In Part 9 of our Hall of Fame series, we examine the case for and against John Franco. You can find the first eight parts of the series here:
After Franco established himself as one of the game’s elite left-handed relievers, the Reds traded him to the Mets prior to the 1990 season. The Brooklyn native spent his next 14 years in New York and continued his excellent pitching. During that time, Franco pitched to a 3.10 ERA (77 ERA-) and a 3.60 FIP (87 FIP-), with 7.58 K/9, 3.54 BB/9, and 0.69 HR/9, and averaged 20 saves in 50.0 innings per year. After a long run as the Mets’ closer, Franco became the team’s set-up man and was an integral part of two playoff bullpens in 1999 and 2000.
Franco retired as the Mets’ all-time saves leader with 276 saves. His 695 appearances are the most in franchise history, and, among qualified pitchers, the lefty finished sixth in adjusted ERA (77 ERA-) and 13th in adjusted FIP (87 FIP-). Due to his fine pitching, his long tenure with the team, and his New York roots, Franco was a fan favorite who became strongly identified with the Mets.
The case for
Franco enjoyed a very long run of success as a reliever. In his 21 big league seasons, he pitched to a 2.89 ERA (73 ERA-) and a 3.45 FIP (86 FIP-), with 424 saves, 7.04 K/9, 3.58 BB/9, and 0.59 HR/9 in 1,245.2 innings of work.
Franco retired second to Lee Smith on the all-time saves list, and is now fourth on the list to Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Smith. Franco has the most saves in the history of the game among left-handers. Furthermore, along with those three relievers and Billy Wagner, Franco is one of just five pitchers to ever reach the 400-saves plateau, which he did in 1999 (and which you can watch in the clip below). Over the course of his career, the left-hander saved at least 28 games in a season 11 times, and led his league in saves three times.
Franco wasn’t just a workhorse who racked up a ton of saves; he was also an extremely effective run preventer. Among relievers with at least 800.0 innings pitched, Franco ranks 10th all time in adjusted ERA (73 ERA-), and second among lefties. What’s even more remarkable is how long he remained effective. ERA- is a great stat because it expresses a player’s ERA relative to the rest of the league, while adjusting for the park, league, and year in which the player played. It puts ERA on a scale of 100, where 100 is league average, 90 is 10% better than league average, and 110 is 10% worse.
By ERA-, Franco had at least a 30%-better-than-league-average ERA 12 times. Most players don’t even stick around the game for that long. In addition to his 12 excellent years, Franco had several more that were still very productive. By FIP-, which does the same thing as ERA-, except for fielding-independent pitching, Franco was at least 20% better than league average eight times, and at least 15% better 12 times.
Franco was particularly good during his lengthy peak, which lasted from 1984 to 1997. In that 14-year span, he pitched to a 2.57 ERA (67 ERA-) and a 3.25 FIP (84 FIP-), with 6.74 K/9, 3.42 BB/9, and 0.49 HR/9, and averaged 26 saves in 67.0 innings per year for the Reds and the Mets. During that time, Franco made four All-Star Teams, received MVP votes on two separate occasions, finished seventh in Cy Young voting in 1994, and won two Rolaids Relief Man Awards.
While Franco only played in two postseasons, he pitched very well in both of them: In his 14.1 innings of postseason work for the Mets in 1999 and 2000, the lefty gave up just three runs—good for a 1.88 ERA—and posted 6.3 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9, while allowing no home runs. His biggest playoff moment came in Game 2 of the 2000 NLDS, with the Mets down 1-0 in the series. Franco entered that game in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on first that he inherited from Benitez. After getting the first two outs, Franco faced Barry Bonds as the winning run, with the tying run on first base. Bonds worked Franco to a full count. Then, in a dramatic moment, Franco threw a nasty changeup that nicked the inside corner for a called third strike to end the game and even the series at one:
As for Franco’s place in baseball history, he was clearly one of the better relief pitchers to ever play the game. Franco was the rare reliever who maintained a high level of performance, virtually year in and year out, for a very long period of time. However, ranking Franco among the game's greatest relievers is a tricky task, given how much the position has changed. Relievers used to pitch many more innings than they do now, and often for multiple innings at a time. Today, they rarely throw more than one inning per appearance, and the game’s elite relievers are typically reserved for higher-leverage moments, such as save situations.
