Unassuming Francis opens for Rockies
Rox ace flies under radar while keeping even keel on mound
Just four left-handed pitchers have won at least 13 games the last three seasons. Three are easy to recognize. Tom Glavine and Andy Pettitte have pitched for high-profile clubs and spent at least part of their careers in New York, and Johan Santana will make his name in the Big Apple now that he's with the Mets.
The other one went on a backpacking tour with his wife through eight European countries and wasn't recognized at all.
"Not a chance -- unless you're a star of the World Cup of rugby or soccer Euro 2008," Jeff Francis said, smiling.
That isn't necessarily unusual. Francis is just beginning to be recognized in Denver, where he helped lead the Rockies to their first World Series appearance in 2007.
The lack of recognition goes with the territory of pitching in the Mountain Time Zone for a team that hadn't been on national television for years until last year's playoffs, and still isn't going to be on much this year despite last season's success. But if Francis' Opening Day start against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium is the beginning of another standout year and more postseason time, neither he nor his club will continue to be overlooked.
It may take all that and more for Francis, who tied a Rockies record for victories while going 17-9 last season, to increase his profile. But you get the feeling Francis would like to spend his career the way he spent vacation, slipping in unnoticed and enjoying himself.
Many of baseball's best pitchers carry a persona that goes hand-in-hand with effectiveness. Take the aforementioned lefties.
Glavine, back with the Braves after four years with the Mets, is a statesman who can drive hitters mad and eloquently explain their frustrations. Pettitte can be recognized by his eyes peering above his glove as he gets the sign from the catcher. It'll be tough to get away from Santana's meticulously groomed goatee and expressive face that'll be the favorite of photographers now that he's away from Minnesota and in a big market.
Francis? Well, he doesn't give you much.
Francis, 27, is cerebral. He majored in physics in college, but he doesn't flaunt it -- possibly because few players or media members are inclined or qualified to discuss the latest article from Popular Science. He looks so youthful that you want to look closely to make sure any facial hair is possible, much less something ominous or distinctive. As for expression, forget it.
Beyond a distinctive Canadian accent -- he was born in Vancouver -- the lack of expression just might be Francis' most notable characteristic. It's also important. The Rockies were 22-12 in Francis' starts last season. After many of the victories and no-decisions the team won, Francis admitted he didn't have his best stuff working, yet that was a secret to the opponent.
"It's almost like you're trying not to let that other team know what you're thinking," Francis said. "If you're ticked, if you don't feel you have much of a shot, you don't want to let them know that. If you feel you've got them nailed in the corner, you don't want to let them know that, either. I guess they know that, if that's the case.
"It's a long game. It's a long season. If you get real excited about pitching a good game, you might face that team later on in the season and you might get complacent."
With three-fifths of the original starting rotation missing the end of the regular season, and veteran right-hander Aaron Cook not returning until Game 4 of a World Series that the Red Sox swept, Francis emerged as the staff leader. He went 9-4 after the All-Star break and won his first two postseason starts before struggling in Game 1 of the World Series.
In his usual fashion, Francis preferred to look at last season as being part of a joyride, not driving it.
"It was a lot of fun," Francis said. "It's nice having the kind of team around me that I do. You've got guys you want to go out and perform for. They want to perform for you. You work as a team. You don't feel like you're out there alone as a pitcher."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.