Rosenthal: Rays’ Wander Franco can spearhead the action revolution that MLB so badly desires

Rosenthal: Rays' Wander Franco can spearhead the action revolution that MLB so badly desires

Call them “action guys.” For lack of a better phrase, that’s how I would describe the high-contact, extra-base threats who embody the kind of excitement Major League Baseball wants to restore to the game.

Action guys are not the only kinds of hitters who captivate fans; the beauty of baseball is that players not only come in all shapes and sizes, but also showcases different skills. Action guys, though, are the antithesis of three-true-outcome performers, who too often end their plate appearances with a walk, strikeout or home run. And, in a case of rather fortuitous timing, one of the new action heroes, the Rays’ Wander Franco, is poised to become one of the game’s biggest stars.

What is the definition of an action guy? I’d like to say, “I know one when I see one,” paraphrasing the threshold for obscenity employed by the late Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart. Alas, a failure to at least attempt to quantify what I’m talking about would not cut it for my more analytically savvy readers. So, I’ve come up with my own simple formula, albeit one those readers likely will find insufficient. Just work with me, okay?

To qualify as an action guy, a hitter must meet only two standards. First, he must strike out in fewer than 15 percent of his plate appearances. Second, he must produce an isolated power percentage (extra bases per at-bat) of greater than .20. I thought about incorporating a baserunning measure, but at least at this early stage of the season, it might have eliminated José Ramírez, who generally rates quite well as a baserunner — and otherwise is a model action guy.

Yes, I’m cherry-picking numbers. Who doesn’t?

Ramírez, it turns out, is an inspiration for Franco. The two both hail from Bani in the Dominican Republic, the same neighborhood, infact. They’ve trained together in past offseasons. Franco, who at 21 is the youngest player for eight years, has called Ramírez his idol of him. Ramírez told MLB.com in 2018, “He’s good. Better than me.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that their offensive games are similar – not identical, considering that Franco is seeing the second-fewest pitches per plate appearance of any player in the majors, while Ramírez is averaging the 12th-most. No two players are exactly alike, which is the problem with trying to define any one group. John Soto doesn’t strike me as an action guy, simply because he walks so often (not that it’s a bad thing; Soto’s plate appearances are works of art). Turns out, though, that Soto met the standards in 2021 and is quite close in 2022.

A fan might rightly ask, what about the three Juniors: Ronald Acuña, Vladimir Guerrero and Fernando Tatis? Each is electrifying in its own way. But each also strikes out too much to qualify, though Guerrero Jr. was barely above 15 percent in both 2020 and 2021, and no one would be shocked if he reduced his current rate of 20.4 percent to below the threshold.

Ramírez was one of four action guys in 2021, along with Soto, Jose Altuve and Nolan Arenado. He also is one of seven current qualifiers, along with Franco, Arenado, Anthony Rizzo, Tim AndersonJ. P. Crawford and alex bregman. Anderson is a surprising addition, considering he previously has not struck out at a rate lower than 20 percent. He ranks first in fewest pitches per plate appearance, just above Franco. Those two are not just action guys. They’re early-action guys, too.

Which raises an interesting question with Franco, who has drawn only four walks in 101 plate appearances, a rate that is the 19th-lowest in the majors and was only slightly better last season after he made his debut for the rays in late June. Franco also has the 15th-highest chase rate, so he would seem vulnerable to strikeouts as the league adjusts to him. Then again, his 85 percent contact rate is well-above league average, and his OPS-plus is 61 percent above league average. He’s not some free-swinging, swing-and-miss machine. Remove the opposite.

As an elite hitter who puts the ball in play, slashing doubles and triples as well as homers, Franco represents the league’s desired profile. The league, though, cannot simply rely on Franco to serve as a model for future generations, not when he is an almost singular talent, unique in today’s game. No, the league is trying to create an environment that allows even average players to put the ball in play more often and generate excitement.

Part of the motivation for the deader ball might be to force players to adopt a more contact-oriented approach, but the ball is expected to carry better as the weather turns warmer. Other measures the league is adopting — pitching roster limits this season, the pitch clock next season — are specifically intended to restore balance to the pitcher-hitter dynamic. Teams starting Monday were limited to 14 pitchers. That number will reduce to 13 on May 30, and could be lower in future seasons.

Shift restrictions, as yet undefined but taking effect next season, also might liberate hitters who put balls in play — well, at least that’s part of the thinking. The league’s goal is to change the mindset of hitters, right down to Little Leaguers. As long as the tradeoff of power for strikeouts is accepted at the major-league level, players in college, high school and youth baseball will adopt the launch-happy hitting styles of their favorite sluggers. Adjust the style of hitting in the majors, and young players will quickly follow suit.

So here’s Franco, serving as a vanguard of the action revolution. The league would be wise to market him accordingly while highlighting the immense and varied skills of the game’s other fabulous young stars. The owners’ lockout is over. The new collective-bargaining agreement extends through 2026. Commissioner Rob Manfred has spoken of promoting a better relationship with players. Increasing their visibility to a greater degree would be a start.

The league, in a recent effort to fulfill that goal, has built a player marketing department. The group, which now includes 14 staffers, helps build players’ brands in a variety of ways, including appearances on MLB’s social media channels. Franco, for example, agreed to be mic’d up for the league’s YouTube show, Play Loud, a weekly series that captures players’ audio on the field to bring fans closer to them and to the sport. The appearance, the league says, helped boost his social following of him.

MLB Network does an excellent job highlighting players’ skills, but its audience is relatively narrow. As the league attempts to develop a more aesthetically pleasing product, Franco and similar players offer an opportunity to redefine how the game is promoted. It’s one thing to talk about transforming offense. It’s another thing to point to a young superstar who personifies the traits the league is trying to foster, and say, “This is what we’re talking about!’

Action guys. Hopefully there will be more of ’em, coming to park near you soon.

(Photo: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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