Should the Mariners Call Up Nick Franklin?

i'll take a flying shortstop, actually - Jennifer Stewart

The Mariners' major league middle infield situation is an absolute mess. The Mariners' minor league middle infield situation is awesome. Is it time to rectify the imbalance?

It depends.

That was easy! Now, let's go have some dinner - wait, there's a word minimum? Dammit. God dammit.

OK... the long version, then. We're all familiar with the Mariners' situation: their starting shortstop is Robert Andino, because Brendan Ryan is smack dab in the middle of an atrocious slump and because Eric Wedge has had enough. Since Robert Andino is a terrible major league baseball player, this has led to the Mariners getting literally negative production from their shortstops. At the same time, Dustin Ackley's power and walks have mysteriously evaporated, leaving him with a wRC+ of 60. This is bad. This is really, really bad.

Meanwhile, the Mariners' minor league middle infields are in sparkling condition. Sure, Carlos Triunfel is probably just a replacement level utility man, but Stefen Romero is a nifty little hitter for a second baseman. Chris Taylor, among others, is doing good things in the low minors. Brad Miller is Kyle Seager, and if you don't believe me, look at their age 22 seasons in AA:

Age 22 PA 2B 3B HR BB K OBP SLG OPS
Seager 643 40 3 14 71 94 .419 .503 .922
Miller 643 40 7 15 74 105 .410 .512 .922

But I'm ducking around the point, because the prospect that's got the entire blogosphere abuzz is AAA 2B/SS Nick Franklin. Franklin is absolutely mauling the Pacific Coast League, hitting .410/.538/.623 with twice as many walks as strikeouts, and it's not like he was a nobody to begin with (having almost been packaged with Taijuan Walker to land current NL WAR leader Justin Upton last winter). The disastrous middle infield offensive situation in the major leagues, combined with the sorely lacking bench, is causing fans to clamor for the promotion of Franklin to the bigs. I get it.

But despite my emotional desire for change, promoting Franklin instinctively feels like a bad idea. This is because I (along with many of you) have had the words "small sample size" pounded into my head by a very large sample size of articles about player evaluation. Making a decision based on 70 plate appearances of an ice cold Brendan Ryan and a scorching hot Nick Franklin would defy every sabermetrically inclined bone in my body. So my first impulse when trying to write this article was to throw out all of Franklin's supposed 2013 improvement and all of Ryan's supposed 2013 slump and just look at how their previous lines were causing them to project. But then I looked a little bit closer...

I think that, right now, Nick Franklin is a better major league shortstop than Brendan Ryan. (And Robert Andino too, but... duh.)

This isn't due to just one or the other of them; it has to do with both. Let's discuss Ryan first. For one thing, his slump hasn't only been this April. It's actually been going on since August of last year. While it's been largely fueled by BABIP, one notes that when a hitter produces pop-ups and weak grounders as often as Ryan does he is often prone to a low BABIP. One also notes that Ryan has yet to produce a single extra base hit this season, and his batted ball distance is atrocious.

Brendan Ryan is thirty-one years old. I know that none of us thought that his offense would decline before his defense, mostly because none of us thought his offense could possibly get any worse, but after three ice-cold months and a sky-high popup rate it's time to consider the possibility that he's taken a step backwards with the bat. And regardless of how great a defender Ryan is, there comes a point at which his offense is so atrocious that he just isn't a viable starter any more. Last year, he approached that point, saving 14 runs with his glove but managing to negate the entire shortstop positional bonus (7.5 runs) with his bat. And that was with a 60 wRC+. What happens if Ryan declines and suddenly becomes a 40 or 50 wRC+ hitter? He'd have to put up an incredible defensive season every single year just to reach 1 WAR, and that still wouldn't make him a good - or even decent - starter.

Ryan's slump almost certainly won't continue at this level. No one puts up a BABIP that bad for that long, and no one goes that long without an extra base hit. Not even Brendan Ryan. But even if he does rebound a little, Brendan Ryan is not a particularly high bar for Nick Franklin to clear. Look, I love the guy. He's absolutely one of my favorite players. His interviews are a joy and his defense is jaw-droppingly good. But I don't think he's one of the world's top twenty shortstops any more, and I don't think it's much of a stretch to ask Nick Franklin to be better than him.

