After two games as a pinch-hitter, Maikel Franco returned to the Phillies' starting lineup Tuesday in a rare spot: eighth in the order.
Franco turned in one of his better outings of the season. Not only did he make a game-saving defensive play in a 3-2 win over the Orioles, but he also reached base on three of his four plate appearances, going 2-for-3 with an intentional walk and scoring a run.
That performance was no coincidence, theorized manager Gabe Kapler, who promptly slotted Franco into the same spot for Wednesday afternoon's homestand finale.
It was a good move again. In the seventh inning of the 4-1 victory, Franco came within a foot or two of hitting a ball into the first row of the right-field seats, instead settling for a single and a 1-for-3 stat line.
"I actually think hitting eighth is a good place for a power hitter and a good place for a guy who is working on seeing more pitches, for various reasons," Kapler said. "It's nice to have a guy who can pop a homer right in front of the pitcher, and then secondarily, if a guy is trying to see more pitches, a lot of times he [will] because the opposing pitcher is trying to pitch carefully to him."
National League statistics back up Kapler's claim: eighth-spot hitters have walked at a higher rate than seventh-spot hitters this season despite batting, on average, 23 points lower. Franco hasn't experienced that effect, at least yet. Both his walks while batting eighth recently have been intentional, and his 6.6 percent walk rate this season remains well below the league average of 8.9.
But the move does seem to have affected his ability to reach base one way or another. The third baseman has started and hit eighth four times over the last two weeks. He has gone 5-for-11 in those games.
Although the Phillies' pitchers have predictably struggled to convert Franco's frequent trips to first into runs, the efficient outings have helped the 25-year-old up his batting average from .240 on June 22 to .263 entering Thursday's off day.
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Franco said he hasn't been thinking much about his spot in the order. He has, after all, batted all over the Phillies lineup this season. Instead, he's focusing on simply ensuring he's in the order at all.
"I know [when] I'm in the lineup, I've got an opportunity to do something good for my team, and that's what I do," he said. "It doesn't really matter if I hit at three, at four, at five, or at eight. I just try to be ready … if I've got a good situation."
And the colorful Dominican still has room to improve, especially in the power category. Even if Wednesday's long ball had made it out of the yard, it would've been just his third homer in 30 games — proof that his ongoing efforts to tilt his shoulders up and increase his launch angle have not paid dividends yet.
Franco's recent successes have nevertheless not gone overlooked.
"He's been more patient," Kapler said. "You can tell that he's looking to drive the ball to right-center field, that he's looking to put the ball in the air, and he's doing that pretty effectively as well. He's having higher-quality at-bats across the board."