 43-game-on-base streak, most for a player 21-or-under since Hall of Famer Frank Robinson in 1961, highest for a player under the age of 21 ever, breaking a record set by Mickey Mantle. Franco, prorating his half of a season to a full season, is on pace for nearly 200 hits, 20 homeruns and 50 doubles over his first 162 games. For reference, no player reached all three of those thresholds during the 2021 season.
Combine his offensive prowess prior to the age most major leaguers debut with his sparkling defense, high baseball IQ and wander-ful baserunning, Franco is well-beyond his years on the field and promises to be the face of the sport going forward.
Enjoy it, Tampa Bay, because The Wonder Years may have gone off air in the Summer of 1993, but the Wander Years have just begun.