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Breaking Mariners: Ty France edition

The recent acquisition slugged his way into Seattle fans’ hearts in 2020. Is it likely to expect a repeat performance in 2021?

Seattle Mariners v Arizona Diamondbacks
Ty Francis Bacon
Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As projections for the 2021 season begin to roll in, we’re kicking off a new series here on the site where we take a projection for a particular player and two staff members argue the case for each player over- and under-achieving on said projection. Since we don’t have every projection system currently available, we’ll note them where available, but our discussions are hinged around an in-house decision on what we feel the “break point” is for that player’s projection, a number arrived at by negotiation and input from the staff that comes closest to being one writer’s ceiling and another’s floor. If there’s a player you’d especially like to see covered in this series, drop it in the comments and we’ll do our best to fulfill all such requests. In case you missed the first entry in this series, on Mitch Haniger, check it out here.

Player: Ty France

France had been in the Padres system since 2015, when San Diego drafted him in the 34th round as a local kid out of SDSU. Despite being a lesser-heralded player in the Padres’ lofty system, France did exactly what you have to do as a late-round draftee to stick around in pro ball: he hit, and hit, and hit. Everywhere he went, he hit. The lowest wRC+ France ever posted in the minors was 104, after a mid-season promotion to Double-A, a level that can trip up even the most promising prospects. Despite his performance, France found himself blocked in a stacked San Diego system, and thus was dealt to Seattle in the Austin Nola deal. At the time of the trade, France was slugging almost .500 with a wRC+ of 137, and while his production dipped slightly after coming to Seattle, he still finished the season with a .302/.362/.453 slash line, good enough to slide into the Top 10 Mariner performances of the year by bWAR. ZiPS projects him to continue on this track in 2021, and in fact to be the most valuable Mariner hitter next year.

2021 ZiPS projection: 112 OPS+, 2.6 zWAR, .268/.335/.437; Steamer .6 WAR

LL Break Point: 2.2 WAR

Taking the over: Tim

In 2019, FanGraphs ranked Ty France as the #29 prospect in San Diego’s system, behind such luminaries as Andres Muñoz (24) and Nick Margevicius (23). Also, huh, we sure have nabbed a lot of prospects from the Padres. He wasn’t even ranked in 2018, which was fair after a 2017 where he looked merely okay in A+ and AA ball. Following absolutely torrid stretches in AA and AAA in 2019, he was essentially a victim of the Padres’ infield logjam (thank you, Machado and Hosmer) and found himself nearly unable to get at bats in a stacked Padres lineup even with a DH spot available in 2020. But the Padres’ high quality offense is not Ty’s fault, and while he benefited from the PCL, you can’t exactly fake a .770 slugging percentage (!) or 196 wRC+ (!!). Those numbers put him head and shoulders above the entire league, and after sporadic appearances with the Padres over two seasons, he rewarded the Mariners and Padres in 2020 for giving him a chance with a 132 wRC+ between the two organizations.

And how does he do that damage at the plate? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before about a Mariner: he hunts fastballs in the heart of the plate and avoids the junk pitches.

Hey does that pattern look familiar? Here you go, look at this other Mariner who was acquired as another organization’s odd man out and promptly broke out in Seattle.

The raw values are admittedly different, but the pattern is the same: stay away from the bad and awful stuff and hit the really good stuff. That likely starts to explain France’s Savant numbers, as he doesn’t post very good exit velocity or hard hit numbers—and yet has off-the-charts figures for xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG. Will France run a .390 BABIP in 2021? Almost certainly no. But the tools are there, and his swing decisions make him an extraordinarily valuable bat in a Mariners lineup that needs one.

Of course, for him to get to 2.2 WAR, he either has to be a top-5 DH (Luke Voit, in 2019, posted 1.7 fWAR over 510 PA with a 126 wRC+, to give you some idea) or provide some kind of value in the field (again, to give some idea, 2019 Whit Merrifield posted 2.9 fWAR with a 110 wRC+ and terrible defensive numbers—but it took him 735 PA to do so). But I’m relatively sanguine that France, although he’s never going to turn into Dee Gordon, can turn into something like Shed Long defensively the more time he spends with Perry Hill. If he can make those improvements in his fundamentals, there’s more than enough in the bat to easily clear the 2.2 WAR mark.

Taking the under: Kate

Let me preface this by saying: I enjoy watching Ty France at-bats. Remember how much we enjoyed Seth Smith at-bats in 2015, each of which a tall cool glass of milk with which to quench the fiery aftertaste of Zunino’s most recent three-and-flee plate appearance? Ah, the taste of professionalism. That’s very much how Ty France operates at the plate, despite being built along the right-handed slugger lines so coveted by Jack Z. France never ran a K% over 20% in his MiLB career, and while that percentage has crept closer to the mid-20s in a relatively brief MLB sample over the past two seasons, he both cut his strikeouts down and raised his walk rate in his second bite at the MLB apple.

However, I have some...concerns about how France’s torrid 2020 numbers came about (to say nothing of his minor-league numbers; San Diego affiliates play in some of the bounciest houses in the minors, from the overall hitter-friendly California League to the launching pad of El Paso). Setting aside a BABIP close to .400 for now, there’s this, in his Statcast numbers:

Again, we’re not concerned about the K-BB numbers right now, banking on his strong plate discipline throughout the minors. What these numbers show is a player who is above-average at making good contact—shown not only through his above-average Barrel %, but also a “Sweet Spot” percentage over 10 points higher than MLB average—but who simply doesn’t hit the ball hard at all compared to his MLB peers.

“But Kate,” I hear you saying, “you are always talking about how much you love a hit tool!” This is true, friends, I do. I do love a contact monster. However, with France’s defensive limitations, that means there also has to be some significant thump in the bat, and despite that much-heralded .770 SLG mark in 2019, thanks largely to the Triple-A rabbit ball and El Paso’s inflated offensive environment, and some strong ISO numbers in his MLB career so far, the underwhelming hard-hit numbers don’t sell me on the power holding up after pitchers have had time to adjust and game plan against France, and opposing teams are able to align more sophisticated defensive shifts against him. One positive step France took to combat that in 2020 was hitting more line drives and cutting down on his ground ball rate, although of course, small sample size concerns apply, as with anything in 2020.

And as for that designation of “contact monster,” I’m not sure it applies here, yet. France swings more often than the average player at pitches in the zone, and yet makes contact an average amount, and actually makes worse chase contact than the average MLBer (although again, encouragingly, when France did chase outside the zone in 2020, he made contact more frequently than in 2019). There’s still plenty of time left to find out What Ty France Is, and concerning exit velocities aside, it’s easy to see why ZiPS is so high on a player who possesses the single most important skill for a baseball player: the ability to hit. Currently, however, I see a tweener profile both offensively and defensively, and if I’m betting on the Mariners’ best hitter for next season, France takes a backseat to several other names (the aging yet always-productive Kyle Seager, surprising delight princess-hipped power-hitter Dylan Moore, a rebounding Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis?) on my personal list. Looking forward to his five-win season proving me wrong!