All three major Wins Above Replacement metrics will tell you the best position player on the Seattle Mariners this year (or within a tenth of a decimal, far less than the rounding error for such stats) is, at the moment, Ty France. Seattle’s multi-positional contact expert is threatening the best first base season in Seattle since Russell Branyan in 2009 and, depending on your metric, to be the first first baseman to lead the M’s in fWAR since Richie Sexson in 2005. He’s getting there through a few good processes.
Firstly, France has become a majority 1B following the season ending injury to Evan White. Of his 103 games played this year, he’s racked up 53 starts and 58 appearances at the cold corner, to 18 starts and 20 total games and just five starts/games at third. There’s been plenty of time at DH, and part of France’s utility to his club is that he can moonlight around the infield, but sticking him at first and letting him focus on hitting has been a clear boon for the San Diego State product. While his glovework hasn’t been White-caliber and his recent mental miscue in the Yankees series stings, he’s been more than adequate, and anywhere from acceptable to excellent depending on your defensive metric of choice.
Whether a less onerous defensive assignment has helped France thrive at the plate or not is uncertain, but he’s been delivering all the same. As erstwhile LL writer and current New York Daily News East Coast Bias Expert Matthew Roberson investigated back in May, France was on a blistering tear prior to a 98 mph Dustin May fastball that struck him square on the wrist. To pull the chart from Matthew’s piece, it showed a clear delineation pre and post injury.
Ty France since HBP
|April 1-April 19||73||.311||.411||.525||.936||19||3||168||0.475|
|April 20-May 10||70||.161||.257||.242||.499||10||0||52||-0.927|
The club recognized the issue eventually, placing France on the injured list a few days later, returning after the 10-day minimum and looking dramatically improved (shocker).
Ty France post-IL
|May 24-Aug 9||282||0.300||0.362||0.458||0.820||76||8||131||0.720|
Matthew also noted that France’s power had evaporated, and he was struggling to pull the ball with power or avoid popping the ball up to the infield. He’s sliced his pop up rate from an unseemly 13.6% of all fly balls to just 6.3%, and is striking the ball with far better force.
He’s not a major slugger, likely to finish with a home run total in the teens and an ISO around .150 to .170, but his line resembles in many ways a young, right-handed Kyle Seager, striking out less than league average and putting plenty of balls in play. It’s a winning recipe, with one slightly worrisome outlier.
Ty France ties the #Mariners single-season record with his 19th hit-by-pitch, matching José Guillén (19 HBP in 2007).— Mariners PR (@MarinersPR) August 7, 2021
France recently tied the Mariners record for being hit by pitches in a single season. While it’s a dubious honor he no doubt doesn’t relish, particularly given the time he missed already and the deleterious impact it had on his performance, all those bruises are helping him contribute to the team. His 19 HBP place him second in MLB this year behind just Mark Canha of the Athletics, a player France’s profile compares favorably to in many ways. While Canha’s foot speed allows him to handle the outfield better than France, and has a longer history of drawing free passes via the less painful base on balls, France’s line drive contact knack has helped him put up above-average offensive lines his entire career. Notably, both players have long had high HBP rates, as righties who stick in on pitches and seem to be challenged on the inner half by opposing scouting reports, leading to frequent misses by less-than-precise pitchers. Sometimes hitters are simply victims of fate, pummeled by errant pitches at high rates for no perceivable purpose. But at nearly every level, France has had cause to armor up his left side, and should see more of the same as his career continues.
Fortunately, so long as France can remain healthy, he’ll have a route to solid OBP numbers so long as Seattle has plenty of ice packs to spare. Maintaining his solid second half will give Seattle a fascinating conundrum heading into the winter about where to focus on upgrading their roster. France makes clear sense as the 2022 Opening Day 1B even if Evan White is healthy, as the latter has to figure out his offensive approach, but with White one of the few players secured long term, and uncertainty with both the 2B and 3B spots following 2021, France seems to be securing a full time role, no matter where he lines up on defense.