Quick quiz: Who leads the Nationals in RBIs? It’s Josh Bell, right?
Yes, but it’s not only Bell. Also checking in with 21 RBIs through the season’s first 36 games is an unexpected contributor: Maikel Franco.
While Bell’s offensive exploits have been front and center since opening day, Franco’s contributions have been delivered in a bit more quiet fashion. But sure enough, the veteran third baseman’s two-run homer during Saturday night’s blowout win over the Astros brought him up to Bell’s RBI total and the team lead.
Some of this is a reflection of Juan Soto’s struggles to drive in runs – he has only 11, despite eight homers and an .890 OPS – but it’s also a credit to Franco, who surprisingly finds himself on pace for 95 RBIs at the moment, a total that would shatter his previous career-high of 88.
“He’s been great,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s worked really hard. He and (assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler) have built a really good relationship. They work hard in the batting cages. He’s got a really good routine going on right now.”
Franco’s overall numbers – he’s batting .265/.292/.404 – are hardly eye-catching. But given the situation he was thrust into, handed the everyday third baseman’s job late in spring training when Carter Kieboom suffered an elbow injury, he’s given the Nationals just about everything they reasonably could have asked for at the time.
Franco’s 2022 numbers are roughly in the neighborhood of the career marks he’s established since first reaching the majors in 2014 with the Phillies. Over parts of nine seasons, he has hit .248/.297/.423.
What’s notable is the vast improvement he’s made since last year, when he batted a paltry .210/.253/.355 in 104 games with the Orioles before getting released.
“Honestly, I think for me, we’re showing him a lot of love,” Martinez said. “We felt like he had the potential to bounce back and be the batter he once was. He’s not an old guy, either. I tell him: You’re still in your prime. But we taught him some things. We talked to him about some different things we felt like could help him, and he’s taken advantage of them. He’s going out there and performing and putting some good at-bats together.”
The chief piece of advice the Nationals have given Franco: Lay off low pitches as much as possible and look for something up in the zone.
“He’s a high-ball hitter. Dead high-ball hitter,” Martinez said. “That’s something we always tell him: Don’t chase. Get the ball in the zone. And get your A-swing off every time you swing. He’s done that.
“He’s had a reputation of hitting a lot of groundballs. But at the end of the day, we said here’s where the groundballs come from: The balls are down. You have to get the ball up early in the count. With two strikes, you have to swing the bat. But early in the count, hitter’s counts, just look for the ball up.”