KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jeff Francoeur graced the cover of Sports Illustrated not long after he got to the majors. The headline dubbed him "The Natural."He was the hometown kid who made good. Little girls squealed when he came to bat. Little boys wanted to be just like Jeff.
Now, after hearing boos for perhaps the first time in his charmed life, Francoeur is trying to get his once-so-promising career back on track with the Atlanta Braves.
"He’s learned the game of baseball will truly humble you, like we’ve all had to learn," said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, the NL MVP in 1991. "It taught him that you have to persevere and deal with some harsh and rough times, and maybe some harsh and rough things being said about you."
Indeed, Francoeur came under increasing criticism last season as his batting average tumbled and his powerful stroke turned feeble. The automatic cheers at Turner Field turned to muffled groans, then morphed into full-scale heckling every time "Frenchy" failed to come through in a clutch situation.
Francoeur’s struggles fell right in line with the Braves’ downfall. He was a convenient whipping boy for the ills of a franchise that went from dominant — Atlanta won a record 14 straight division titles from 1991-2005 — to its worst record (72-90) in 18 seasons.
"It had more impact last year because we weren’t doing well," Francoeur said. "If you win 95 games, people don’t notice it as much."
Everyone sure took note of his numbers: a .239 average with 11 homers and 71 RBIs, absolutely dismal for someone who had 599 at-bats and usually hit right in the middle of the order. He was even demoted briefly to Double-A Mississippi, in hopes that a less pressurized environment would help him turn things around, but the move only seemed to sour his relationship with the front office and local media.
"It was definitely tough," Francoeur said. "But down the road it’s only going to help me. I feel if I can go through what I went through last year, I can go through anything. I know I’m mentally strong."
He laughs off those who call this a crossroads in his career. He just turned 25 last month. He’s still got plenty of time to live up to the potential he showed during that magical debut of 2005 and the two productive seasons that followed.
"Most guys don’t to the big leagues until they’re 25," Francoeur said. "I don’t have to get off to a .350 start. I’m not going to put that kind of pressure on myself."
But he does acknowledge making a very big mistake that contributed to his downfall. After the 2007 season, when he batted .290 with 105 RBIs but hit 10 fewer homers than the previous year, Francoeur decided to get bigger and stronger. Never mind that he was one of the team’s beefiest players, a former high school football star who stood 6-foot-4 and weighed about 220 pounds.
Francoeur went on a weightlifting binge last winter, which left him with bulging arms but a weak swing. Hitting a baseball depends more on timing and bat speed than it does pure strength, and he was nothing more than a muscle-bound behemoth who couldn’t get around on pitches as quickly as he once did.
"I did it with the right intentions," Francoeur said, "but I just got too big."
As the strikeouts, popups and weak grounders began to mount, he instinctively began to spread his legs farther and farther apart in the batting box. He hoped that would quicken his swing, but found that it didn’t work. By the time his muscles finally loosened up a bit, it was far too late in the season to do anything about it.
"He came up in a lot of big spots last year, whether it be the bases loaded or guys in scoring position with two outs," said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who won the NL batting title with a .364 average. "He didn’t have a lot off success in those areas. That’s something he needs to improve on. With the guys he’s got hitting in front of him" — Jones included — "he’s going to have a lot of opportunities again. We’re going to be need him to be better in those situations."
Francoeur took a different approach this winter, lifting occasionally but spending more time in the batting cage. He brought his feet closer together and pushed his hands farther back, mimicking the stance that’s worked so well for ex-teammate Mark Teixeira. It’s all designed to improve his balance and prevent him from taking those big, looping swings that were such an easy mark.
Then there’s the changes no one can see. According to Pendleton, those are just as vital to Francoeur turning things around.
"It’s going to be about relaxing and letting his ability take over," the hitting coach said. "We all know he has the natural talent and ability to get it done. But mentally, he’s going to have to relax and just let the fight come to him instead of going out and starting the fight. If he does that, and I believe he will, he’ll do some positive things, some very positive things for us."
Francoeur spent much of the winter working out with Jones, who might just be the best pure hitter in the game. While encouraged by what he saw, he’s not ready to predict Francoeur will recapture the form that made him such a media darling back in 2005, when pitches looked as big as Thanksgiving turkeys and everything he did seemed to turn out right.
"It’s easy to sit in the cage all winter and center balls," Jones said. "But when you get under live fire, that’s going to be the real test to see if the adjustments he’s made are doing him some good. I’ll reserve judgment."