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Wander Franco's First Breakout Is Happening Before Our Eyes

Tampa Bay's 20-year-old shortstop understandably took a little time to adapt to big league pitching. But it didn't take nearly as long as it does for most phenoms.
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After being tabbed as the best minor league prospect baseball has seen in years, it took only one game for Wander Franco to provide a moment worthy of the hype that preceded his arrival to the big leagues. It’s taken just more than a month for the switch-hitting shortstop to round into form and consistently play like a star.

Since homering and driving in three runs in his first big league game, the Rays’ 20-year-old shortstop has had to endure the kind of growing pains that most rookies go through. In the 19 games after his debut, Franco hit .184/.241/.303 with 20 strikeouts. It was a far cry from the player who, in nearly 1,000 minor league plate appearances, batted .332/.398/.536 with 95 extra-base hits and more walks (95) than strikeouts (75).

Over the past month, though, Franco has flipped the switch and become one of the best hitters in the game. That’s not an exaggeration, either—in the last 30 days, Franco ranks 12th among qualified batters in fWAR (1.2), tied with Juan Soto and ahead of Aaron Judge. Since July 22, Franco is batting a scorching .325/.383/.521 with a microscopic 10.9% strikeout rate.

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco (5) throws to first base against the Philadelphia Phillies during the second inning at Citizens Bank Park.

That hot streak continued on Wednesday, with Franco going 3-for-5 with two doubles in Tampa Bay’s 7–4 win over the Phillies. The game saw Franco extend his hitting streak to nine games and reach base for the 26th consecutive game—the longest on-base streak for a player age 20 or younger since Frank Robinson in 1956.

As much as Franco looked out of sorts to start his big league career, there were hardly any doubters who thought he wouldn’t eventually figure it out. That he’s done so in such a short time puts him ahead of the curve when compared to other phenoms who ascended to the major leagues with similar fanfare.

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Through his first 49 games, Franco’s .274/.333/.457 slash line compares favorably with his contemporaries. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who debuted at nearly the same age as Franco in 2019, batted .255/.322/.420 in his first 49 games. Franco has homered six times with 34 strikeouts and 16 walks, while Guerrero hit seven home runs with 40 strikeouts and 18 walks through the same amount of games. Franco also holds a slight edge over other top prospects from recent years through their first 49 games:

PlayerBAOBPSLGHRRBIKBB

Wander Franco

.274

.333

.457

6

29

34

16

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

.255

.322

.420

7

21

40

18

Ronald Acuña Jr.

.264

.325

.477

9

24

63

16

Luis Robert

.235

.294

.464

11

30

64

15

Eloy Jimenez

.254

.311

.486

12

28

55

14

Where Franco stands out among this group the most is in his strikeout totals. Franco has long exhibited a preternatural control for the strike zone and has elite quickness with his hands. A look at his rolling strikeout rate shows a player who’s very quickly acclimating himself to major league pitchers—where he was once getting fooled by the step up in competition, he now has the upper hand.

wander franco k rate

For all the strides he’s made in such a short time, Franco is clearly far from a finished product. He’s yet to do real damage to the baseball consistently, with an average exit velocity of 88.4 miles per hour and barrel rate of 6.1% that puts him on par with guys like Donovan Solano and Eric Hosmer.

This should hardly be of concern to Rays fans, though, as Franco’s tools have never been in question. His suite of skills and refined-beyond-his-years approach make Franco the rare prospect with a high floor and stratospheric ceiling. His offensive acumen also has a tendency to overshadow his defense, where he’s shown himself plenty capable of excelling at a high level already, even if he ranks near the bottom of the barrel in Statcast's outs above average metric:

Despite winning the pennant a year ago, the Rays seem destined to be the most perpetually anonymous successful franchise in the league. As a result, their best players are largely unknown to the wider baseball world. In that sense, Franco’s ho-hum first couple of weeks in the big leagues were fitting, as they threw the casual fan off the scent of what was to follow: Baseball’s next superstar on the American League’s best team is blooming right in front of us, hiding in plain sight.

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