As you know, the Kansas City Royals let outfielder Jeff Francoeur go earlier this week. We covered this with a Prospect Retrospective here at Minor League Ball. Elsewhere at SB Nation, Andrew Shen at Beyond the Boxscore compared Francoeur's saga to the possible future of Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig. Grant Brisbee at Baseball Nation weighed in as well.
Grant's point is that the proper lesson for us regarding Francoeur is not "Jeff Francoeur could have been great if he had paid attention to his plate discipline," but rather "Plate discipline is hard to develop if you're not born with it."
I generally agree with Grant's point. I do think it is possible for a player to improve his plate discipline and pitch recognition to some extent. It is too early to say for certain, but Zoilo Almonte of the Yankees might be an example of success in that regard. But it isn't an easy thing to do and most players with strike zone issues never completely adjust, and in many cases this is not for lack of effort.
Grant points to this 2009 ESPN article by Jerry Crasnick which discusses the issue. Of particular note is the idea expressed by Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. Quoting Crasnick, Cherington divides hitters into three categories:
The first consists of players who are "wired" to be selective and have the developmental background to be successful. Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira embraced the concept of plate discipline in college.
The second group consists of players who also might be wired for selectivity, but haven't been exposed to the philosophy enough to put it into practice. Orlando Hudson and Jose Reyes both made huge strides once they arrived in the majors.
The final grouping is made up of players who don't have the inclination to be selective. They're just not built that way. Corey Patterson, Brandon Phillips, Yuniesky Betancourt and Francoeur are members of this fraternity.
That makes perfect sense to me, but I'd like to expand on Cherington's concept a bit. I propose the following categories.
CATEGORY ONE: Players naturally wired for plate discipline who also know how to use it properly, with the right mixture of patience and aggression.
CATEGORY TWO: Players naturally wired for plate discipline, but who hurt themselves by being too passive. Padres prospect Jaff Decker could be a current example of this. In theory a Cat Two player can learn appropriate aggression and move up to Cat One.
CATEGORY THREE: Players naturally wired for plate discipline, but who don't actually put in practice, either due to coaching (or lack of coaching) or their personal inclination. A Cat Three can theoretically be coached or self-improved into Cat One status, if he's willing to listen.
CATEGORY FOUR: Players who are NOT wired for plate discipline and who can't really develop it, but who have such tremendously good tools, bat speed, etc., that they can still be productive hitters even without it.
CATEGORY FIVE: Players who are NOT wired for plate discipline, who can't/won't develop it no matter how much effort they put in, and are eventually undermined/ruined by not having it. As a Cat Four player ages, he can slip to Cat Five status due to a small natural decline in bat speed. For example, early in his career Francoeur qualified as a Cat Four, but even the tiny loss of bat speed and athleticism as he got older was enough to cripple him.
In addition to Francoeur, Brandon Wood and Angel Berroa are two other recent examples that come to mind. I saw quite a bit of both players in Triple-A and the majors. It was clear to me that, at times anyway, both players were trying to be more selective, but they just weren't wired for it and the attempt to fight their inherent nature just resulted in more confusion, particularly in Wood's case.
From a player development and scouting perspective, I think the hardest thing could be discerning between a young player who could be either Cat Three (not selective but fixable), Cat Four (not selective, not fixable, but can get away with it for awhile) or Cat Five (not selective, not fixable, and won't get away with it).
I suspect it is very easy for scouts, coaches, managers, front office folks, and analysts to fool themselves into thinking a Cat Five Player is really a Cat Four or Three.