Since many of you may not have seen this before, I'm reprinting my interview with Jeff Francoeur that I conducted over at Baseball Digest Daily back in May.
Here it is...
This next interview is quite possibly the most interesting I've conducted to date. In the moments leading up to the phone call from Jeff Francoeur, I really had no expectations for this interview. I didn't know enough about Jeff's life beyond professional baseball. I knew he was a good prospect, but he couldn't be as good as Andy Marte. Yes, Jeff was among the minor league "elite," but how many top 20 prospects ever really make an impact? Besides, anyone and everyone saw that this guy couldn't buy a walk. In this new age of Sabermetrics, accusations like that pretty much spell doom for anyone less than 22 years of age. And still, here I was, waiting for Mr. Jeff Francoeur...who in fact was 30 minutes late!
Then something interesting happened. When Jeff called me, the first thing he did was apologize for being late. He mentioned that he just got back from morning workouts that ran a little longer than usual. There was something about him that immediately grabbed my attention. Jeff seemed to have the utmost respect for me, someone he never met before this day. His manners were unmatched by any player I've ever met. And even though he spoke with an air of confidence, he was as equally humble. Jeff brought a passion for baseball, a passion that would really get me pumped up to interview this guy.
Jeffrey Brondan Francoeur was the 23rd overall pick in the 2002 amateur draft. While he considers it an honor to have been selected in the 1st round, Jeff seems even more excited that it was the Braves that actually selected him. "Being a first round pick was very honorable for all the work I put in, but at the same time, it was really neat to get drafted by my home town team. It really made it extra special." A native of Georgia, Jeff has been a lifelong Braves fan and made no bones about how exciting it was to be chosen by Atlanta. "I really just wanted to go to the Braves," he says. "It was kind of neat that it worked out that way."
Making the decision to play professional baseball wasn't as easy as it seemed though for young Jeff. He excelled at football and baseball in high school and had already signed a letter of intent to attend Clemson University. Jeff was a star defensive back and was heavily recruited by many of the top Division I collegiate football programs. Jeff laughs about it when he thinks back, "At first I think I got carried away with it all. Football is so big in Georgia. The biggest sport in Georgia is football and the next biggest sport is recruiting! It was hard not to get excited when guys like (Bobby) Bowden and (Steve) Spurrier called." In the end though, Jeff felt he wanted to dedicate himself to baseball. "By my senior year (of high school), I pretty much knew what I was going to do," Jeff says. "I didn't want to spread myself too thin. I wanted to give all of myself to either football or baseball, and I chose baseball."
When speaking of the adjustments he's had to make going from high school to the pros, Jeff reiterates what many other young player have stated before him. "The biggest challenge for me is to come out every day and play the game at the same level. My goal is to put together consistent at bats, day in and day out." In addition, Jeff also had to make the transition from being a two sport athlete to a year round baseball player. He sees the benefits of playing professional baseball more and more everyday though. "It's unbelievable how much smoother my swing is now compared to two years ago," an obviously pleased Jeff says. "I was so used to playing baseball for six months and then football for the next six months. I'd go through a time where I'd just forget about baseball. My swing was all messed up."
There are loads of scouts that drool over Jeff's five tool ability, but at the same time, others criticize his lack of plate discipline. When I asked Jeff about his inability to draw a walk, or lay off bad pitches, he came back with an answer that even Billy Beane would appreciate. "Yes, of course I want to improve my plate discipline. If you ask me, it's the number one thing I work on. I am trying hard to lay off bad pitches." But Jeff's not concerned. "It's not something I worry about though. I'm only 21. A lot of guys compare the plate discipline of say, a 28 year-old player to that of a 21 year-old player. Of course the 28 year-old is going to have better plate discipline. He's seen a lot more pitches." Jeff feels he'll grow into a hitter that recognizes pitches better, but he won't do that if it costs him his edge. "I go up to the plate looking to drive the ball," a confident Francoeur says. "I want to bring runners in. I live for RBIs. The Braves aren't looking for me to go up to the plate and lose my aggressiveness." Jeff brings up an interesting comparison. He recalls reading a Baseball America article last year that mentioned Carlos Beltran's stats as a minor leaguer at Wilmington. "It's interesting how few walks he (Beltran) drew. And look at him now. I feel like I've made great strides in my plate discipline, but at the same time, I want to approach each at bat with the confidence that I can hit anything a pitcher throws at me."
Jeff obviously brings an enormous energy to the game and credits his enthusiasm and competitiveness to his brother and father. "I grew up playing baseball with my brother who is five years older than me. He and his friends would get together and play every day. If I didn't keep pushing myself, I would never have been able to keep up with those guys!" he says with a competitive drive very apparent in his voice. Jeff has learned not to take anything for granted and hasn't lost an ounce of appreciation for the gifts that he has. "Shoot, my dad puts on a suit every day and sits at a desk," he says humbly. "There's nothing wrong with that at all. But I'm really lucky to be able to get up each morning and run and hit and workout. If I ever get tired of doing that, I better just quit. What's so great about baseball is you get to come out every night. If you go 0-4, you don't have to wait very long to do better. You just come back the next night and try again."
It's interesting, but not surprising, that Francoeur's idol growing up was Braves' centerfielder Dale Murphy. Jeff's knowledge of the game is, quite frankly, pretty amazing. When he tells you that he is a lifelong Braves fan, Jeff means it! Among other things, he's able to recite the lineup for the 1988 Braves...a team he watched while just 4 years-old! Thinking back, Francoeur recalls, "I remember being at the game when Bob Horner hit four homeruns. People don't believe me, but I really was there with my father." Jeff believes in taking in everything he can from a game. He loved watching Murphy and Cal Ripken, and he believes in listening to what all his coaches have to say. "It's important to get as many perspectives as you can," Jeff the student says. "You don't always have to do what people show you, but at least get all the information. There are guys that have been around this game for a long time. It would be foolish not to hear what they have to say."
Jeff attended spring training with the Braves this year with a shot to make the major league squad. The writing was on the wall, however, as the Braves decided to bring in Raul Mondesi and Brian Jordan. Jeff was ticketed to go back to the minors and, despite some disappointment, he graciously accepted the fact that it wasn't his time. Something tells me he won't be held down for long.
Whether it's his love for the game, his humility, or just his respect for those around him, Jeff really made me feel like I've known him all my life. Here was someone who knew what he was going to say before he said it. He listened before speaking, and made no excuses for his mistakes. Jeff was extremely confident, yet amazingly humble. Jeff Francoeur is the type of player that teams dream about acquiring, or at least they should be. He combines an unmistakable skill set with an enthusiasm and competitiveness you just can't find anywhere. Jeff Francoeur will be the type of leader that teams can build around, even if the sabermetricians tell you otherwise.
A special thanks goes out to Nick Skinner, Public Relations Manager for the Mississippi Braves for arranging the interview with Jeff Francoeur.