Julio Franco played in the majors until he was 49 years old. Drink that in for a moment. Forty-nine! And because of that fact, I have to admit that I love the guy. We all did, right? However, much to my chagrin, Franco doesn’t deserve to be a Hall of Famer. On the other hand, stranger things have happened than someone of Franco’s value being inducted into the Hall. Truly, Franco looks pretty similar to Travis Jackson, a guy who the Veterans Committee inducted in 1982. Earle Combs was a different player, but again, very similar in value to Franco, and the VC put him into Cooperstown in 1970. So just to be clear, Franco isn’t very close to being a HoMEr, but he kinda could be a Hall of Famer, if the undeserving kind.
There are few easier paths to the Hall than 3000 hits. If you reached that mark, you either used steroids, aren’t eligible, or you’re in the Hall. But Franco only had 2586, and with Albert Pujols recently passing him, he stands at 85th in history. He’s 414 hits short of 3000. But what if we could find those 414 hits somewhere in Franco’s career? We’re only talking about three hits per month over the course of his 23 seasons. But asking for three hits per month is a little strange. And there are other ways to find hits for Franco, which is exactly what we’re going to do in this post.
In January of 1982, the Philadelphia Phillies shipped their starting shortstop, Larry Bowa, to the Chicago Cubs in a sort of challenge trade for Ivan DeJesus. Sure, there was this throw in who many of you probably know, Ryne Sandberg. Those details aside, the Phillies had a bit of an investment in DeJesus. Despite coming off a .194/.276/.233 line with a OPS+ of 44 in 1981, he was to be the glue to an infield on a team that hoped to compete for a playoff spot. As it turns out, they finished only three games behind the NL East winner, St. Louis. And perhaps DeJesus’ .239/.309/.313 line with a 73 OPS+ had something to do with that. In addition to stinky hitting, his Rfield was -2 in ’82. His DRA was -8. Terrible hitter, below average defender, likely shouldn’t have been playing. Maybe the Phillies could have used a kid tearing the cover off the ball in Oklahoma City. Franco was 23, and he finished 12th in the American Association in homers and tied for 5th in steals. He was ready. A bit more evidence of such is the eight days he spent in April as the starting SS, during which time he hit .261. You know why he was the starting shortstop? It’s not because DeJesus was out. It’s because Mike Schmidt was out. DeJesus slid over to third, and Franco was promoted to play short. This makes me think Franco was at least the equivalent of DeJesus defensively. And he was certainly superior at the plate.
Let’s say GM Pat Owens, manager Pat Corrales, and the Phillies decided to stick with Franco. And let’s say he performed at approximately the same level he did in those eight days as the starting shortstop. Six hits in eight games. That would translate to 80 hits in a pretty conservative 120-game season. Franco actually totaled eight hits in 1982, so in our little scenario here, he’d gain 72 more. That means 2658 hits, passing Ed Delahanty, Jimmie Foxx, and Ted Williams on the all-time list.
In a blockbuster deal in December of 1982, Franco was shipped with four others to the Cleveland Indians for Von Hayes. He immediately became the starting shortstop for the Indians and began hitting just as quickly. He shifted to second base in 1988, was traded to Texas in 1989, won the AL batting title in 1991, and became a full-time DH in 1993.
While Franco played only 35 games in 1992, this study isn’t speculation about what may have happened with health. It’s about what may have happened had his career taken a bit of a different shape. So for these eleven years, I’m not going to add any hits. Franco stands at 2658.
Franco signed a free agent contract to be the designated hitter for the Chicago White Sox in 1994. And hit he did. In just 112 games, he set career highs with 20 home runs and 98 runs batted in. He slashed .319/.406/.510. In other words, though he turned 36 during the season, he was far from done.
Well, actually, he didn’t turn 36 during the season. That’s because the 1994 season ended after games of August 10. Players went on strike the next day, wiping out the World Series for the first time since 1904.
Franco was very healthy in 1994, playing in 112 of the 113 White Sox contests. During those games he compiled 138 hits, good for an average of 1.23 per game. Let’s say Franco played in 48 of the 49 games that were cancelled. And let’s say he kept up the same hit rate. That would have meant 59.14 hits. Okay, only 59. With those hits, Franco moves to 2717 for his career. Harry Heilmann, George Davis, and Billy Williams are now in the rear view mirror.
