DENVER — There are few things more desirable in professional sport than a good, reliable left-handed starting pitcher like the Colorado Rockies’ Jeff Francis.
That’s because in baseball, the matter of one’s “handedness” is a bigger factor than in almost any other sport. Since 85% of us in the general population are right-handed (for reasons that the experts still don’t really know), it stands to reason that most pitchers are part of that majority.
In a sport where a ball can be hurled at almost 100 miles per hour over a distance of only 60 feet, 6 inches, tiny things make for big relative advantages, and one of them is that left-handed hitters stand an overall better chance of hitting a ball thrown by a right-handed pitcher than a right-handed colleague might.
So, baseball has always disproportionately full of slugging left-handed hitters, including the likes of Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, to mention two among thousands.
But if it’s ever-so-slightly easier for a left-handed hitter to hit a right-handed pitcher, it is far, far harder for that lefty to hit the pitches thrown by one in his own minority (left-handed) group.
Nobody really knows why this is the case, either (theories abound, naturally). But it is far harder for a left-handed hitter to hit a left-handed pitcher than for a right-handed hitter to hit a right-handed pitcher. Being a left-handed hitter through high school and college myself, I think it has to do with the rotation of planet and feel I’d have done much better against lefties if I’d played in the Southern Hemisphere.
When it comes to left-handed (also known as “southpaw”) pitchers, there have been some truly great ones in major league baseball. The modern (i.e. my own) era knows the likes of Warren Spahn, Whitey Ford, Sandy Koufax, Jim Kaat, Steve Carlton, Tommy John, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine. But aside from this elite Hall of Fame list compiled from among the thousands who have played in the last 50 years (I may have missed one or two), the drop off to lefties with only a season or two of brilliance is a dramatic one, indeed. In earlier days of baseball, according to an Internet perusal, it wasn’t any different.
For also seemingly inexplicable reasons, the rap on lefty pitchers is that they tend to be erratic, a tad emotionally cockeyed, wild and inconsistent. Before he brought it all under control, Koufax was wild as a March hare. It took amazing patience and great coaching to produce dividends, which turned out to be huge. Perhaps the best pitcher of all time, pundits claimed it was when Koufax figured out how to get his curve ball over the plate that he became unhittable. But for those of us who saw him struggle when he first showed up in the majors, the first breakthrough for him was to get anything over the plate, at all.
All this brings me to the subject of Francis, a young lefthander with the added burden of pitching at his home games in the major leagues’ notoriously most hitter-friendly ballpark, Coors Field in mile-high Denver. The light atmosphere of that elevation, the only park in baseball anywhere near that altitude, provides amazingly little resistance to line-drive hits headed for the fences.
Witness last Sunday afternoon, as I did, when on a clear, mild day, seven home runs shot out of the park, including two grand slams and a game-winning pinch hit drive that was caught on the fly by the same Rockies’ relief pitcher in the bullpen who subsequently came in to seal a comeback from a 7-0 deficit to a 9-8 Rockies win.
That’s the kind of environment in which Francis set a major league franchise record last Saturday night in only his second full season as a starter. He notched his 13th win of the season, the most for any Rockies pitcher this year, and by so doing, set a new team record for career victories by a lefthander.
Never mind that his career win total is only 30. For that modest total to be a team record says a lot about the effectiveness of left-handed pitching generally, and especially when throwing in mile-high Denver for a team that doesn’t win much to begin with.
But for baseball talent scouts, appreciative of the extenuating circumstances, the number should get off a lot of bells and whistles.
Francis brings other highly-desirable traits that have contributed to his success, including a very stable and low-key demeanor (the opposite of the lefty stereotype) that is perhaps explainable by being typically Canadian. He’s from Vancouver. He rarely exhibits any emotion on the playing field, or even on his way to the dugout following either success or failure.
What one might call his baby face (he’s been called a “baby-faced assassin” and a “baby giraffe” because of his height) has rarely been seen breaking a real smile in public.
In fact, some can see in his face a vague resemblance to Koufax.
Clearly, however, he doesn’t have Koufax’ stuff. But then, who ever has? Nonetheless, he can mix up four pitches very effectively, and when he gets them where he wants them, he can become almost unhittable, himself.
A moderately-quick fastball (around 90 MPH), cutter (weren’t they once called “sliders”?), curve and change-up all work to his distinct advantage when he is “on.”
Last Saturday night in Denver, he was not “on,” however, and got roughed up for six runs in five innings before being removed. Still, it was enough to win as his team had built a big lead and wound up prevailing, 10-9.
Francis’ biggest issue seems to be his inability to figure out why he’s sometimes more effective than others.
In a brief conversation with me following Saturday’s game, he said he knows that his inability to put his fastball exactly where he wants to is the cause of his troubles.
But, he admitted, he does not exactly know what it is about his pitching mechanics that causes that to happen, or not to happen. “It’s hard to try to figure it out in the midst of the game,” he said. “You just try to do the best you can.”
He said he was fully aware that he was just “off” for the entire game, and had no idea what to do to correct himself. But he said he toughed it out because the team still had a chance to win and eventually did.
A big tall, 6 ft. 5 in. lefty, Francis has a high leg kick and unravels his body to plant his right leg and sweep his long left arm toward home plate as he releases the ball. It’s a fluid, full-bodied delivery that doesn’t put so much strain on the throwing arm that he’ll burn it out in a couple years. But there are a lot of “moving parts” to that delivery, and there’s every reason to believe that if there’s a pitching coach out there, either in Denver or somewhere, that can help him master it on every pitch, he will endure to perhaps join that elite list of southpaw greats.
He’s young enough (he’ll be only 26 next January 8, in case you want to send him a card), he’s got the repertoire of pitches, and he’s got the right attitude. But like a basketball player who can’t achieve consistency shooting free throws, he’s not going to master his game all by himself, not without the help of some Hall of Fame coaching.
Here’s hoping that he finds that.