Because the other part of this equation is Franklin himself, and there's legitimate reason to believe that Franklin has taken a step forwards in the minor leagues. Have a look at his plate discipline stats, courtesy of the ever-so-useful Minor League Central:

Screen_shot_2013-05-01_at_3

The contact rate and swing rate are what you're looking at: specifically, the contact rate's massive spike and the swing rate's massive dropoff. These could very possibly be important and positive changes to Nick Franklin's approach, and they should maybe make us re-evaluate him a little.

Now, first, my caveats. Minor league contact and swing rates come from often sketchy sources. While AAA data is better than most, it still has occasional problems and should be taken with a grain of salt. It's possible that the lower-level systems were underestimating Franklin's contact skills, thus making the jump look bigger than it actually is. Second, even for statistics as quick to stabilize as contact rate and swing rate, these aren't large samples. As Patrick noted yesterday, we've just barely arrived at the point where it's a better bet to believe a change is real than it is to believe it's luck. There's still something like a 30% or 40% chance that this is all a mirage and will revert soon.

But, caveats aside, this is good news for Franklin. It's always good to see a hitter improve his contact rate, and as we discussed with Kyle Seager, it's not unreasonable to believe that a decrease in swing rate could lead to an increase in walks, hitter's counts and power. As a neat little bonus, I'll point out that the change didn't occur at the beginning of this season: Franklin's contact rate first climbed above 80% last August, so you can tack an extra 30 PA of high-contact low-swing performance onto this early sample. Also nice is that Franklin has done much of the damage with his previously weak right-handed swing, and that his absurd diet is indeed resulting in more ISO. What I'm saying is that there's some reason to believe Franklin is a better hitter than we thought he was, and most of us thought he was a pretty good hitter.

Projecting him is the tricky part, though. The park and league adjusters of Minor League Splits, useful as they may be, produce some pretty crazy results when you plug Franklin's numbers into them. Feed it his 2012 AA numbers and it thinks he'll hit .261/.318/.391. Put in the 2012 AAA numbers and it predicts .213/.261/.344. Use the small sample of 2013 numbers just for laughs and it spits out .344/.446/.501, which... yeah. Figuring out what Franklin can do in the big leagues is going to be trickier than that.

My first instinct was to pull out the old CT%/SW%/ISO trick, but then I got a little bit worried about the validity of the CT% and SW% data that I had from Minor League Central. So I embarked on an adventure to find out how contact and swing rates transfer from AAA to the minor leagues. Since Minor League Central has been recording MiLB contact and swing rates, there have been 49 rookies to see at least 150 PA in AAA and at least 200 PA in MLB. I took their Minor League Central contact and swing rates in their last AAA season before hitting the majors, subtracted their ensuing rookie year major league contact and swing rates, and wound up with the following table. Screen_shot_2013-05-01_at_11

As you can see, swing rate ticked up a little after the players' major league debuts, but so too did contact rate. This is an encouraging result, both because it looks as though Franklin may be able to sustain his contact improvements if and when he makes the jump and because it reassures me about the validity of the Minor League Central data. This means that we can indeed use the CT%/SW%/ISO comp method to find similar guys to Franklin.

Because I didn't want to go too overboard with optimism, I set Franklin's current AAA ISO as the absolute maximum for MLB comps. Because I didn't want to ignore the changes he's made to his body, I set the minimum ISO only ten points below his 2012 AA/AAA ISOs. Also in the interest of limiting optimism, I set the maximum contact rate at his current AAA contact rate, and the minimum swing rate at his current swing rate. Basically, I assumed that Franklin will never have a major league season better than what he's doing in AAA at this very moment.

But despite my reserved analysis, the results came back encouraging. You can see the table here. Basically, as long as Franklin can maintain an ISO at or above his 2012 minor league average of .130 (which he should be able to do, given his recent bulk-up) he should be an above average major league hitter.

