Francoeur armed with unique skill
Outfielder racking up assists while scaring off baserunners
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A baseball bounces through the right side of the Mets' infield, the runner on second base begins his sprint and a routine exhibition game no longer is so inconsequential. Instead, it immediately morphs into something far more compelling, a contest between body parts -- two churning legs versus one throwing arm.
Anyone in the ballpark who knows the first thing about the arm recognizes the legs are decided underdogs if they dare venture beyond third base. The arm is a prohibitive favorite. Even if the legs aren't pedestrian, the arm is extraordinary. The legs are those of everyman, almost any man in the big leagues. The arm belongs to Jeff Francoeur, the Mets' right fielder.
Francoeur's arm, in baseball vernacular, is a hose, a weapon comparable with any in the Mets' arsenal. Johan Santana's left arm will be used more, so will the powerful right arm and energized legs of Jose Reyes -- once his thyroid cooperates -- and the bats of David Wright, Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran. But the right fielder's arm appears to be more spectacular than the others, more powerful than most outfield arms and extraordinarily accurate. And its circuitry connects to a brain that had a strong case of arm ego.
Given his druthers, Francoeur may opt for a morning and afternoon on the greens or a Sunday afternoon of football and brewed beverage. But high on any list of his preferred activities is letting one go from about 350 feet from home plate and taking his chances against about 98 percent of baserunners in the game today.
So it will come as no surprise come April 4 when the Mets stage their only at-home dress rehearsal for their 2010 season that Francoeur will be found in the farthest reaches of Citi Field's right field, sending baseballs toward the plate. He wants to measure the power of his arm against the Mo Zone area that has frustrated some hitters.
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"It'd be cool," Francoeur said, "to make a throw from there and to throw one farther than some guys can hit 'em."
Francoeur has strong-armed the National League for five seasons now, throwing out 70 baserunners, intimidating countless others and scaring third-base coaches from San Diego to Queens. "I know," he said with an impish innocence. The mere mention of a runner eliminated from the basepaths by a throw from the outfield, preferably right field, excites him. Energy fills his eyes. His words carry added passion. And the chance to cut someone down puts him in throes of passion.
"It's such a cool part of the game," Francoeur said. "I like it because I do it well. But I'd like it even if I didn't. You don't see it as much as you used to, so when it does happen, it's just cool."
His 70 outfield assists are not only the most in the big leagues since the day he played his first game in 2005; they exceed the second-highest total by 12. Moreover, the runner-up in that span is Alfonso Soriano, an outfielder almost exclusively beginning in 2005. And most of Soriano's assists are the by-products of coaches and runners trying to exploit his weak arm. No coach who appreciates his livelihood ever considers exploiting Francoeur's arm. What's to exploit?
"I wish they'd send more guys," Francoeur said. "I love killing a rally and helping my pitcher, helping my team. You thrown out someone at the plate or at third, you take away scoring position, you might take away their momentum in that inning. I get a real feeling of satisfaction when a guy stares at me after I've gunned him down."
Francoeur's thoughts readily moved to a game at Turner Field on Aug. 15, 2005. The Braves beat the D-backs, 13-8, and the five-run difference could be attributed directly to the rookie right fielder, who hit a three-run home run in the seven-run third inning and who threw out runners at the plate in the first and fifth innings. Luis Gonzalez was the victim in each case.
Gonzalez finally did score in the ninth inning, on a home run by Chris Snyder. He later admitted to looking over his shoulder to see whether Francoeur had retrieved the ball somehow and relayed it to the plate.
"I remember the way he stared at me after the second one," Francoeur said. "That felt good. Guys learn respect for the way you play the game. I appreciate that."
The game against the D-backs was Francoeur's second with two assists. He didn't have another until 2007, the year he won a National League Gold Glove Award, at least partially because of his golden arm. He eliminated two baserunners from scoring position in a game John Smoltz won by one run in May. Later that year, Francoeur had thrown Phillies out at the plate in the first and fourth innings, and had a chance for a third assist in the seventh inning when Jimmy Rollins was on third base with one out. Pat Burrell hit a fly ball to right.
"That was the longest wait," Francoeur said now. "I just wanted the ball to come down so I can get it in. I was so excited. I wanted that third one. How cool would that be, three in a game? It finally comes down and I let it go -- about 30 feet beyond the plate. [I] kind of lost control. And if they had given me a second chance, I probably would have throw it into the stands. I was pumped."
Playing at Citi Field, the home of tall walls and the extra-base hit, may add to Francoeur's assist totals, especially if opposing third-base coaches get frisky. That hardly was the case last summer after a July 10 trade with the Braves put Francoeur in right in Queens. He had five assists, four on the road.
"I think I have a pretty good rep now," Francoeur said. "I see some times when I'm sure a guy's going, and he gets held or they don't send a guy [on third base] when there's a fly ball. And yeah, I have seen some times when a guy on second just slows down as he gets to third. He doesn't make a hard turn. I'd like to think that's because of my arm. I'm getting fewer chances now."
Francoeur's arm might not be put to use more than once in a week now, and so his throwing develops a sense of mystique; like, speaking of arms, reclusive Sandy Koufax. The legend grows even in the absence of additional evidence.
"It gets that way after a while," Andre Dawson said the January morning after his arm helped him gain election to the Hall of Fame. "You gain a reputation that you probably deserve, and no one wants to test your arm. But sometimes I think your reputations get better than your arm. I could still throw when I retired, but I think some third-base coaches who hadn't seen me throw for a while gave me too much credit."
Francoeur has had 25 assists over the past two seasons after throwing out a career-high 19 in 2007. He may have to throw behind runners even more.
"I try that all the time," he said. "It's not just throwing well. It's thinking too."
He acknowledges Ichiro Suzuki is at least as much a force in right field. But Francoeur believes he reigns in the NL. He wants more assists this year to eliminate any doubt that might develop. An occasional spring golfing partner with Tiger Woods and Woods' good friend, John Smoltz, Francoeur said, "It's a cool feeling when you can think you're as good as anyone doing something."
He believes he has a place in the conversation about the best arms ever in the game. He has seen enough clips of Roberto Clemente to know who the best is. Dave Parker, Dwight Evans, Vladimir Guerrero, Raul Mondesi, Rick Ankiel, Brad Hawpe, Jesse Barfield, Dave Winfield and Ellis Valentine are the arms he has heard about. He knows less about Rusty Staub, Carl Furillo, Rocky Colavito and Tris Speaker. And he remains a tad miffed that Dawson was omitted from the Prime 9 presented by the MLB Network.
Kings of Queens
"The Hawk's right there with anyone," Francoeur said.
Staub established the Mets' record for outfield assists, 19, 36 years ago. He, Joel Youngblood, who played at Shea in the late 1970s and early '80s, Valentine (1981-82) and Alex Ochoa (1995-97) have been New York's best outfield arms. Now their reputations and assist totals are challenges for the current right fielder.
Francoeur puts particular emphasis on accuracy, and he believes his arm is accurate as any. "Power doesn't mean anything if you're not accurate," he said. Moreover, his throws can be readily handled. They don't skip so much as they bounce. When Mike Cubbage coached third base for the Mets, he routinely sent runners against Mondesi's well-above-average arm because the Dodgers' right fielder's throws skipped and were quite difficult to handle.
Not so Francoeur.
"Only one problem with Frenchy's thows," Mets catcher Brian Schnieder said last year. "Almost every one, if right on the money, he's gonna get me killed."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.