Few people can relate to the experiences that Dansby Swanson has gone through in the past year more than Jeff Francoeur, a suburban Atlanta native and former Braves rookie phenom who played 12 seasons in the majors with eight organizations through 2016 and is now doing some broadcast work with the Braves.
Like Swanson, Francoeur was a former first-round draft pick and was viewed as the heir-apparent Braves “Golden Child” and made a big splash as a rookie in 2005, becoming wildly popular in his first month in the big leagues, and later struggling and hearing critics say he should get sent back to the minors (Francoeur was, briefly).
Francoeur signed out of Parkview High School and played parts of four seasons in the minors before debuting at age 21. Swanson, a Marietta High graduate, spent three years at Vanderbilt and played just 104 games in parts of two minor league seasons before debuting last August at age 22.
Before the Braves’ game Sunday against the Marlins, Francoeur discussed with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Braves writer David O’Brien some of Francoeur’s observations of Swanson’s successes and struggles, including a .218 average and .638 OPS this season after Swanson hit .333 with a .967 OPS in 38 major league games in 2016.
Q. As a hometown kid and first-round draft pick, you went through a lot of same things, although Swanson was a college guy so probably a little more mature at the outset of his career.
A. “He’s more mature now.” (Francoeur laughs).
Q. What have you thought, from watching Swanson from afar go through his extended early season struggles and now having a solid month in June (.321 average, .391 OBP before Sunday)?
A. “I was pretty outspoken a month ago, because I do stuff with 680 The Fan (radio), saying that you don’t need to send this kid down. So he goes down to Triple-A for three weeks and rakes, they’re still going to wonder if he can hit big-league pitching. Now if you’re 15 games over .500 and you’re in first place, maybe you had to do something at that point, but…
“I think to see him handle it the way he has – I called him after the game (Saturday) night and we talked for about 15 minutes on the way home, and I was just telling him how happy I am to see his at-bats, how you can tell that he’s a lot more confident. Like that last at-bat (Saturday), you could tell on his face he knew he was going to win the game. And it didn’t happen yesterday, but the fact of the matter is, he looked so much more comfortable. And this is a guy that you’re going to rely on for the next 10 years, hopefully, to be your shortstop. So I think what he went through is only going to help him out.
“It’s like I said, it’s fun, to me, to see Newcomb come up and do what he’s done now. This is how you build a team for more than just one or two years.”
Q. You probably know more than most people what it’s like to deal with failure and criticism after getting so much adulation, right?
A. “Absolutely. Not to say I would ever blame it on the Braves, but I mean, good Lord, the guy was all over the place this offseason. I know how that is – you’re asked to do this, do that, show up here, talk there. And sometimes you almost need to slow it down and say, hey, this is about baseball first. And I think he realized that and now he’s taking care of what he needs to. That’s what I told him, I said I know it’s tough but you’re going to have to learn to say no. I didn’t learn it for a while. It’s tough, man, but he’s going to have to learn to say, ‘I can’t do this today,’ or you know, ‘Hey, listen, I’ll get you tomorrow.’
“I think you’re seeing him mature and I think looking back, it’s going to be good for him what he went through. He never failed (before). That’s what I try to tell people, at least in the minor leagues I went through slumps in Rome and Myrtle Beach. He never did; he (barely) even played in the minors. He never did that at Vanderbilt and I think he only had, like, 400 minor league at-bats (494) or something. So he never really had time to (struggle), he was just climbing up the ladder. And so, I think it’s good for him. I think you see him come out better on the other side.
“And the thing for me, I’ve been pumped to see that his attitude is always good. I think that’s what you look for. I think if you saw him and his attitude sucked or anything like that, maybe it’s, ok, maybe we do need to give him a break or send him down. But for me, as long as his attitude is good and he’s smiling, there’s no reason to send this kid down.”
Q, You also probably know what it’s like to have so many people turn on you who previously praised you, people who put you on a pedestal and were more than ready to knock you off it when you struggled.
A. “Absolutely. I talked to (Braves second-round draft pick) Drew Waters for a second yesterday and I was like, trust me, you’re going to have a bulls-eye on your back when you go down there (to rookie ball). As many people as there are who like you, there’s always people who want to see you fail. And so that was my big thing (with Swanson), I said he’s going to be just fine and the way he handled himself is only going to make him better coming out on the other side. But I also think he realized that not everybody is always in your corner. That’s a good thing to learn, because I know I learned the hard way.”
Q. Both you and Dansby came up as the sort of Golden Boy, you were even on the cover of Sports Illustrated early in your rookie year with “The Natural” label.
A. “And I tell people, too, I got sent down when I was hitting .235. You know? So it’s tough when you’re sitting there and you’re like, damn, I thought they liked me more than this. I think he’s realizing now that you just take care of yourself every day. The big thing for him is I think he knows Snit (manager Brian Snitker) is in his corner. And as long as you know the manager is in your corner, I think you feel good coming in here each day.”
Q. So you think we’re seeing the often-mentioned good character in him, part of the reason he was so highly regarded by the Diamondbacks and then the Braves?
A. “You’re seeing the reason he was the first pick. I always tell people, Mike Trout got sent down. I’m not saying he’s going to be Mike Trout, I’m just saying (Trout) came up for a month and struggled and got sent down. Then he came back up and the rest is history. But everybody is going to struggle. Like Smoltzy back in ’91.”
Q. There’s not many Chipper Joneses, guys who don’t ever struggle, are there?
“There’s not. And I say that a lot. There’s maybe two of those guys every year where you’re like, alright, this guy doesn’t know what it’s like to (struggle). And I always said that’s why Chipper would be a bad hitting coach. I remember he used to always look at us and be like, ‘What are you swinging at?’ It was like, Chip, I get it, alright, but we can’t do what you do.”