That’s why the traditional Hall of Fame metrics—like JAWS, which we’ve been using throughout this series, and which is based on wins above replacement (WAR)—might not apply well to relievers. JAWS will typically favor old-school relievers who threw more innings, as their WAR totals reflect their greater workload. For this reason, JAWS ranks Franco as just the 46th-best reliever in the history of the game. That’s impressive, and Franco ranks higher than other great relievers, like Mike Marshall, Rick Aguilera, John Wetteland, Jeff Reardon, Troy Percival, and Robb Nen. However, JAWS may underestimate Franco’s career, given the context in which he played.
Indeed, there are arguably much better metrics than WAR—ERA and FIP, for example—to evaluate modern-day relievers. As was mentioned earlier, Franco compares very favorably to the all-time greats by ERA. In fact, he had a better adjusted ERA than three of the five relievers in the Hall of Fame: Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage, and Rollie Fingers.
Given relievers' new emphasis on getting high-leverage outs, another good stat to use is win probability added (WPA). WPA measures the change in win expectancy from the moment a pitcher took the mound to the moment he left it. For example, if the Mets had a 90% chance of winning the game when Franco took the mound, and a 100% chance of winning after he got the save, Franco’s WPA was 10%, or 0.10.
By that metric, Franco’s 17.99 career WPA ranks 20th all time among relievers, and third among lefties. (Note that WPA calculations only start in 1974, so they exclude some older players.) Franco’s WPA is better than those of Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley and Fingers. And remember, while 20th place might not sound great, Franco’s prime lasted from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, when the closer role was still transitioning to what it is today. He therefore wasn't always used as a modern-day closer would be, even when he technically held that title.
When you combine his success in high-leverage situations, his elite run prevention, and his status as one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball history, Franco looks like a stronger dark horse Hall of Fame candidate than some would expect.
The case against
By traditional JAWS metrics, Franco falls well below all five relievers currently in the Hall of Fame: Eckersley, Hoyt Wilhelm, Gossage, Sutter, and Fingers. As a result, Franco’s 19.9 JAWS is significantly lower than the average Hall of Fame reliever’s score of 34.4. Franco also ranks behind 45 relievers not in the Hall, including Jeff Montgomery, Doug Jones, Tom Henke, Keith Foulke, and Dan Quisenberry.
Franco’s problem is twofold: First, he threw fewer innings than most of the relievers ahead of him in JAWS. Not coincidentally, most of those relievers played before Franco and would not be considered modern-day "closers." Second, of those who threw fewer innings than Franco, most were more dominant than Franco in the innings they did pitch. Henke, Foulke, and Quisenberry are good examples of that.
In short, Franco is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Although he played for a number of years, he didn’t accumulate the same workload as the elite relievers of yesteryear. Compared to more contemporary relievers, while Franco had many great seasons, he rarely reached their level of dominance.
To see just how dominant modern-day closers have become, consider that Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, and Trevor Hoffman are among the nine relievers who posted better adjusted ERAs than Franco did in at least 800.0 innings of work. If you expand the criteria to 700.0 innings, the list grows to include Joe Nathan, Foulke, Troy Percival, and Armando Benitez.
Had Franco pitched in a different era, he could have overcome his relative lack of dominance by throwing more innings. That would have put his overall value closer to that of Gossage, Sutter, and Fingers—whose adjusted ERAs were all worse than Franco’s. Unfortunately, Franco played during a transition period for his position, and therefore can’t be considered either a legendary old-school reliever or an elite modern-day closer.
Prospects for induction
Franco’s first and only year on the Hall of Fame ballot was 2011, when he received 4.6% support from the baseball writers. Franco fell just short of the 5.0% needed to stay on the ballot for another year. His next opportunity for consideration will be in 2023 by the Expansion Era Committee, and he will be eligible for consideration every three years after that.
In today’s game, relief pitchers are enjoying greater prominence as the game becomes more specialized and starters throw fewer and fewer innings. If Hall voters become more open to voting for relievers, perhaps a reassessment of Franco’s long and impressive career could reopen the door for him one day on the Expansion Era ballot.