Opening Day is right around the corner which means it is the perfect time to talk about an overlooked Hall of Fame candidate, right?
I know, not many baseball fans are thinking about the Hall of Fame at this point in the calendar year, but the start of the World Baseball Classic – and specifically watching Japan and Korea play in the first round in the Tokyo Dome – made me think about a certain former Atlanta Braves player whose unique baseball career touched both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
While a multitude of players have spent time at the highest professional level in the United States, Japan and/or South Korea, there’s only one eligible player whose combined overall career statistics are Hall of Fame worthy but does not find himself inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in either the Unites States or Japan.
So, who is it, you ask?
Franco had a long professional baseball career, appearing professionally in five different decades. He debuted as a professional in 1978 at age 19 and made his last official professional appearance in 2015, in the Japanese independent leagues, when he was 56 years old.
In MLB, he appeared in 23 seasons – starting with his debut for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982 at age 23 and ending with the Atlanta Braves in 2007 at 48 years old.
Franco became a fan favorite during the parts of six seasons he spent with Atlanta from 2001-2005, 2007. Picked up late in the 2001 season – when he was 42 and had only received one at bat in MLB since 1997 - he hit .300 and began a five-year run as a platoon first baseman and pinch hitter.
He was an above-average offensive performer during his first run with Atlanta - with four of his five season seeing him post an OPS+ between 107 and 113 - before signing with the New York Mets as a free agent for the 2007. After he was released, he re-signed with Atlanta to finish out his career.
With the Braves, Franco appeared in 501 games, slashed .291/.363/.424 with 354 hits, 62 doubles, 29 home runs, and a 104 OPS+ – all while in his squarely in this 40’s.
During his MLB career, he was a three-time All-Star, a five-time Silver Slugger, received MVP votes in three seasons, finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting in 1983 as a member of the Cleveland Indians and led the American League in batting average in 1991 while hitting .341 as a member of the Texas Rangers.
During those 23 seasons, he collected 2,586 hits, hit 173 home runs, stole 281 bases, hit 407 doubles, and slashed .298/.365/.417 while playing six different defensive positions, including more than 500 games each at shortstop, second base and first base.
Good numbers, right?
The longevity of his career is impressive, but it’s not Hall of Fame worthy, you say.
That’s because, intermingled within the timeline of his MLB career, Franco spend three seasons playing for Chiba Lotte in the JPPL and one season with Samsung in the KBO – both leagues considered as MLB-equivalent professional league.
It should be noted that during that same timeline he spent three seasons playing in Mexico, but unlike the JPPL and KBO, the Mexican league is considered a AAA-equivalent.
Why does this matter? Franco added a significant enough number of offensive statistics to push his career into Hall of Fame territory, even when excluding his numbers from Mexico.
Combining his three seasons in Japan and Korea, Franco produced and additional 442 hits, 71 doubles, 50 home runs, 18 stolen bases and slashed .307/.389/.469 in 390 games.
Adding those totals to his MLB career numbers, his “counting” stats now look like this:
Plate Appearances: 11,382
One of the threshold stats, unofficially, for Hall of Fame induction has been 3,000 career hits. The reality is, that bar is a bit lower, with every eligible player with 2,880 career hits or more being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Would adding those three seasons from Japan and Korea make Franco a sure-thing Hall of Famer? No, but it would make for an interesting Hall of Fame case.
Franco also holds a number of “oldest to” records, or “second-oldest to”, which are impressive feats, although your milage the impact of those records may vary when it comes to his Hall of Fame discussion.
Two other players, who spent the majority of their career in MLB, but also played in Japan, are both in the Hall of Fame in Japan: pitcher Hideo Nomo and outfielder Hideki Matsui. (Hat tip to Jay Jaffe, for that bit of information.)
Notably, the above doesn’t include Ichiro Suzuki, since he will not only be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he might also be unanimously elected when he becomes eligible in 2025.
Is there a chance that Julio Franco’s Hall of Fame candidacy will be re-evaluated by a veteran’s committee and lead to his enshrinement? Not really. But that doesn’t mean, if looked through the right lenses, his career shouldn’t be viewed as Hall of Fame-worthy, especially if you view the ability to sustain a high-level of output for more than two decades as a rare and impressive accomplishment.