What a Wanderful World

Takiing a look at Wander Franco's fabulous start to his 2023 season

In his still rather young major league career, Wander Franco has been a fascinating case to follow for me, particularly from a fantasy standpoint. The standout Rays shortstop received probably the biggest accolade any prospect this side of Bryce Harper has, being labelled everything from a can’t-miss prospect to the next big thing.

For the most part though, if you rostered Franco throughout his first two seasons in the big leagues, you couldn’t help but be at the very least a little underwhelmed by the production, or lack thereof, for the switch hitter out of the Dominican Republic.

Through the hardships a rookie hitter has to endure in the big leagues, Franco was plenty good, coming up for the second half of 2021, and putting up a .810 OPS, good enough to place him third in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year award. Heading into 2022, expectations were high, with a record-setting extension having been signed with the Rays organization.

Outside of success stealing bases, going eight for eight, 2022 represented a step back on every facet of his game, with Franco failing to stay healthy for half the year, playing only 83 games, and seeing a dip in AVG, OBP, and SLG.

However, heading into 2023, things are looking up, as Franco is one of the key pieces of a phenomenal start to the Rays season, putting himself in the MVP conservation, across 2023’s first 35 games.

Before addressing what’s changed in 2023, I’d like to take a step back and talk a little about the struggles I’ve had with Franco early in his big-league career.

Why I could never get a hold of a Franco share, particularly in dynasty?

As we talked about at the beginning of this piece, Franco’s prospect hype was not only high, but it was as high as possible for virtually any prospect over the last decade or so. A hit tool lauded for days, the type of player you build your franchise around, which an organization like the Rays will commit nearly $200 MM with a very small sample size in the bigs, to work with.

Even in his early days, Franco came with a healthy spotlight to his name, and why shouldn’t he, all signs pointed towards an elite bat.

It’s nothing personal, but when playing fantasy, you need to adopt certain criteria for how you go about things and pursue certain assets in the early rounds, and there’s no rocket science to a lot of it. Sometimes I’ll ask myself simple questions such as:

  • What’s the floor and ceiling of this player?
  • Does the risk justify the reward?
  • Understanding the likelihood of a top-end outcome, and what that would represent for my roster

Asking myself those questions allows each of us to be more clinical about our analysis, and avoid some of those vibes-only picks.

Doing that, I often found myself missing out on Wander Franco in both dynasty and redraft, with the reason for it being rather simple. For as much as I and everyone else was in love with Franco’s hit tool, a few aspects of his game made me question his ceiling as a fantasy player.

  1. Franco’s top ability being his hit tool, combined with his approach, meant that even at his best, Franco’s power would be more of a doubles game rather than a home run one. We love doubles, but the difference between a guy you can rely on for 20 bombs and 30 is quite significant.
  2. Carrying some speed, and playing for a team who actually runs a decent bit, Franco was always going to put up a healthy number of steals, but much like with his power, I didn’t expect him to run wild. Franco is fleet of foot, but a sprint speed in the 67th percentile (2023 mark) isn’t anything that jumps out at you.

Limited power upside, and limited stolen base upside, combined to put a cap on Franco’s upside as a fantasy player in my eyes, and acknowledgment that his once-in-a-generational prospect pedigree virtually guaranteed a blue chip price tag even before he stepped on a major league park,

It ensured I didn’t really have him on many of my rosters.

What changed from 2022 to 2023?

In a way, we’re kind of seeing the two ends of Wander Franco in the past couple of years. Franco hasn’t made any drastic changes to his profile or anything, his Hard Contact% has ticked up a bit, going from 29.2 to 31.4, but nothing outrageous.

What is attention-grabbing is that his Barrel% has gone through the roof, from a 3.5 mark in 2022, to 10.1 in 2023. Franco is finding the ideal launch angle way more often than he did last season.

Using our friend Kyle Bland’s usual metrics, it’s not as if Franco wasn’t displaying his elite contact skills last season, he had a 70-grade contact tool in 2022, and this year is at 65. What’s changed is his ability to get to far more power in 2023, bumping his ISO from .140 to .246.

Even if he were to maintain this level of performance with the bat, which he very well might, it is not as though Franco will provide game-breaking power with the bat, he has seven bombs in 156 plate appearances. That’s a pace for 27 bombs over 600 plate appearances, more or less, the high-end outcome I always envisioned for Franco in that department, and that’s if all continues without a hitch.

We’ve already seen those power numbers come back down a little, after an insane start, but the piece of Franco’s season which really opens up room for maybe another gear that I hadn’t really projected has been his running in the first month-plus.

Franco has nine stolen bases on 13 attempts. Not a particularly great success rate, but the shortstop had only been caught once in 11 tries in the two previous seasons. More so, than the success rate, it’s the number of tries that catches your eye. Franco has more attempts (14) than noted speedsters such as Corbin Carroll (12), Bobby Witt Jr. (12), and Cedric Mullins (11).

If Franco is able to sustain this pace and finds himself in the Top 15 or so in the SB department, that ability so to speak, would take his fantasy game up a notch, and lead me to look at him a little differently heading into next season.

Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Kurt Wasemiller (@KUWasemiller on Twitter / @kurt_player02 on Instagram)

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