Francoeur looking to bury demons of 2008 (cont.)
It was a far cry from his 2005 debut, when he batted .300/.336./.549 in 70 games. The fateful cover of SI had called him "The Natural" and asked, "Can anyone be this good?"
As it turned out, even Francoeur was not that good. Although he had 29 home runs and 103 RBIs in his first full season in 2006, he posted an astonishingly low .293 on-base percentage, due mostly to drawing only 23 walks in 686 plate appearances. In 2007, his average rose by 33 points, to .293, but his power dropped to 19 home runs.
But all of that was merely a prelude to his puzzling 2008, when he staggered out of the gate and was finally sent to the minor leagues on July 4 with a .234 average and .287 on-base percentage. Braves general manager Frank Wren called it the toughest decision he'd made in 23 years in the majors and manager Bobby Cox said, "He could be any one of our sons. We love him that much."
The tough love approach rankled Francoeur at first. "That was a humbling experience to be sure," he says. "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd be back where I was."
He wasn't there long. After going 7 for 13 in three games at Double A Mississippi, he was recalled on July 7. He was back in the majors, but his swing didn't come with him. He hit just .245 with three home runs and 30 RBIs in 70 games after returning, but worse than his performance was that for perhaps the first time in his career, he wasn't having any fun.
His first move after the season was to try and forget about the season as soon as possible. He and some teammates went to Costa Rica for a week, followed by a vacation with his family to St. Simon's and then a hunting trip.
When Francoeur finally settled back in Atlanta and began preparing for this season, he brought an improved mindset and an overhauled approach at the plate to his workouts. He readily admits that he did not know the strike zone in his first couple seasons and instead got by "on raw talent." He shortened his stance and his stride while focusing on bringing his hands all the way back in an effort to improve his balance.
"I'm driving the ball gap-to-gap more and using my hands," he says. "My swing had always been going out to get the ball and it cost me some power. It is weird, but for me to go to the next level and be the player I want to be I had to make some adjustments. I knew I could not go out there next year with the same approach and put up better numbers than I did last year."
The early returns have been positive. "He's been very focused all offseason," Wren said. "He's become very aware of himself."
Francoeur has also earned rave reviews from hitting-session partners Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira and Mark DeRosa. His weight, which had ballooned to 240 pounds last year, has dropped to 222, and Francoeur once again resembles the strong, wiry type that teammate Brian McCann said he was in high school, when those two first became close.
Francoeur is eager to face 2009 and to bury, once and for all, the demons of 2008. He's in the midst of an arbitration battle with the Braves, but rather than hold out he's reporting to spring training on February 10, four days early. And when he does, he says, "I'm done talking about last year. I'm not gonna look back."
His wife, one of the first to notice his diminishing interest in his job last year, now sees "a little bit of that swagger back in my step," he says. "I just turned 25 a couple weeks ago and I don't see any reason why I won't come back and be the type of player I know I can be."
If he's looking for encouragement, perhaps he can recall how that golf tournament finished. Would he fold, allowing a disappointing moment to prevent him from playing his best? Or would he take an otherwise unimportant event seriously, if only to test himself and prove he was better than his score indicated? He chose the latter.
"I made a 25-foot putt on that [15th] hole," he says proudly. "Then I came back with a 77 the next day, finished in the top 10. I was pretty pleased with that."