The work stoppage of 1994 carried over into the 1995 season. Well, for most players. But Julio Franco isn’t most players. Rather than playing the shortened Major League schedule in 1995, Franco signed in Japan to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines with Pete Incaviglia and Hideki Irabu. He hit .306 and won the Japanese equivalent of the Gold Glove playing first base. Yeah, he could still play. But how many hits did he lose?
Let’s take the average from 1994 and 1996 to estimate what Franco lost in 1995. We’ll give him 197 for the strike-shortened 1994 season, and he had 139 in 1996. Taking the average, that’s 168. And it means Franco’s up to 2885 for his career. Lou Gehrig, Ken Griffey, and Babe Ruth now all trail Franco, and we need to find just 115 more hits to get him to 3000.
Back in the States and back in Cleveland in 1996, Franco played quite well, though he missed some time in July and August with various maladies. Hell, he was getting old. He was 38 at the end of 1996. Maybe he was breaking down? His .322/.407/.470 line suggested otherwise.
However, his 1997 made us think the end was near, at least in some ways. But before that end, for the first time since 1991, Franco was back at second base. Thirty-five games at a key defensive position for a guy who’s about through? That’s what happens when you roster David Justice and Jim Thome for DH and 1B. And when you roster Tony Fernandez to play 2B, there just aren’t many at-bats for Franco. And with an OPS+ of just 91, the Indians released him on August 13.
Later that day, he was signed as a free agent for the rest of the Milwaukee Brewers’ existence in the American League. He wasn’t very good, hitting just .241 in 42 games. Then again, his OBP was still a sparkling .373. He seemingly struggled due to a depressed .300 BABIP.
And the next season he was out of baseball.
Okay, he was just out of American baseball. He returned to the Chiba Lotte Marines, and he kept hitting. This time his line was .290/.379/.464. And he led the team in hits with 141 in 131 games. Plus he was healthy, missing only three games on the season. But perhaps we have a problem. Maybe he went to Japan this time because he wssn’t good enough to compete in American baseball. And in this study we’re only crediting Franco if he were a good option. So to explore whether or not he would have been a good choice for an AL team, we have to check out the other designated hitters around the league.
Team Player OPS+ Seattle Edgar Martinez 158 Anaheim Tim Salmon 142 New York Darryl Strawberry 132 Oakland Matt Stairs 131 Boston Reggie Jefferson 128 Chicago Frank Thomas 126 Toronto Jose Canseco 114 Baltimore Harold Baines 114 Cleveland David Justice 114 Texas Lee Stevens 110 Minnesota Paul Molitor 86 Tampa Bay Paul Sorrento 85 Detroit Geronimo Berroa 71 Kansas City Terry Pendleton 65
As it turns out, Franco would likely have outplayed Berroa or Pendleton in 1998, and he could have kept up with Molitor and Sorrento just fine as well. So let’s speculate on his hits.
During 1997 he totaled 116 hits in 120 games, 0.97 per game. Though he was healthy in Japan, we shouldn’t expect more than 120 games just given his talent level at this point in his career. And let’s decrease his rate of hits per game to 0.90. That means he’d only put up 108 hits. Those extra knocks bring him to 2993 for his career. He’s ahead of Al Simmons, Rogers Hornsby, and Frank Robinson and knocking on the door of immortality.
Let’s not bother with a lot of speculation here. Franco struck out in his only at-bat in 1999. And he didn’t play in 2000. Then from 2001 until 2007, when he turned 49 toward season’s end, he averaged 58.43 hits per year. Let’s give him those hits in 1999 and 2000, 116 more. That’s 3109 career hits, which is more than Roberto Clemente, Al Kaline, Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, and Rickey Henderson. And 3109 hits would get Julio Franco into the Hall of Fame.
No, this section isn’t about the next year during which I’m speculating Franco might get a hit or three. It’s exploring the game during which he strokes #3000, at least on my speculative numbers from 1982-2000. On Saturday, June 4 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Bobby Cox saw to it to bat Julio Franco fourth. And hell, the Braves were in first place, so it’s not like they were doing anything spectacularly wrong by cleaning up with Franco.
With no hits in his first four times up, Franco still sat at 2999 when he stepped up to the plate in the ninth inning of a 0-0 tie. Batting against Mike Gonzalez, Marcus Giles singled with one out. Brian Jordan grounded into a fielder’s choice, so he was at first base with two outs and Franco at the plate. Julio Franco’s long fly ball to right fell for a double, a win, and #3000.
Congratulations, Julio! And welcome to really fake Cooperstown.