If you subscribe to the notion a team should absolutely take the best player available when they’re on the clock, familiarizing yourself with Christian Franklin would be a beneficial exercise.
The University of Arkansas and Head Coach Dave Van Horn are among the most revered programs in the country, in-part due to their exceptional player development reputation. When guys decide to attend Fayetteville, they’re betting becoming a Razorback will vault their abilities on the diamond into a different tier. Playing ball in the SEC is a different animal, and playing for the University of Arkansas is about as good as it gets.
Their draft record really speaks for itself. Last year, the Razorbacks saw outfielder Heston Kjerstad go no. 2 overall to the Baltimore Orioles. Their shortstop Casey Martin went in the third round, but received first round grades from a number of publications. 2019 saw three Razorbacks drafted in the first four rounds, and 2018 saw the same. It’s a premier player development system and promises to get even louder marks in 2021.
Franklin figures to be a huge part of the narrative next July. He pretty safely projects a first round pick right now, and if his underlying data can serve as any sort of predicative indicator for where he could be drafted, watch out.
What if I told you Christian Franklin is better than Heston Kjerstad is literally every way?
“You wouldn’t be wrong,” a Rangers scout laughed. “Good player.”
More on that in a bit.
Data can only tell you so much. It’s simply a piece of the puzzle. Guys have to be able to translate pure ability into in-game performance. Franklin does that.
In two seasons with the Razorbacks, Franklin has run a .299/.387/.462 line with 9 home runs and 14 stolen bases. In 2020 alone, he ran a .381/.467/.619 line with three home runs and three stolen bases with a K-rate of 18.6 percent. That line, translated over a full season would be 12 home runs and 12 stolen bases. Kjerstad’s 2019? .327/.400/.575 with 17 home runs, five stolen bases and a K-rate of 21.6 percent.
Franklin and Kjerstad are very different players, but it wouldn’t take much to convince me Franklin has the superior upside.
One of the biggest differences between the two is athleticism. Kjerstad is/was a pure corner outfielder. He was a fringe-average runner with average instincts in the field. Franklin is going into his second season as the Razorbacks full-time centerfielder. That in and of itself speaks volumes for what he’s capable of in terms of positional value and versatility.
At the plate, this righty shows a perfectly balanced setup with a narrow stance and head-high hands that show rhythm, balance and strong sequencing into his load. There’s some Ronald Acuña in his setup and hands, though things differ a bit when he gets into his stride.
Franklin has quick hands, showing some bat wrap and a whippy barrel that produces impressive bat speed and accompanying exit velos. It’s a modern swing with some natural loft and leverage into his backside. The entire thing is a bit of a crossover between Acuña’s load and Mookie Betts in terms of lower half mechanism.
This is NOT a comparison between Franklin and those two players, just some similarities in the way they present themselves in the box.
Franklin isn’t the most imposing physical presence. At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he’s another powder-keg package that generates his power from impressive athleticism and rotational torque. There’s a good bit of hip-shoulder separation here too. Not to the degree that Betts creates, but still impressive. Most of the similarities are within the lower half. There’s a strong front lead leg and strong rotational coil
Franklin deploys a more ‘modern’ approach to loft in dropping his backside a bit to generate additional leverage. Betts, for what it’s worth, is more fundamental in creating loft by keeping his head on-plane and letting his hands do the work. Both guys do a good job of fully extending out in front in generating energy at the point of contact.
So how about them tools?
Tools (Future Value)
The absolute biggest question surrounding Franklin’s future hit tool is going to be his approach and discipline. While the K-rate did drop to 18.6 percent in 2020, His freshman campaign in 2019 wasn’t quite as impressive. 186 at-bats as an 18-year-old produced a K-rate hovering around 32 percent -- obviously a stark difference. How that approach develops in his third year with the Razorbacks will likely dictate how high his stock can go.
Besides the improving K-rate in 2020, Franklin improved his walk rate from 12.3 percent in 2019 to 14.7 percent in the abbreviated campaign this season. While that doesn’t assure Franklin’s contact percentage will buoy at a healthy level, his vertical bat angle (VBA) does suggest when he makes contact, it’ll be significant. Franklin’s VBA is roughly -30 to -31 degrees. In a study done by D.K. Willardson, players with a VBA in that range should expect reasonably tight launch angles and a BABIP in the .310 range.
