Jeff Francis: fourth (or fifth) starter?

Given the Yankees’ need for starting pitching, Jeff Francis‘ name has unsurprisingly recently come up in connection to the team, so let’s take a look at whether the lifelong NL West pitcher makes any sense for the Bombers.

After a breakout 4.1 fWAR season in 2007 with the Rockies in which he posted a 4.22 ERA/4.19 FIP/4.26 xFIP (on the surface these don’t appear to be overly impressive numbers, but adjusted for park and league it was a 114 ERA+ season) line over 215.1 innings, worth a whopping $16.9 million. Unfortunately, Francis, a classic slow-pitch lefthander (the kind that inexplicably routinely stymies the Yankees), has been a below-average pitcher in the two seasons he’s pitched since, recording a 94 ERA+ in 143.2 innings in 2008 and a 93 ERA+ last season in 104.1 innings. He missed all of 2009 due to shoulder surgery. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but they’re not exactly supremely confidence-inspiring, and it’s not all that surprising that teams haven’t been terribly eager to snap him up.

Still, there could be some utility in bringing a career league average (ERA+ 100) lefthander to the Bronx as a fourth or fifth starter. Even if Francis repeated his 2010, he’d still be more serviceable than what the Yankees got out of A.J. Burnett (81 ERA+) and Javier Vazquez (80 ERA+) last season.

Here’s a chart of some of Francis’ key numbers since becoming a full-time starter in 2005:

Francis won’t strike many batters out (career K/9 of 6.10), but he does get his share of groundballs (a career-high 47% GB% last season) and also slashed his walk rate from 3.07 BB/9 in 2008 to 1.98 last season. Fewer walks combined with a declining HR/9 (1.32 to 0.95) helped Francis to the lowest FIP of his career in 2010, at 3.88. Despite an ugly ERA (5.00), he was still worth 1.9 fWAR last season, better than both Burnett and Vazquez combined.

The ever-optimistic Bill James projection has Francis at a 4.45 ERA and 4.25 FIP, though those numbers are only across 87 innings. James sees a slight uptick in K/9 (up from 2010’s 5.78 to 6.10), but a serious regression in BB/9 (back up to 2.79). CAIRO’s actually surprisingly bullish on Francis as well, projecting 136 innings of 4.63 ERA/4.19 FIP ball, and a 47.5% GB% (which would be a career-high), for a season worth 2.0 WAR. As a point of comparison, bWAR had Francis at 0.5 last season.

After years of watching the Yankees continually miserably flail away at soft-tossing lefthanded junkballers, I wouldn’t mind seeing the team give opponents a dose of their own medicine. Francis won’t blow anyone away (average fastball speed for his career is 87mph), but he did have the fourth-best changeup in the National League in 2007.

This offseason’s approximate valuation of $5 million per win would suggest that Francis could hypothetically merit a $10 million contract based on the WAR projection, but no one’s going to come even close to handing that dollar amount out to a pitcher who missed all of 2009 and pitched a somewhat effective yet still underwhelming season in 2010. If Francis can be had on a one-year, $5 million deal I see no reason for the Yankees not to roll the dice and try to at least get close to league average innings out of one of their holes in the back end of the rotation. At the very least Francis is still a better option than Sergio Mitre, although we can also say the same thing about pretty much every pitcher in professional baseball.

3 thoughts on “Jeff Francis: fourth (or fifth) starter?

  1. One item I forgot to note in the post was that Francis' James and CAIRO projections would obviously be worse given a move to the AL and Yankee Stadium, although given that Francis has spent his entire career in one of the more generous offensive environments in baseball his projected numbers as a Yankee probably wouldn't be drastically different.

    If anything his lefthandedness in lefty-friendly YS could potentially counter any significant statistical regression, although for his career he hasn't exactly been a superstar against lefthanders, with a 3.81 career FIP (4.63 against righties), so it may be a moot point.

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