In this installment of the Players You Forgot Were Astros series, we look at longtime MLB closer John Franco.
The Astros have had their share of strong closers over the years, from Billy Wagner to Dave Smith to Joe Sambito to Brad Lidge to Jose Valverde. But they’ve also had some guys who were closers elsewhere and spent a short time in Houston. We’ve already looked at one such player in Francisco Cordero, and now here’s another in John Franco.
Franco sits in fifth place on the all-time saves list with 424. The left-hander pitched in 21 major league seasons and compiled a career 2.89 ERA in 1,119 appearances, which is the third-most all-time.
He broke into the majors with Cincinnati in 1984 and immediately established himself as an effective reliever. He made three All-Star teams with the Reds before being traded to the Mets in advance of the 1990 season.
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It was with the Mets that Franco spent the bulk of his career, pitching 14 seasons in Queens. He was their primary closer for the entire decade of the 1990s, remaining effective into his forties. After missing all of the 2002 season due to injury, he returned to put up a 2.62 ERA in 2003.
Last Stop: Houston
Following the 2004 season, Franco reached free agency at the age of 44 and signed with the Astros. He was not effective, however, pitching to a 7.20 ERA and 2.133 WHIP in 31 appearances in 2005. Interestingly, Fielding Independent Pitching had him at 2.89, indicating he was the victim of some unusually poor luck.
Despite that poor ERA, he actually didn’t give up a home run in those 31 appearances, though he gave up hits at a higher rate than ever. He also finished with a career-high strikeout rate, though he was never much of a strikeout pitcher even in his prime.
In fact, his numbers were far different from what you’d expect from a closer. By today’s standards, he had a low strikeout rate and allowed his share of baserunners to the tune of a career 1.333 WHIP. He just happened to be very good at keeping those baserunners from scoring, which is what allowed him to play 21 seasons in the major leagues.
His final season came with the Astros and he simply wasn’t quite the pitcher he had been for most of his career. But he had an excellent career overall and spent the tail end of it in Houston.