It’s not elite by any means. You’ll find Mike Trout’s VBA closer to -35 degrees. Mookie Betts sits around -34 degrees. It’s a similar swing plane to Nolan Arenado who sits at -30.5 degrees on pitches down the middle. As you can see, the steeper the VBA, the less chance a player will find themselves with infield pop-flys or ground balls beaten into the dirt.
At the end of the day, if you’re the betting type, bet on Franklin being at least an average hitter, maybe a shade above that. We’re probably talking about a .265-.270 hitter at the next level. If the approach improves to sub-20% K-rate, and this is firmly a 55-grade, Franklin might go Top 5.
Everything about Franklin’s swing is loft-driven. It’s a modern approach to the baseball swing, and he does a lot of things really, really well. First and foremost, he hits the ball harder than just about anybody in college baseball.
You remember how effusive I have been about Henry Davis, Adrian Del Castillo and Ethan Wilson. Those guys hit the ball so damn hard. At 5-11, 190 pounds Franklin pummels the ball even harder.
Of the 830 batters who registered at least one batted-ball event in 2020, Franklin ranked 10th in average exit velocity. His 36 registered balls-in-play left the bat at an average of 97.1 mph. Of the entire 2020 MLB Draft, that would trail only Spencer Torkelson, the no. 1 overall pick.
There’s a lot to like about Franklin’s swing data. His 15.2 degree attack angle is super loft-centric. It certainly correlates well with the notion he drops his back side a bit to induce loft. Optimally, you’d like to see an attack angle in the 10- to 15-degree range. You could make the argument it’s a touch aggressive, but it’s better than a flat swing. Mike Trout’s attack angle in 2019 was 15.7 degrees, so let’s not get too out of sorts here.
Furthering the narrative of Franklin’s power potential, his bat speed of 74.4 mph is pretty damn good. It’s a rotational swing, not a swing coming from a place of pure strength, but does it matter? Here’s a study done by Driveline. Look at the names he falls just below.
Franklin is certainly a power threat, and he gets into his raw ability in-game thanks to a fairly optimized swing. So long as the plate discipline and approach allow the bat to play, it’s probably a fair assumption he’ll be a threat to go deep at the big league level. 20+ dinger potential is certainly a fair projection.
Franklin started almost every game his freshman campaign in left field. That changed as soon as coaches realized what a special defender he might be. Franklin is a really, really good runner and his instincts and athleticism play beautifully at any outfield position.
The gifs kind of speak for themselves.
The only question really surrounding Franklin might be whether or not a pro team wants to play him in centerfield or in a corner. In a corner, he’s clearly a plus defender with his impressive athleticism and range. In centerfield, he may still be a plus defender, but more appropriately probably grades out above average.
The fact of the matter is, we’ve only got 16 games worth of action with Franklin in centerfield. None of us really know just how good he is out there. You could make a very fair argument today that he’s a plus glove. That would certainly be answered in-full with a 60-game slate in 2021.
It feels a bit disingenuous at this point throwing so many loud tools on Franklin, but the kid can fly. Twice he’s clocked a sub-6.5 second 60-yard dash. I’ve clocked him 4 times home-to-first. Every single time it was sub 4.25, his best at 4.17.
Franklin is super athletic and it shows on his ability on the base paths. He’s stolen a good chunk of bags in his time at Arkansas, and I’d expect 15 or more in 2021.
The speed is one catalyst for my conviction in him sticking in centerfield, thus boosting his draft stock. I think you’re talking about a kid here who’s a big threat to post a few 20-20 seasons should he reach his ceiling.
This too may be selling him short. The arm has been clocked over 90mph in the past, so there’s no denying sufficient arm strength is there. The accuracy from the grass has room for improvement, but that should come with time.
I haven’t gotten too many opportunities to see Franklin show off his arm, but in the small samples I’ve been able to track down, the arm motion is fine and projectable with coaching. Could be above average at the next level.
You could make a case Christian Franklin is as close to a 5-tool player you could find in this collegiate class. In a vacuum, he’s not all that different than Jud Fabian. In fact, I’d argue he’s the better bet to stick in centerfield. There’s some questions surrounding his ability to put the ball in play against upper competition, but those should be answered with a full 2021 slate. At worst, he’s almost certainly a day one selection with the helium to sneak into the Top 5 should the bat explode next season.