In 2005, before Heyward, Freeman, and Simmons, there was another young Brave who looked like he was going to become baseball’s next superstar. He had a dead pull swing that produced mammoth home runs, and line drive doubles, he had a cannon for an arm that gunned down base runners with regularity, and a marketable face with a charming smile. That player, of course, was former Atlanta Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur.
Dubbed “Frenchy” by manager Bobby Cox, Francoeur burst onto the scene during the middle of the 2005 season. A July call-up saw the 21 year-old dazzle fans with his raw ability and that great personality. He hit a homerun in his first game as a Brave and would go on to become a fan favorite, batting .300/.336/.549 with 15 homeruns, and 45 RBI. Because of his limited sample size he would finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting, but Braves fans thought they had a budding superstar in their midst.
Francoeur was an interesting prospect that first season because what he was doing defied logic. His plate approach was pretty simple; if that ball is anywhere near the strike zone he was going to swing at it. The fact that his free swinging approach was producing fantastic results led to all that adoration. In August of 2005 Sports Illustrated featured him on the cover calling him “The Natural”. It was easy to ignore the lack of plate discipline because of how much fun his story had become.
Next season, his first full season in the majors, Francoeur’s batting statistics began to regress. Pitchers started to discover that if they did not give him anything to hit, he would go out of the zone and either strikeout or make weak contact. That season saw Francoeur hit 29 homeruns, but the sub .300 on base percentage was concerning and a sign of things to come. The next season saw an uptick in average, and on base percentage, (.293/.338/.444) but he was not becoming the superstar most pegged him to become after that Sports Illustrated cover.
After a slow start in 2009, and an attempt at righting himself in the minor leagues, the Braves had had enough. They decided to trade him to the New York Mets for Ryan Church, forever ending the Francoeur era in Atlanta.
Since then Francoeur has bounced around the majors, producing for stretches until eventually the lack of walks, and free swinging hacks do him in. Before the 2014 season it seemed as if Francoeur might be out of baseball, but he latched on with the San Diego Padres who sent him to their Triple-A affiliate the El Paso Chihuahuas. In El Paso Francoeur played decent baseball, though the on base percentage struggles still plagued him. As a side note, in El Paso Francoeur has become most known for being pranked by his teammates. Not once, but twice in fact. Due to a suspension to Cameron Maybin, and the Padres generally dreadful offense, San Diego has now elected to recall Francoeur back to the big league club. That means Francoeur will return this weekend to the place where it all the started to take on his former team.
The Francoeur supernova burned hot and bright in Atlanta, but unfortunately it faded away too quickly. If you are in the right field bleachers this weekend, give Jeff a shout. Heckle him if you want, or maybe tell him you miss him. Whatever you say, I’m sure he will enjoy hearing from you and may even flash you a quick grin. Whether you love him or hate him, he was a fun story in 2005 and is always regarded as one of the nicest guys in the major leagues. His story is the perfect example of how fans and media can get swept up in a narrative and fail to notice a players flaws. I still find myself rooting for “Frenchy”, and hoping one day he will rediscover that spark he had his first year in Atlanta. Just not this weekend.