In investigating the utter star turn by Ty France over the first few weeks of the Seattle Mariners season, there are three things I want to hone in on. These three foci will help us contextualize and understand the what and why for France, while reminding us of just who France has been in the first place.
The first important thing to know is that Ty France has essentially always played like a stud.
The Seattle Mariners’ best hitter in 2022 thus far was a potent contributor for his San Diego State University Aztecs, running a .905 OPS and a .336 batting average across three season. Though he was a two-time All-American, France was slowed by injury in his junior year and ended up being drafted in the now-defunct 34th round by the San Diego Padres. As a college bat viewed as a somewhat limited defender by many, there was pressure on France to deliver power and average at the plate. Year after year, he has done essentially just that. Save for the 2017 season where he merely ran a mid-.700 OPS and knocked just five home runs, France has always brought slugging meat and potatoes to accompany his medley of spray single veggies.
He ran a .299/.378/.451 slash line in High-A at ages 21 and 22, then a .269/.346/.415 line as a 22 and 23 year old in Double-A, and a hilarious .372/.454/.713 domination of Triple-A at 23 and 24. In that 2019 season at Triple-A El Paso, he was particularly challenging to evaluate. See, not only did 2019 feature the peak of the so-called “juiced ball”, but in the already offense-friendly Pacific Coast League, France’s excellence was treated as an anecdote to embody a larger issue.
The fact that a 24-year-old fringy corner infield prospect hit 27 home runs in 348 plate appearances was treated as a symptom of a systematic issue instead of a testament to his individual potential. The Padres called him up for a couple stretches, but he struggled to meet those same heights, for the first and only time putting up subpar numbers, setting the stage for the chaos of 2020 and his inclusion in the trade that brought him to Seattle.
I love little more than picking nits for mechanical adjustments, but there’s very little if anything that mechanically separates the Ty France in those four-year-old clips from the player Seattle has been carried by this year. The stance, the load, the swing, even how he watches his home runs carry is consistent. Physically, perhaps one could suggest France has added some muscle, particularly with the knowledge he’d rarely be asked to man 3B or 2B going forwards. In large part though this is the same Ty France, now in his prime, with the wisdom of over 1,000 big league plate appearances coming into 2022, and, touchons du bois, in good health.
That brings us to the second important thing to know, which is that Ty France has always had his strange proclivity for getting hit by pitches. This shouldn’t be deeply surprising, as studies indicate hit by pitch rate for hitters has fairly strong correlation rates from one year to another. In fact, we can comfortably call getting hit by pitches a “skill,” albeit a risky one. France’s aggressiveness means he’s not always prone to walking as often as other three-true-outcome style sluggers, yet he’s been able to sustain an above-average On-Base Percentage (and, by extension, overall offensive profile) because of all those bruises. France is more Craig Biggio than Mo Vaughn, standing near the inner edge of the batter’s box but making no obvious effort to hang over the plate. Instead I believe the 5’11 righty is a victim of both the era and his own scouting report.
Hit by pitches are at all time high rates league-wide, with pitchers working at max effort almost constantly and a greater emphasis on stuff that runs, dives, dances, and bites than ever before. The grisliest pitches that helped drain France’s power in 2021 were hard mistakes up and in that caught him on the arm or wrist as Matthew Roberson highlighted. He’s frequently fallen victim to running fastballs that he dutifully stays in on to track, in the event that they are in fact sliders he has to stay with to spray the other way, a brave ability that helps make him such a particularly balanced and dangerous hitter. It’s that skill that has helped separate him, as pitchers are just as likely to see a mistake left middle-up deposited in The Pen as they are to see a well-placed slider low and away looped casually into right-center for a single.
Where then is a pitcher to go? Well, where would you pitch a player with a hitting heatmap like this?
Pitchers try to run it off the plate to France and lure him to chase, and at times like anyone he will. But if you’re coming in the zone, there are precious few safe spaces to go, and the only place he seemed likelier not to hurt pitchers was elevated and on the inside part of the plate when he swung the bat. So pitchers will keep coming up and in on France, and he’ll keep taking balls off his well padded arm and body, hopefully into the protected locations so that he can lean right back in the next time up without any loss of power. I also would endorse simply bubble-wrapping the entire left side of the body, or perhaps coating him in what they make airplane black boxes out of.
It’s imperative that he stay healthy because the third important thing to know is that Ty France is currently hitting like one of the best players in the league. Are you a sabermetric-phobe? His slash line of .375/.459/.656 is 2nd, 4th, and 6th in MLB among qualified hitters coming into today. His strikeout rate of 10.8% is 15th-lowest in MLB, with essentially only perennial MVP candidate José Ramírez of the Cleveland Guardians as his closest comparable in terms of numbers on the year. If you’re a bit more stats-hungry, you’ll note France is 3rd in all of baseball in Wins Above Replacement (1.2) per FanGraphs, 4th in WAR according to Baseball Reference, and leading the league in Win Probability Added. By Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), France is a laughable 135% better than the league-average hitter so far, with a 235 wRC+ second only to Nolan Arenado’s 236 wRC+. In short, you are not overreacting, he’s been that good.
This is the part where I tell you France will obviously regress, and it’s true, there will be tougher stretches than this. His line drive rate is a sensational 33.9%, while his home run per fly ball clip sits at a staggering 35.7%. He will have stretches of chopping the ball into the ground, and seeing his subpar foot speed chip away at his BABIP. But the beauty of what France can do is provide a balance of ways to beat a pitcher and help the Mariners.
Between with his preternatural barrel control and ability to spray the ball combining now with greater power than has been seen since his time in El Paso, the holes in France’s swing are shrinking just as the spots for easy exploitation in Seattle’s lineup have shrunk around him. Like he was taught by his late college baseball coach at SDSU, the great Tony Gwynn, he’s “getting in position and taking his best swing”. Maybe that’s not the turn of phrase that will turn every kid into another Hall of Famer, but it’s a mentality that is making France into a star.