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40 in 25: Ty France

How much damage can one elbow guard take?

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Projecting outcomes for baseball players is famously difficult. Every offseason, fans rally around picking apart preseason projections for their favorite teams and players. Even the best, most respected analysts get these things wrong often, and I am very far from an expert. But, as we like to say about extremely washed sluggers who can occasionally still park one, even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while. Well, I’m a blind squirrel and Ty France is my glorious, hit-tool-wielding nut.

From last year’s 40 in 40 on France:

Given how many times I’ve been burned by players like this who “are finally getting their shot” and “let’s just see what they can do with a full season of at-bats” and “well, you know, if it all goes right...,” I’m a bit disappointed in myself for falling for this again. But, as the wise Toomgis once said, “The heart wants what the heart wants.” I can’t help but feel optimistic and hopeful for a player who can fully occupy the DH spot in 2021 and mayyyyybe possibly evolve into a better second baseman with Infield Coach Perry Hill’s help and (squints impossibly hard) mayyyybe take over third base in the post-Kyle Seager days to come? The Mariners have no prospects ready to take over the hot corner for at least two to three seasons, so if France can become that stopgap for a season or two AND keep a hot bat, his value will be tremendous going forward.

Okay, so I did NOT see Ty France becoming a Gold Glove-adjacent first baseman, largely due to the fact that I was also banking on Evan White taking some big strides forward in 2021 (/stares off into the middle-distance). BUT! My blind faith in Ty France’s hitting ability was rewarded in 2021 and that concludes my bragging. Thank you for indulging me.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners
hitters gonna hit
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

France is a rare example of a Mariner who outplayed his most optimistic preseason projections. ZiPS predicted 2.6 fWAR for France in 2021 and also projected him to lead the team in fWAR. France crushed that projection, ending the season with 3.5 fWAR, which was indeed the highest total on the team. Not bad for his first full season in the majors, in which he was hurt several times due to his penchant for crowding the plate and getting hit on the elbow, forearm, and wrist by pitches (more on that later). This season, another player who has yet to play a full season in MLB is predicted as the fWAR leader by ZiPS (his name ends with “ooooooo”) and France gets even more respect thrown on his name with a prediction of 3.2 fWAR. Just like last year, I am ready to believe.

We’ve had so many instances over the years where we look at the roster, squint really hard, and say “well if player A, B, and C all have career years or exceed their most optimistic projections, then yeah this team could be pretty good!” As discussed, France did just that in 2021. But, he was more or less the only one who dramatically exceeded expectations.

As much as I love Ty France, a high-OBP contact hitter with poor base running speed should not be a competitive team’s most valuable offensive player. He should be your third or fourth best hitter and a vital role player in an offense that is constantly putting runners on base and he should regularly be the one driving in runners from second base by spraying the ball all over the place. That’s Ty France’s niche, and I believe he will fill it extremely well in 2022 as he now has three to four teammates who very well could out-produce him and/or be that table-setter that he didn’t always have in 2021.

One of such teammates is Adam Frazier, whom I honestly think Jerry Dipoto set out to acquire because he wanted another Ty France. Frazier, like France, has a hit tool that just won’t quit. He hits everything and sends baseballs all over the park.

Adam Frazier 2021 Spray Chart - Baseball Savant

He even has slightly above average sprint speed! If the Mariners have a healthy Frazier and a healthy France hitting at the top of the lineup for the majority of the season? Ooh, baby, that’s alotta hits. Sign me up.

But, the lingering threat of injuries due to damage sustained by hit-by-pitches looms large over France’s expectations. France absorbed the force of 27 pitches last season. That’s...really bad for longevity in this game. Those cause the kind of injuries that may not seem IL-worthy at first, but tend to accumulate over the course of a season and can derail a hitter’s approach at the plate. As former staff writer and current New Yawk Guy Matthew Roberson wrote about last year, France was tearing the cover off the ball until April 19 when Dustin May left 98 miles per hour of baseball seams imprinted on France’s forearm. Eventually, after trying to unsuccessfully grit through it and then taking a 10-day IL visit, France bounced back and Deputy Editor John Trupin noted in August 2021 that it took roughly until early June for France to resemble the same hitter he was in April.

credit: FanGraphs & John Trupin

Is it possible for France to change his stance or approach in an effort to get hit by fewer pitches? That’s the million dollar question that we’ve debated several times over this past offseason and honestly I really don’t have an answer to that question. I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on it in the comments.

When you look at France’s last season as a whole, obviously he fared just fine, but what if he had avoided that freezing cold stretch between April 19 and early June? Well, the Mariners DID famously missed the 2021 playoffs by one game...well, okay let’s not go any further down that path. The point is, what could a whole season of Ty France’s bat really do for a competitive team where his bat isn’t required to be the absolute best one on the team? I believe we’re about to find out. Let’s all send some positive energy to France’s elbow guard, just for safety’s sake.