In examining Ty France’s absolute star turn in the early weeks of the Seattle Mariners season, there are three things I want to address. These three focal points will help us to contextualize and understand the connections What and why for France while reminding us who France was anyway.
The first thing to know is that Ty France has basically always played like a stud.
The Seattle Mariners’ all-time hitter in 2022 made a strong contribution for his San Diego State University Aztecs, posting a .905 OPS and a .336 batting average over three seasons. Despite being a two-time All-American, France was slowed down by injury in his junior year and was eventually drafted by the San Diego Padres in the now-defunct 34th round. A collegiate bat seen by many as a somewhat limited defender, France were under pressure to deliver performance and average on the plate. Year after year he has essentially done just that. Aside from the 2017 season, when he ran just one mid-700 OPS and hit just five home runs, France has always brought meat and potatoes to accompany its medley of spray single vegetables.
He ran a .299/.378/.451 slash line in High-A at ages 21 and 22, then a .269/.346/.415 line at 22 and 23 in Double-A, and a hilarious . 372/.454/.713 Triple-A dominance at 23 and 24. This 2019 season at Triple-A El Paso, he was particularly difficult to gauge. You see, not only was 2019 the pinnacle of so-called “juiceball,” but in the already attacking-friendly Pacific Coast League, France’s excellence was treated as an anecdote to embody a bigger problem.
The fact that a 24-year-old infield prospect with a frayed corner hit 27 homers in 348 plate appearances was taken as a symptom of a systematic problem rather than evidence of his individual potential. The Padres challenged him for a few stretches, but he struggled to reach those same heights, posting underperforming numbers for the first and only time and setting the stage for the chaos of 2020 and his trade inclusion that took him to Seattle brought.
I love little more than picking out Nissen for mechanical adjustments, but there’s very little, if anything, that mechanically separates the Ty France in these four-year-old clips from the player Seattle wore this year. The stance, the load, the momentum, even watching him carry his homers is consistent. Physically one could perhaps suggest that France added some muscle, especially with the knowledge that he would rarely be asked to man 3B or 2B in the future. For the most part though, this is the same Ty France, now in its prime, with the wisdom of over 1,000 big league appearances coming into 2022, and, touchons du bois, in good health.
Which brings us to the second important thing to know, which is that Ty France has always had his odd tendency to get hit by pitches. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise as studies show that the hit-by-pitch rate for hitters has fairly strong correlation rates from year to year. In fact, we can safely call being hit by clay targets a “skill”, albeit a risky one. France’s aggressiveness means he doesn’t always tend to walk as often as other three true sluggers, but he’s been able to maintain an above-average on-base percentage (and therefore an overall offensive profile) because of all those bruises. France is more Craig Biggio than Mo Vaughn, standing on the inside edge of the batter’s box but making no apparent effort to hang over the plate. Instead, I believe the 5’11 righty is a victim of both the era and his own scouting record.
Hit-by-pitches are high at all times league-wide, with pitchers almost constantly working at maximum effort and placing a greater emphasis on things that run, dive, dance and bite than ever before. The grisliest pitches that helped wrest France from power in 2021 were serious errors, catching him in the arm or wrist in the process, as pointed out by Matthew Roberson. He’s a frequent victim of running fastballs, which he dutifully keeps on the trail when in fact they’re sliders, which he must stay on to spray the other way, a brave skill that makes him such a particularly balanced one and dangerous batsman makes . It’s that ability that helped separate him, as pitchers are just as likely to see a left-center mistake being filed up in The Pen as they are to see a well-placed slider dropped low and casually into the away center right is looped for a single.
Where should a jug go? Now, where would you place a player with a heatmap like this?
Pitchers are trying to get it off the record in France and lure him into chasing, and sometimes like everyone else he will do it. But once you get into the zone, there are few safe spots, and the one place he probably wouldn’t hurt the pitchers was elevated and on the inside of the plate when he swung the bat. So pitchers will keep coming for France and he will continue to take balls off his well-padded arm and body, hopefully into the protected spots so next time he can sit straight back without losing strength. I would also advocate just wrapping the entire left side of the body in bubble wrap, or maybe coating it with what they make black boxes out of.
It’s imperative that he stay healthy because the third important thing is that Ty is batting France like one of the best players in the league at the moment. Are you a Sabermetric Phobe? His .375/.459/.656 slash is 2nd, 4th, and 6th in MLB among qualified players coming into the game today. His 10.8% strikeout rate is the 15th-lowest in MLB, with essentially only perennial MVP candidate José Ramírez of the Cleveland Guardians being the closest comparable in terms of year-to-date numbers. If you’re a bit stat hungry, you’ll find that France leads 3rd in all baseball according to FanGraphs in Wins Above Replacement (1.2), 4th in WAR according to Baseball Reference, and leads the league in Win Probability Added. According to Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), France is a paltry 135% better than the average league hitter, with a 235 wRC+ second only to Nolan Arenado’s 236 wRC+. In short, don’t overreact, he was that good.
That’s the part where I tell you that obviously France will fall behind and it’s true there will be tougher tracks than this. His line drive rate is a whopping 33.9%, while his home run per fly ball clip is a staggering 35.7%. He’ll have stretches where he hacks the ball into the ground and sees his sub-par footspeed break away on his BABIP. But the beauty of what France can do is balance opportunities to hit a pitcher and help the Mariners.
Coupled with his supernatural running control and ability to spray the ball, combined with greater power than he has had since his El Paso days, the holes in France’s swing are shrinking just as the points for easy exploitation in Seattle’s lineup have shrunk around him . As taught by his late SDSU college baseball coach, the great Tony Gwynn, “he gets into position and takes his best swing.” Maybe that’s not the idiom that makes every kid a different Hall of Famer, but it’s a mentality that makes France a star.