Michael Fransoso is a great fit for a Mariners player-development machine that thrives with a process-based philosophy. Seattle boasts one of the top farm systems in the game, and Fransoso, a 31-year-old University of Maine graduate who played multiple professional seasons, is an up-and-coming hitting instructor who is fully-invested in that approach. His tutelage has thus far been at the lower rungs of the minors: He spent last season working with many of the organization’s best position-player prospects in the Arizona Complex League, and this year, he’ll be the hitting coach at low-A Modesto.
Earlier this month, Fransoso discussed the Mariners’ developmental philosophy and the some of the young hitters he’s been helping to hone.
David Laurila: You joined the organization in November 2019. What were the conversations like during, and immediately following, the hiring process?
Michael Fransoso: “Very process-based. Andy McKay was our farm director, and everything kind of flows through him. He’s very process-based, and also big into the mental game. That was huge. I felt like all of my conversations with the hitting department aligned. Everybody was on the same page in terms of the Mariners’ process — how we want to develop hitters — and they were able to deliver that message to me in a clear way. Really, it’s about dominating the zone.”
Laurila: I think it’s safe to say that all teams want their hitters to dominate the zone. What is the actual process?
Fransoso: “When you hear ‘dominate the strike zone,’ you might think it means ‘swing at strikes and take balls,’ but it’s not that simple. We want it to be simple, but hitting isn’t simple. Dominating the zone is more of a mindset. It’s also an individual approach to manage that hitter-pitcher matchup. When you break it down, the only thing a hitter controls is whether we swing at that pitch. We don’t have control over what the pitcher throws, how hard he’s throwing, or the break. We don’t even control whether it’s a ball or strike, because that’s up to the umpire.
“When we talk about dominating the zone, our process is taking what is essentially an uncontrollable thing and bringing a controllable to it. ‘OK, I get to decide if I swing at this pitch or not.’ The pitcher controls a lot of things, and we’re trying to take a little bit of that control away. We’re not going to let him control whether we swing. That’s how a hitter dominates the zone. It’s a mindset with an approach. Everybody’s zone is a little bit different, and we’re going to dominate it in our swing decisions.”
Laurila: How do individual zones differ? Is it simply a matter of which areas a hitter handles well and doesn’t handle well?
Fransoso: “Yeah. That falls into a lot of physiological, technical things with swings, and correlate with what parts of the zone they hit better. Maybe it’s a certain pitch they hit better. But we have our ‘damage zone,’ and the heart of the plate… everybody is going to do damage there. Right? If you can’t hit a ball down the middle, hard, every time, you’re not going to make it. That’s really everybody’s damage zone. You build off of that, and that’s where the individual part comes in.
“The heart, the middle of the plate — if it’s there, you better swing. And then, for certain guys, it might move up a little bit to the top of the zone. Now their damage zone is middle and a little bit up. For another guy — a Mike Trout, for instance, he hits the low ball really well — it’s going to be middle and then a little bit down. That’s where he wants to dominate. If you throw it in there, he’s going to swing. If you don’t throw it in there, he’s going to take his walk.”
Laurila: What role does tech play in the process?
Fransoso: “We use that to get a feel for what our strengths are. The bat is what delivers the blow to the ball, so we use Blast to get measurements of what it’s doing. Is it moving in an efficient way to where this guy can use his skill set to the best of his ability? Same thing if we use K-vest. We’re talking about how the body moves and the sequence it moves in.
“With the swing, if we’re talking mechanics, we need to get two things out of it. Are we making good decisions because our mechanics allow us to? And is our swing-productivity good — is the ball coming off the bat in a productive way because of our mechanics? Tech is aiding us in determining that.”
Fransoso: “Yes. They were in the fall instructional league we had in 2020, and they’re both special players. Noelvi is coming off a breakout year, and you’ve seen what Julio can do. I don’t think I can actually talk about [Rodriguez], because he’s on the 40-man, but I will say that he hits the ball hard. They both do.”
Laurila: Is exit velocity important to the organization?
Fransoso: “It is for every org, really. It’s a tool. If you hit the ball harder, you have more solutions. That’s really what it comes down to. Baseball is kind of following golf in that respect. Shamble might have started it. If you hit the ball harder with optimal ball flight, you’re going to get better results. That’s true on the golf course, and it’s true on the baseball field. And the beauty of that is, when you train right and do it right, you don’t actually think about hitting it harder or farther. Simply following the process allows you to do that. Now you can control what you can control, which in this case is taking a good swing.”
Laurila: Can you say a little more about Noelvi Marte?
Fransoso: “I wasn’t around him this year when he kind of blossomed, but I do know that we started to see his swing decisions improve. He wasn’t chasing as much, and that goes into dominating the zone. We also saw his power start to take off. He still has a long ways to go, but he’s obviously trending in the right direction. He’s a hard worker, so he’s going to continue to push and improve.”
Laurila: Who was the best pure hitter you had in the Complex League?