I probably don't need to tell you how valuable an above average major league hitting shortstop can be. Last year, Hanley Ramirez managed 2.9 fWAR despite lackluster defense because he hit for a 107 wRC+. The positional bonus means that even defensively incompetent shortstops can be 2.5 win players when they hit at a slightly above league average rate. If Nick Franklin hits like his (pessimistically chosen) CT%/SW%/ISO buddies did, he could give away his entire positional bonus with bad defense and still be a league average shortstop. And as much as I like Brendan Ryan, I think that at the moment a league average shortstop would be an upgrade.

So there I was, all set to write up this article. Promote Nick Franklin! Cut Robert Andino! Make Brendan Ryan the late inning defensive replacement slash defensive instructor! But, gosh darn it, I had to get around to thinking again. Here's what I realized.

In the small picture, it makes sense to promote Nick Franklin. He's probably better than Brendan Ryan, and swapping them right now would likely net the team at least one extra win over the course of the season. But let's think big for the moment. What are the Mariners going to do with Nick Franklin in the long term?

As bad as the Mariners' major league middle infield situation is, the outfield situation is worse. The Mariners' outfield is so bad that it's making Jason Bay look good, and there doesn't appear to be any help on the way. Meanwhile, the Mariners have at least five viable 2B/3B/SS types in the high minors or majors: Seager, Ackley, Miller, Franklin, and Romero. Not all of those guys can fit on the same team at the same time, unless either Ackley or Romero is in left field (which is not an idea I'm terribly fond of). The most efficient way to fix the overall roster may be to sacrifice some of the high minors middle infielders in trades for outfielders - sort of like the one Jack Z almost pulled off for Justin Upton - and allow the low minors middle infielders to replace them. And among the current set of high minors guys, Franklin is by far the most appealing trade piece. The Mariners can't afford to move Seager; there's no one behind him. Selling low on Ackley would be stupid. Romero isn't enough of a prospect yet to have real value. As I mentioned earlier, Miller is Kyle Seager, and as we learned from an interview last year, Jack Z didn't receive any trade interest in Seager before he made his debut. So Franklin is the most appetizing of the five. And he'd be even more appetizing if he didn't have to worry about Super Two status.

This is what the Mariners did with Dustin Ackley, and I wouldn't be shocked if they do it with Danny Hultzen and Nick Franklin too. Franklin seems like an obvious trade candidate, and his trade value would go up if the Mariners were to keep him in the minors for another couple of months. In the meantime, they'd get a chance to see if his contact and swing rate changes are for real, and he'd get a chance to work on his shortstop defense. And if Brendan Ryan is really a 1 win shortstop now... what does a third of a season of him over Nick Franklin cost the team? Half a win, maybe? It's not like the Mariners are in the pennant chase. Is that half a win worth the money the team would serve by not making Franklin a super two?

Maybe it is. Maybe the front office's continued employment is tied to the success of the team, in which case they should be taking every chance they can get. The team has waited long enough that if Franklin were to come up now he'd still get the extra year of team control, and maybe they don't care about the Super Two money. Maybe they just want their fans to feel some hope again. There is also the opposite argument about Franklin's trade value: that demonstrating major league success will boost Franklin's value and that the longer he does so for, the better. And I haven't even talked about Dustin Ackley, who the team might feel needs some AAA time to rediscover his power and who might be replaced by Franklin. Ultimately, there's no clear-cut call here.

So, to recap: despite sample size concerns, Nick Franklin's approach changes and Brendan Ryan's possible decline are enough to make me believe that Franklin is the best shortstop in the organization right now. However, as much as we fans might want the MLB on-field product to be the be-all and end-all, the big picture is more complicated than that. It might be in the team's best interest to allow Franklin to wait in the minors for the next two months, building trade value while working on his shortstop defense and proving that his contact improvement is for real. The answer to the question posed by my title is still "it depends": do you care more about the big picture, or the small one?

I guess you have to decide that for yourself. Enjoy thinking about it.

I'm gonna go have that dinner now.

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