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Rays’ Wander Franco: The first 100 games

What the multi-talented shortstop has done, and the way he has done it, has drawn raves all around. He is determined to get even better.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco smiles at fans from the dugout during a game against the Oakland Athletics in April at Tropicana Field.
Rays shortstop Wander Franco smiles at fans from the dugout during a game against the Oakland Athletics in April at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 12|Updated May 12

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Wander Franco has been putting up impressive numbers since he joined the Rays last June as the game’s most-touted prospect.

And here’s a number to frame what he has done: Wednesday was his 100th game in the major leagues.

In 70 regular-season games last season and 30 this year, Franco has hit .293 with 44 extra-base hits (27 doubles, six triples, 11 homers), 54 RBIs, 73 runs and an .812 OPS. He has drawn 29 walks and struck out 50 times in 439 plate appearances, while playing excellent defense at shortstop and emerging as an emotional leader on the field.

And he’s barely 2½ months past his 21st birthday.

“I can’t imagine it going much better,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s performed very well. He’s learned things about himself, I think, throughout the course of the 100 games.

“To be 100 games in and already (have) experienced playoff baseball and the September intensity of a playoff run, it’s got to be pretty special. Then the opening-day experience. And then coming out of the gate really on fire for us.”

Franco said the games have gone by quickly.

“I think I had a pretty tremendous season last year,” he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “And this year I’m trying to do the same.”

There has been much to learn and adapt to.

Some is strategic and technical, such as how to make quick adjustments at the plate based on how opponents are trying to get him out, from at-bat to at-bat and, at times, — to the marvel of his teammates and coaches — from pitch to pitch.

There is also the daily emotional rollercoaster, Franco saying it is important to not hang his head during the rare stretches when things aren’t going well but also to keep it down when he is on a roll.

With that come the logistics and lifestyle issues of playing nearly every day for six months, dealing with fans constantly wanting his attention at and away from the ballpark, and daily media inquiries.

Franco said the 10-day, three-city West Coast trip that concluded Wednesday was the longest he had ever been on. “You just have to learn to adapt to it,” he said.

The last couple of weeks have brought a new challenge: accepting that he isn’t invincible and the right quad and hamstring tightness that forced him to miss two games has to be addressed and treated by the team medical staff and won’t magically go away.

As a result, Franco has had to learn to manage his workload by picking spots to not run hard and to accept that Cash is going to limit his playing time, such as taking him out of Tuesday’s game in the fourth inning with an 8-0 deficit even though the Rays were being held hitless by the Angels’ Reid Detmers.

Neither has been easy, Cash admitting it takes some explaining for Franco to accept.

“I wanted to stay in the (Tuesday) game,” Franco said. “Obviously, we hadn’t gotten a hit, and I was a little frustrated with it. But I understood completely why he did it, and I think that was a good decision.”

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Similarly, Franco is trying to adjust to serving occasionally as the designated hitter, another move by Cash to force rest by keeping him off the infield. That one remains a work in progress. In three games at DH, Franco is 1-for-14.

Obviously, what Franco has done on the field in his 100 games has been impressive to teammates and opponents.

Some have praised — a bit hyperbolically — what he has done.

“Ozzie Smith with the glove, Barry Bonds with the bat, I don’t know,” Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts told mlb.com. “He’s unbelievable. … He’s ridiculous.”

Others have raved about how Franco does it.

“He’s good. He’s really good,” said Angels manager Joe Maddon, the former Rays skipper. “He’s one of those young guys with a real calmness about his game, very confident and calm, and gifted. …

“With good health, that’s going to be special for a long time. He’s got a nice way about him. He’s in control and command of the game. He’s 21 maybe on paper. He’s a lot older than that in the baseball sense. … He’s a complete player.”

Seattle manager Scott Servais had a similar impression.

“He’s a heck of a player,” he said. “I can see why he’s got people throughout the game excited, and certainly the folks in the Rays organization should be very excited. He’s an exciting young player. … He’s going to do very well in this league for a long time.”

Specifically, Servais said Franco being a switch-hitter with power, his ability to control the strike zone and his willingness to use the whole field to hit stand out. “All the things you’re looking for in young players,” he said.

That package, Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder said, would make Franco difficult to game-plan against.

“He’s got tremendous bat-to-ball ability from both sides of the plate, maybe a little better from the right side,” Snyder said. “He understands the strike zone, so he swings at strikes and takes balls.

“As a pitching coach, those are the guys that are the hardest to compete against. You’ve got to compete in the zone. They’re not going to leave it. You’ve got to stay out of hitters’ counts, because that’s the point where — he’s got great bat-to-ball ability — but in a hitters’ count, he can sting the ball, too.

“So you’ve got all those combinations working in his favor, both sides of the plate,” Snyder continued. “He’s just a lot of fun to watch.”

As well as Franco has done, Cash said he will improve with continuing education.

“He’s going to just gain more knowledge with the reps, with the experience,” Cash said. “He’s 21. Yeah, there’s plenty more to come.”

Franco is counting on it.

“A lot more coming,” he said. “Of course, I want to be better.”

Impressive company

Of the 36 others who played their first 100 games in the majors at the same age or younger than Wander Franco (21 years, 71 days) per baseball-reference.com data, only 12 have compiled a higher OPS than his .812. Among those who missed that cut are Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews, plus contemporaries Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The list:

Player, age at 100 games Avg. HR RBI OPS

Frank Robinson, 20-337 .296 25 54 .961

Juan Soto, 19-322 .305 19 61 .954

Ted Williams, 20-345 .309 16 95 .948

Ronald Acuna, 20-274 .295 26 57 .946

Tony Conigliaro, 19-256 .298 23 48 .915

Willie Mays, 20-124 .287 19 62 .876

Vada Pinson, 20-321 .301 12 59 .869

Orlando Cepeda, 20-320 .316 20 63 .861

Mike Trout 20-332 .302 15 52 .858

Miguel Cabrera, 21-002 .276 18 72 .835

Giancarlo Stanton, 20-329 .259 22 59 .833

Vlad Guerrero Jr., 20-164 .280 15 58 .822

Wander Franco, 21-071 .293 11 54 .812

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