Fransoso: “When we talk about dominating zone, there was nobody better than Milkar Perez. His ability to recognize pitches and not swing outside of the zone is amazing. Especially at his age [20 as of this past October]. Obviously, there are things we’d like to see him improve on. We’d like him to do a little bit more damage, drive the ball in the air and get his slug up. But again, his ability to understand his zone is amazing. It got to a point where if an umpire called a strike, and he shook his head, I believed Milkar. It almost felt like he knew the zone better than the umpire. Being able to control the zone — take borderline pitches and swing at hittable pitches — is a skill. And he has it.”
Laurila: What about the desire to see him drive the ball more often? How do you go about helping a young hitter grow his power without maybe compromising what he excels at?
Fransoso: “That’s the beauty of coaching. We’ve got to figure out a way to do that. We don’t ever want to take away his strength, his ability to dominate the zone and not chase. At the same time, he’s a third baseman and a big strong kid. We need that production out of his bat; it’s what’s going to move him forward. So it’s a balance. It’s relaying that message and finding certain practice designs that allow him to thrive without him really thinking about it. We don’t want to go to him say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to hit home runs, man. You’ve got to hit the ball in the air.’ Then he might start chasing, and that’s the last thing we want him to do.”
Laurila: A report I saw on [2021 first-rounder] Harry Ford said that he has an opposite-field approach but shows good raw power when it turns on balls. What did you work on with him?
Fransoso: “With him being new to pro ball, we just kind of let him go. We’ll work with him a little more coming into spring training, but we definitely love what we got. He’s a very athletic hitter, and he already had a good sense of zone-discipline when he got here. And he’s got that raw strength, too. He’s a strong kid, loves the weight room, so the exit velocity is only going to go up for him. Toward the end of the year, I think he had three home runs in a week. One was on a hanging breaking ball, and another was a high heater. Some of the things we saw him do were very impressive.
“Again, it’s the athletic ability that he has. His body can move in certain ways. You see it when he’s behind the plate. The way he blocks balls, you’re like, ‘How does his body move like that?’ That translates over to hitting. He has a unique ability to hit different pitches, just from his athleticism.”
Laurila: Are there specific things he needs to work on?
Fransoso: “There is maybe some room for things like bat-path, but we don’t go to that technical aspect unless we really need to. We kind of hit the mental aspect of it first, then we go through a technical lens of, ‘Hey, what’s our plan? What is our approach, and do our swing decisions align with that?’ Then we go physiological. Does his body allow him to move in certain ways? Can he do what we’re asking him to do? Then we’ll go to that [mechanical] aspect. So, I think there are things we can clean up, but he’s shown the ability to hit the ball hard.”
Laurila: Is not focusing on mechanics, at least not initially, mostly a lower-level developmental approach?
Fransoso: “No. I think we’ve gone that way as an org. Are mechanics a vital part of hitting? They are. They’re important — you need to have good mechanics. But at the same time, these guys wouldn’t be in professional baseball if they didn’t have mechanics good enough to hit a baseball consistently. You’re always refining, you’re always trying to find better ways to do something, but I think it’s taken a little bit of a backseat to things that are more important.
“Your mentality when you go to the plate is more important than how you technically swing the bat. If you don’t have a good mindset, you’re not going to perform. It doesn’t matter how good your mechanics are. If you’re going up there without a good plan, or with no plan at all, [and] you’re just trying to hit the ball, you’re in trouble. We want to hammer down our mental state and our tactical approach. ‘Here is my plan, this is what I’m trying to do, and I’m committed to that.’ If we check all those boxes, and there is still something off, then the swing has something we probably need to fix.”
Laurila: Before I let you go, I want to ask about a switch-hitting shortstop out of Puerto Rico. What can you tell me about Edwin Arroyo?
Fransoso: “Another athletic kid. He’s raw — I think he might have just turned 18 during the season — but his skill set is off the charts… Oh man, if you watch him in the field, his hands, how he moves his body… it’s amazing. And that’s translating over to hitting as well. We saw some struggles early on, in terms of swing decisions — he was chasing — but that’s normal when you’re starting out in professional baseball, especially coming from the high school ranks.
“Guys want to make an impact, so they worry about results. ‘I’ve got to get my hits, I want to have a good batting average.’ That’s the absolute devil when you come over. You get sucked in. You drift into that headspace of trying to see results, and it’s tough to climb out of that. It’s why we try to stick to our processes of dominating the zone and controlling things we can control. But he started to get a handle on that toward the end of the year. We saw his swing decisions improve. Again, it’s about dominating the zone.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Jeff Albert, Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, JJ Bleday, Bobby Bradley, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Jacob Cruz, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Josh Donaldson, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Justin Foscue, Joey Gallo, Devlin Granberg, Andy Haines, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Josh Jung, Jimmy Kerr, Trevor Larnach, Doug Latta, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Dave Magadan, Trey Mancini, Edgar Martinez, Don Mattingly, Ryan Mountcastle, Cedric Mullins, Daniel Murphy, Brent Rooker,, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Zac Veen, Mark Vientos, Luke Voit, Jordan Westburg, Jesse Winker, Nick Yorke.