David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
It was Jeff Francoeur who once famously said, "If on-base percentage is so important, why don't they put it on the scoreboard?" In this day and age, many ballparks do, but that's beside the point.
Back then, during his free-swinging time with the Braves, Francoeur would have preferred to see the statistic be wiped out completely. With his grip-it-and-rip-it mentality, Francoeur, an avid golfer himself, was like baseball's John Daly, a streaky player at his best and hard to watch when he was hacking away.
When Atlanta traded Francoeur to the Mets last July, he arrived with a .282 on-base percentage, the fourth worst among NL starting players. His career mark of .308 was the lowest of any primary corner outfielder with 2,500 at-bats.
To the "Moneyball" disciples, Francoeur was a punch line, the antithesis of what a general manager should build his team around. But no one is laughing at Francoeur this season now that he has transformed himself into a more intelligent hitter.
Just look at the numbers. With two singles yesterday, Francoeur has hit safely in all nine games and is only one game short of tying Darryl Strawberry (1987), Robin Ventura (1999) and David Wright for the second- longest streak to open a season in Mets history. He is batting .438 (14-for-32) with three home runs, seven RBIs and - wait for it - a .513 on-base percentage.
That Francoeur is reaching base more than half the time is mind-boggling for those who followed his career arc through Atlanta, where he was known for power and productivity but never patience.
"I think I'm learning how to hit," Francoeur said. "I still have to remind myself sometimes that I'm still only 26, and I feel like I've taken a big step."
This season, many of those steps have involved a casual stroll to first base. Francoeur's season high for walks is 42 in 2007. That was way up from the previous year's total of 23, both of which came in 162 games. By comparison, David Wright had back-to-back seasons of 94 walks in 2007-08 before dipping to 74 last year.
At this rate, Francoeur is heading toward a once-unthinkable realm for him. He has six walks (second to Wright's 13) in nine games, which puts him on a pace for roughly 108. Francoeur has a more modest number in mind, and is pleased by what that number would mean to his development. "I honestly believe I'll end up walking 60 times this year," he said. "I don't see why not, and that's definitely going to help my on-base percentage. I think the one goal coming into this year was not so much to have thousands of walks but just become a better hitter altogether. Be a guy that is not just hot and cold, hot and cold."
Unlike many aspects of hitting, this does not involve a mechanical adjustment. It's all about a mind-set, and perhaps maturity as well. He believes he's always had a good idea of how pitchers plan to attack him. But now he's thinking more about the situation: the outs, the men on base, the count and how that all factors into his approach.
"If I had to boil it down to one word, I'd say awareness," hitting coach Howard Johnson said. "It's an awareness of himself, an awareness of the opposing pitcher. It's being able to meld all of those things together."
Francoeur says leaving the hometown pressures of Atlanta for a new start in New York definitely helped him ease up a little. So has working with Johnson, who had a strategy for working with Francoeur as soon as he arrived. The two got together during the offseason for a hitting tutorial as well. Francoeur no longer is content to get by on the natural talent that made him a first-round draft pick in 2002.
"I've hit close to 30 home runs," Francoeur said. "I've driven in 100 runs. I've done a lot of that. Now my goal is take that next step, to be a more complete hitter. And if I can do that, I can really help a team win. I think it's important for me to be able to get on base and let guys behind me like [Rod] Barajas drive the ball. I can score from first with those guys."