“How’s your shooter?” Ryan O’Hearn will ask, and inevitably Rubén Francisca will tell him it’s feeling good.
That shooter — Francisca’s left arm — is what has the longtime Orioles minor league coach on staff this year as the team’s major league batting practice pitcher. He’s used it a lot, and endured moments of fatigue — last week’s three-game series against lefties in Anaheim, California, was a long one. But after decades in the game, Francisca has shown the Orioles’ hitters and his fellow staffers the two most desired qualities for someone in his role: the ability to throw strikes, and the ability to throw for hours on end.
“It’s been a really nice experience,” Francisca said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “It is a lot more hard work in the minor leagues, that’s for sure, but we really enjoy it up here. … It’s a lot of work here, too. When we face a lefty pitcher, I’m throwing to the entire lineup. Preparation starts inside in the cages, and sometimes it comes out here onto the field as well, so it’s a lot of hard work.
“But it’s all good — I try to keep myself prepared and ready to go for whenever these guys need me to go out there.”
With left-hander Drew Rom pitching for St. Louis in Wednesday’s series finale, Francisca knows he’ll be on call for the latest assignment in a winding baseball life.
Francisca, 46, was signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Orioles as a teenager in 1998; in a precursor to the team spelling former closer Zack Britton’s name wrong for his entire time here, his last name was listed as Francisco throughout his career, despite his protestations.
He topped out at Low-A Delmarva before spending 2003 playing in the independent Canadian League on the Montreal Royales, sharing a clubhouse with Delmarva manager Felipe Rojas Alou Jr. that summer.
He’d known Alou for years, and after Francisca’s playing career ended, he kept training and coaching younger players. His left-handed batting practice started to gain renown during that time in the Dominican Republic, and when the Orioles hired Alou in 2008 to run their academy in the Dominican Republic, he hired Francisca as a coach.
His responsibilities included working with the outfielders and teaching baserunning to the teenage prospects who like him were chasing major league dreams out of the Dominican Republic. That was his role until the pandemic hit in 2020.
Francisca had some other responsibilities in the spring, though. Beginning in 2017, former manager Buck Showalter brought Francisca to spring training to give some lefty practice looks to that lineup full of stars. Showalter often talked about how he wanted him to be with the club full-time during the season — something Showalter wasn’t shy about mentioning at the time — but for reasons unclear, that never materialized.
This opportunity in 2023 almost fell into the same category — this time because of his cell phone service. After leaving the organization in 2020, Francisca trained teenagers who were preparing to sign with major league clubs in the Dominican Republic. One day this winter, bullpen catcher Joel “Yogi” Polanco called to tell him the team was trying to get in touch with him. Francisca got in touch with Norfolk fundamentals coach Ramón Sambo, who told him the team wanted him to come back in some capacity.
“After that, I made sure to get internet on my phone so I could stay in touch, and I basically let them know: ‘My visa is ready. My passport is ready to go,’” Francisca said. “Not long after, they were able to bring me to Sarasota.”
Since then, Francisca has been working with the Orioles’ hitters to prepare them for the left-handed pitching they’ve faced on a regular basis. He’ll start preparing his arm and focusing on what will be asked of him a day before a left-handed starter is scheduled, and between the batting cages and on-field BP, he’ll throw to the entire lineup ahead of seeing a lefty starter.
The Orioles’ hitting philosophy as an organization is centered around challenging practice and replicating as best as possible in practice what the hitters will see in a game. This includes mixed batting practice, which many of the players still do after getting used to it in the minors.
“These guys have some incredible routines every day,” Francisca said. “Credit to them for putting in the work.”
Francisca usually starts them out with fastballs, and then mixes in breaking balls to make sure they see them as well.
“A big thing we do is I’ll try to locate those pitches wherever a pitcher would hang those pitches, so if they see it in the game, a curveball or a slider hanging, they know how to do damage,” Francisca said. “I try to do that on purpose just to make sure they’re comfortable if a pitcher does leave a hanging curveball or something like that, make sure they’ve seen it enough times that they’re comfortable and ready to do damage to those types of pitches.”
The Orioles, as a team, have benefited plenty from consistently seeing left-handed pitching. As a team, they have a .778 OPS against lefties, which ranks a respectable ninth in baseball entering Tuesday. Last year, they were 24th in the league with a .663 OPS.
Some of that comes down to individual improvements; Adley Rutschman had a .552 OPS against lefties last year, attacked it in the offseason, and is up to .876 off lefties this year. Ryan Mountcastle has a 1.049 OPS against lefties, up from .693 a season ago. Cedric Mullins is up from .578 to .721, and Gunnar Henderson from .448 to .665.
While the Orioles’ lefties are middle-of-the-road against southpaws, they’ve improved their OPS against same-side pitching from .587 to .683 from 2022 to 2023. They believe having a left-handed BP arm of Francisca’s quality has a lot to do with that.
Henderson said the fact that Francisca can locate off-speed pitches inside and outside the zone makes him particularly effective.
“It’s one thing to have one, but another thing to have one that can throw strikes and mixed BP,” Henderson said. “That’s been huge for me because I just need to see it and get used to the reps, and I feel like facing him, and being able to face consistent lefties, everybody has seen the improvement throughout the year. It’s really hats off to him, because he’s worked his butt off all year, and every time there’s a lefty starter, and even during the game when they bring in the lefty, the DHs go in and hit off a lefty BP guy. He’s been really awesome and really crucial for us.”
Adam Frazier knows the value of good left-handed batting practice — he grew up hitting off his left-handed father — but never had a good lefty thrower on staff elsewhere in his career.
“Some teams don’t even have a left-handed BP guy in general, much less one who can put it wherever he wants,” Frazier said. “But he’s been great.”