3/20/2013 8:23 P.M. ET
Francis poised to open eyes with guile
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Rockies left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis' sparkling work -- a 1.96 ERA in five games -- is far from the Cactus League radar. It was only fitting his latest outing, seven strong innings against a Cubs Triple-A lineup Wednesday afternoon, was on a practice field in front of not many more than 25 fans.
At 32 -- years from his days as the Rockies' No. 1 starter but also years from shoulder problems that turned him into an afterthought -- Francis is quietly plotting what he believes is a return to the spotlight.
On Saturday, he threw strikes on an eye-popping 67 of his 82 pitches, struck out eight (four looking) against no walks, induced eight ground-ball outs with a double play included and gave up two runs on five hits. The runs came during a three-hit second inning. Wednesday does not count in Cactus League statistics, but in his 26 total innings he has been scored on in just two of them. His spring work has led manager Walt Weiss to name him the starter against the Padres in the April 5 home opener.
"A lot of things that I've been working on as far as tempo and hitting the glove went well," Francis said.
The thousands who missed Wednesday's performance were robbed of a rare Spring Training feat. For a guy like Francis, who used to throw 91-93 mph but now is having to get by with a mid- to upper-80s fastball, the movement and location of his curveballs (a sharp one and another with a bigger bend) and changeups can be appreciated from a short distance through a chain-link fence. And with no music or scoreboard explosions or public-address announcer to fill the gaps in action, and no shade or concession stand, the quick pace at which he delivers pitch after slow-traveling pitch don't go unnoticed.
It's trickery, delivered at a pace that doesn't give hitters time to figure out what's coming.
"I learned that from [former teammate] Josh Fogg -- he was a guy that worked really quick," Francis said. "I like watching Mark Buehrle. He's known for working quick. It's something that can only help you, I think."
Francis was a first-round Rockies pick in 2002 who developed into the ace in 2007, when the team went to the World Series. His shoulder problems began in 2008, he missed 2009 because of surgery, and the Rockies didn't try to sign him after 2010. He made 31 starts for the Royals in 2011.
Francis could find just a Minor League deal with the Reds last season and was never called to the Majors despite a strong spring and good work in Triple-A. He rejoined the Rockies in June and went 6-7 with a 5.58 ERA in 24 starts, which qualified as good work on a staff that was crippled by injury and confused by an experiment with a four-man rotation.
The Rockies re-signed Francis to a one-year, $1.5 million contract under which he can double his salary by meeting incentives. That's a long way from seemingly being forgotten just a year earlier.
"Did I worry? No," Francis said of seemingly being forgotten at the start of last season. "Thought about it? Maybe, yeah.
"In this game you worry about what you can't control. When the day comes and my career is over, I'm probably not going to have any control over that. If I step on the field every time and I'm prepared and I worked hard in the winter, I'm never going to have any regrets. That's the way I took it. I'm definitely happy to be back here with the chance to contribute for the Rockies."
Francis has reached the career stage that all but a few left-handers must navigate. His velocity has dropped below what a team would accept if he were a college or high school pitcher being scouted. Any discussion about him drifts to what he used to be, and that will be the conversation when he has a bad day and -- because he can't make up for poor location with velocity -- the balls are hit hard and the numbers are ugly.
Yet the game at any given time is full of pitchers like that who turn out successful seasons while folks, some of whom should know better, shake their heads and wonder why. Francis is trying to get ahead of everyone by studying exactly how such pitchers succeed.
"When you're about to face a team, you watch a video, and there are guys like [the Giants' Barry] Zito, who throws similar to me," Francis said. "He throws a slider, I don't throw a slider. But curveball, cutter, fastball, about the same speed I do. I watch games from any lefty. Sometimes hitters will take the same approach against a lefty."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.