WASHINGTON — It has been two months since the Phillies began trying to change Maikel Franco's swing path in an attempt to get him to hit more balls in the air.
So far, it hasn't worked.
Franco remains among the most extreme ground-ball hitters in the majors at 52 percent. That's actually up from his 45.4 percent mark last season and, as manager Gabe Kapler and hitting coach John Mallee see it, far too high for a hitter with Franco's prodigious power.
And so, rather than start Friday night in the opener of a pivotal three-game series against the Washington Nationals, Franco put in extra work in the batting cage before the game and took a seat on the bench while rookie Jesmuel Valentin played third base.
"It's kind of trial and error with Maik and trying to find the right messaging and trying to find the right fixes to help him get the ball in the air a little more frequently," Kapler said. "Look, he's so talented that, if he hits a stretch where he's himself and kind of the guy that can get the ball in the air more frequently, maybe we continue to roll him out there on a regular basis. When you're not playing, you have a chance to focus on your craft."
In late April, Kapler and Mallee talked about getting righty-swinging Franco to tilt his shoulders skyward and more toward left-center field. The idea was to change his swing path and turn the balls he was scorching on the ground to shortstop and third base into doubles and home runs.
At the outset of the experience, Franco got on a hot streak. He went 19-for-55 (.345) with five homers in 14 games from April 24 through May 9. Since then, though, he's batting .179 and slugging .253 with two homers and an impossibly low .235 on-base percentage in 102 plate appearances, a lack of production that led to Kapler benching Franco when J.P. Crawford came off the disabled list two weeks ago.
When Crawford broke his left hand earlier this week, it seemed Franco would resume getting most of the playing time at third base. But Kapler said the organization wants to get a longer look at Valentin, too, especially if Franco doesn't force his way into the lineup by getting on base and driving the ball in the air.
"What makes a major-league third baseman is a guy who gets on base and hits homers and plays good defense," Kapler said. "Right now, Maik's dealing with working on his 'D' and making that better and he's also dealing with adding one more offensive tool to the third-base mix. The home runs are going to be there. If you gave him 500 plate appearances, he's going to hit you 25 homers. But that doesn't make a third baseman at the major-league level long-term."
Veteran reliever Pat Neshek will begin a minor-league assignment Saturday at high-A Clearwater, the latest step in his recovery from a strained right forearm. The sidearming righthander hasn't appeared in a game yet this season for the Phillies after straining his shoulder in spring training and his forearm last month.
The Phillies haven't outlined a timetable for Neshek's return, although Kapler said there's an "outside chance" he could be ready by the end of next week's series against the New York Yankees at Citizens Bank Park. General manager Matt Klentak recently described Neshek as "probably as good a bullpen arm as a team is going to add" before the July 31 trade deadline.
Neshek posted a 1.59 ERA, 69 strikeouts and only six walks in 62 1/3 innings last season for the Phillies and the Colorado Rockies. The Phillies re-signed him to a two-year, $16.25 million contract in the offseason.