Senior right-handed relief pitcher Jason Franks jogs in from the visiting bullpen. He takes the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning. He walks the first batter on five pitches.
With momentum, opposing UC San Diego puts in a pinch-hitter (PH). Franks strikes out PH Anthony Lucchetti on a fastball, as he looks into the catcher’s glove. Later in the inning, Franks does the exact same thing to Michael Furhman –– a 2-2 strikeout looking.
When the Mustangs take the field for the bottom of the ninth, Franks trots back out. The first batter goes down on a 2-2 strikeout looking. The next batter goes down on a 2-2 strikeout looking. For the last out of the game, Blake FitzGerald is at the plate.
Last year, FitzGerald had a two-homerun performance against Cal Poly. Four pitches in, the count is even at 2-2. Franks winds up and throws a fastball that FitzGerald stares at as it passes the plate to close the game –– another looking strikeout.
Earlier in this game, Cal Poly ace Drew Thorpe recorded 15 K’s. While many in the college baseball world reacted to Thorpe’s performance, some overlooked the five looking strikeouts Franks recorded in two innings, with the back-to-back-to-back backward Ks in the ninth.
“He essentially saved our year,” pitching coach Jake Silverman said. “[He’s in] probably one of the most important roles in all of baseball.”
Franks played club baseball at Cal Poly during his freshman and sophomore years of college. In his junior year, he walked on to the Division-I team under 20-year head coach Larry Lee. In 2020 and 2021, he pitched a total of 4 2/3 innings. He was in the press box keeping score more often than he was on the mound during games.
This year, Franks has found himself as a go-to closer for the Mustangs. He has made 21 appearances, pitching 35 1/3 innings with 49 strikeouts, earning himself a 2.55 ERA, .197 BA against and six saves on the season.
All those numbers prove he has been dominating the late innings of games.
“He is the one guy that can close a game,” head coach Larry Lee said.
However, Franks is not focused on the story of how ended up here.
“I get talked to about this story of mine, but the story is not finished being written,” Franks said. “We’re halfway through the season and yeah it’s been a good year but … I want to make regionals, I want to win the Big West.”
At the end of the year, he wants to be drafted and play MLB baseball.
Silverman looked back on the challenges Franks has faced, highlighting how he made the jump from club ball to Division-I, worked through 2020 and 2021 to improve his game and is now relied on to close out games for a highly ranked Cal Poly team.
“Only mentally tough people can go through all of that and push through and have success on the backend,” Silverman said. “You are coming in to shut down the game and for whatever reason, baseball has that unique ability of making the [seventh, eighth and ninth] innings the toughest innings.”
Franks gives a lot of credit to his coaching staff for every aspect of his growth.
“Coach Silverman and Jeff Troesch, who is essentially our mental health coach, have definitely helped me come a long way,” Franks said.
Troesch works closely with Cal Poly athletes, particularly baseball and golf, to assist with mental skill and performance enhancement. He has worked with the Seattle Mariners and Detroit Tigers of Major League Baseball.
One mental practice Franks has implemented, with their help, is watching his own film for positive reinforcement.
“Every day I will go through some film and watch me blowing fastballs by people,” Franks said. “What that does for me is it helps me visualize … I’ve seen it before, I’ve done it before and I can do it again.”
According to Silverman, the other thing a closer needs, other than the toughness Franks possesses, is versatility.
“You can come in with runners on, you can come in clean innings,” Silverman said “Whatever it is, you go to stop it right there, nothing can phase you.”
On Apr. 16, in a series against UC Irvine, Franks showed this versatility. Cal Poly was ahead 7-6 in the bottom of the seventh. After a single, an intentional walk and another walk, Franks was called into the game.
In this moment, there are only two sure bet options:
- UC Irvine gets a hit and ties the game
- Franks gets the Mustangs out of the two-out jam the only way he knows how –– a strikeout.
Four pitches later, Irvine’s Taishi Nakawake whiffed on a Franks fastball.
The Mustangs headed back into the dugout up one. Still, the pressure was high. Franks had to go back in the eighth and ninth of a one-score game and not let a batter cross home. To add on to the intense situation, he usually does not pitch more than two innings.
“I absolutely love the adrenaline that gets through me when I’m pitching in high-level situations,” Franks said.
Physically, Franks has also made leaps from his days playing club baseball. Like every other Division-I pitcher, Franks lifts weights, works out and throws bullpen sessions.
“He has put on a good 25 pounds since I had him on this team,” club baseball Coach Tanner Morgan said.
Morgan also notes that as a freshman, Franks was throwing low to mid-80s, but by his sophomore year, he was throwing mid-80s. Now, four years after that freshman season, Franks averages 92 mph on his fastball and can reach 94.
“He has always worked hard, he has always been very detailed in his work,” Silverman said. “Each guy has to learn what they have to do to be successful. Jason has learned his niche, his routine, to get him on the path for success. I have the utmost respect for Jason’s mental capacity and mental strength.”
Earning a closing role
Franks and coach Silverman said that the team does not define roles like “closing pitcher.” With that being said, Silverman said he earned his spot as a late-game/closing pitcher on Feb. 27 in game one of a doubleheader against Missouri State.
With Cal Poly up 5-4, he came in during the sixth inning and got the final out on a swinging strikeout. In the seventh, he got three strikeouts, all swinging, on four batters faced. Then in the eighth, he gave up three singles to load the bases and was taken out.
In the series after Missouri State, the Mustangs played University Nevada – Las Vegas (UNLV) on the road. In Las Vegas, Silverman and coach Lee discussed Franks and his pitching.
“Coach Lee and I had a conversation about it,” Silverman said. “We just need to live and die by his innings and how they are because he somehow finds a way. Even when the inning doesn’t start off clean, he gets out of it.”
In game two against UNLV, the Mustangs were up 7-6 in the seventh. UNLV rallied to take the 10-7 lead, but Franks then came in and struck out Austin Kryszuk on a full count to end the inning and kill the rally.
After the Mustangs tied the game in the eighth, Franks faced four batters and tossed a scoreless bottom half and got one strikeout.
After Cal Poly took the lead in the ninth, Franks took the mound and closed out the game to secure the win. Franks does indeed find a way out of it.
Strategy and analytics of Franks’ game
The great closers throughout baseball history all have one go-to pitch, according to Silverman. For Franks, it’s his fastball.
“He does have good spin rate, he does have good plus induced vertical break so the ball rides, but he also has some cut to the ball,” Silverman said.
What this means is that when the ball is released from Franks’ hand, he has the ability to put a lot of backspin on it. The higher spin rate (more backspin) means a larger vertical drop (or break) than the ball would have had due to gravity alone. The ball “having cut” means for a right-hander like Franks, the ball breaks to the right from a batter’s perspective.
Overall, Franks’ pitching arsenal includes a fastball, a curveball and a splitter. However, since joining Division-I, he almost exclusively throws fastballs.
On the club team, as a starter, Franks would mainly throw fastballs and curveballs. During his time, he was accustomed to getting strikeouts as well. The difference here is that Franks would use the change in speed and break between the two pitches to deceive batters.
This season, Franks has been retiring a lot of batters with strikeouts looking.
“Jason’s backwards Ks are a little bit of an anomaly,” Silverman said. “Usually when you see guys that strikeout people looking, they are really good at sequencing pitches, setting guys up.”
However, Franks does not sequence pitches, as he claims he throws “99% fastballs.”
Although he joked that he would like for his curveball to be called more often, Franks is happy the fastball is working and is focused on the backend of the Cal Poly baseball season and eventually the MLB draft.