Jordan Schafer came into this season with a major league career slash line of .221/.305/.301. He got an opportunity to play in a career high 106 games last season with the Houston Astros and put up a line of .211/.297/.294. Schafer’s major league career seemed at the end of its rope.
Juan Francisco entered the 2012 season season with better numbers than Schafer in 81 career games (.284/.331/.450) but only had 11 walks in 181 plate appearances and looked like he would bounce between Triple-A and the majors.
The Braves came calling, first for Francisco prior to the 2012 season then they re-acquired Schafer prior to this season. Francisco struggled in his first season with the Braves but showed power, which had always been the strength of his game. He slugged .432, despite batting only .234, and hit 9 homers in only 205 PA.
This season Francisco figures to get a little more playing time and he’s made the most of it so far, posting a slash line of .316/.339/.544 in his first 59 plate appearances. This is a good time to point out this means nothing in the grand scheme of things, as 59 plate appearances is a pretty miniscule sample.
Schafer has put up even more impressive number in an even more miniscule sample of 21 plate appearances: .438/.550/.500. Again, in the grand scheme, this means nothing. Schafer at his best is probably nothing like a good everyday type player, much less a star.
What Francisco and Schafer’s performances over these few weeks make you feel good about are the Braves’ scouts, front office and their willingness to take chances on player with some tools who so far haven’t shown much at the big league level. No one expects Francisco or Schafer to be good big leaguers. But they are exactly the type players teams should want to fill out some bench spots.
Schafer has speed, he can play centerfield and he’s displayed some power in the past. He slugged .513 at age 20 in A-Ball and High-A. He slugged .471 in Double-A at age 21. Of course none of this guarantees that he’ll be good enough to hold a spot in the majors for the next several seasons. It just means that he’s shown positive skills in the past, not all that long ago, and that acquiring him was a good low-risk move.
I suspect there are some teams who would just assume Schafer wasn’t even worth consideration for a roster spot given that he’s been pretty awful in 914 major league plate appearances (.226/.311/.305). But the Braves were familiar with Schafer, realized he was still rather young even for a baseball player, and were aware that the tools existed somewhere in there beyond the raw numbers. In the age of sabermetrics and advanced statistics, part of the equation is knowing where the numbers are limited in player evaluation and when to rely on information beyond the statistics.
Francisco is a big-time power hitter. Some scouts would probably throw an 80 grade on his raw power (not necessarily his in-game power, because you can’t hit for power if you can’t hit). The knock on him was that he went up to the plate hacking as much as any hitter in the game. The Braves probably realized when a hitter has that much power, if he just figures things out, approach-wise, just enough to take just a few more pitches and wait on the pitches to crush, he could at least be a decent bench option. It doesn’t hurt that Francisco plays third base and the state of third base in the majors isn’t that great right now.
Again, in the sabermetric age perhaps other teams would want no part of a Juan Francisco, being scared off by the lack of an approach and discipline at the plate. But another part of baseball’s information age is understanding positional scarcity (the fact that third base is in a rather sorry state right now) and the importance of extra-base hits to creating runs. Like Schafer, there is no guarantee Francisco sticks around for another several seasons in the majors. But regardless of what happens, this is the type of player to take a chance on. The Braves gave up a minor league reliever for Francisco.
I can’t stress enough that these first few weeks shouldn’t get us too excited or too bummed about Francisco, Schafer or any other player. This is not an analysis of their performance in the small sample of four weeks of a season. The performances of Francisco and Schafer just remind us that the Braves’ scouts and front office seem to know what they are doing. They seem to be willing to take some chances on low-risk, somewhat-high-reward options in hopes of finding a gem. Every now and then you come up with a Brandon Beachy. And what’s the harm if players like Francisco and Schafer don’t work out? They were acquired to be extra players, so you just bring in more.