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What’s eating Ty France?

Seattle’s All-Star first baseman has been slumping hard in August. Is it injury, or something else?

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Attentive Mariner fans can’t help but notice that their All-Star first baseman is not exactly putting up an All-Star performance lately. Having Ty France come up in a scenario with runners on usually means Mariner fans are automatically penciling in runs on their scorecards, but lately there’s been a lot more of the last play of Sunday’s game: with a runner on second and Ty as the tying run at the plate, he rolled over a 92 MPH fastball in the middle of the plate from Austin Pruitt, grounding out sharply to end the game and hand the Mariners a series loss against the lowly A’s.

Eagle-eyed fans have been quick to notice the downturn in France’s offensive production since returning from the wrist injury that sidelined him over the last week of June and the first week of July. Recently, Ryan Divish asked France if the wrist was still bothering him, earning a typically Ty France tongue-in-cheek reply. But numbers, as they say, don’t lie:

Ty France 2022 Splits

146 6.2% 17.1% 0.130 0.229 84.2 0.214 0.274 0.344 0.267 76
311 6.4% 13.8% 0.180 0.345 89.1 0.316 0.390 0.476 0.380 156
69 7.2% 17.4% 0.048 0.157 83.7 0.145 0.203 0.194 0.183 16

Woof. That’s bad, and if the August numbers are any indication, it’s getting worse. While denying the wrist has been a factor in his slump, France points to a decrease in strike-zone discipline as the culprit. Divish dug into the data and did find that France has been expanding the strike zone, swinging at pitches out of the zone about 25% more often than he was earlier in the season. But if you look at Statcast’s Swing/Take metrics, France is exactly in line with his production last year, amassing a well above-average +18 runs so far, right in line with his +19 of last year. Those numbers include a +10 mark for “chase” pitches and +10 for “waste” pitches, the ones furthest outside of the strike zone, suggesting France’s discerning eye is as good as ever. And while his strikeout rate has risen over his months of struggles, it’s still well-below major league average.

Rather, what’s more concerning is France’s “heart” numbers—those pitches that are in the meaty delicious part of the plate, where batters should be doing damage. France is only at a +2 for this year, and while he’s never been a Barrel King—his 26% barrel rate this year lags a little behind his 33% mark last year, both in the bottom third of the league—that’s a significant dropoff from his +10 of last season. Similarly, Ty has never been one to put a big hurting on a ball, with modest exit velocities around major league average, but the five-mile drop in his average exit velocity between the first half of the season and now is significant enough to sound alarm bells. France’s profile has never been chiefly about over-the-fence power, but rather a line-drives-to-all-fields approach. With that difference in average exit velocity, however, it’s like the difference between prime Ichiro and late-career Ichiro.

The depressed exit velocity also helps explain the huge dip in BABIP. France won’t be legging out any infield singles in general, but his chance to reach base falls the more he puts the ball on the ground without hitting it hard, which, unfortunately, he’s been doing a lot this season. To revisit the game-ending hit from Sunday: while it was France’s hardest-hit ball of the day, at 100.7 MPH, but it was also yet another grounder, as 67.3% of his hits in August have been. 67.3% is too many balls on the ground for the speediest player, let along a slug-footed France, so it’s no surprise he’s been abysmal in August. This is part of an overall issue; in 2022, France’s average launch angle has decreased sharply, down to an average of 8.7 degrees vs. 11 in 2021 and 14.8 in 2022. Every player has their own ideal launch angle based on what type of hitter they are and their body type—Big Beefy Boy Cal Raleigh averages a sky-high 21 degrees, while the more petite Adam Frazier averages within .3 of 12.6 every year, right about at MLB average—but France’s lower launch angle doesn’t track with the success he’s had in the past, so it seems safe to assume it’s not working well for him.

Despite what France avows, all this information seems to point to a loss of power due to injury. He might be chasing more out of the zone, but he’s so good at covering the zone he’s still making contact; the difference is in that quality of contact. France’s hard hit rate has dropped a couple of percentage points this season, and it’s been especially notable on fastballs: in 2021, France hit 43.8% of fastballs hard, for a run value of +9 on the pitch; in 2022, he’s only hitting 34% of four-seamers hard (run value +4), and he’s slugging just .417 on them vs. .486 last season. This is 97 from Gerrit Cole, but it’s right in the middle of the plate; France winds up fouling it straight back.

If you want a less impressive example than Cole, here’s Mike Mayers of the Angels giving Ty 91 MPH in basically the same spot with the same result (although this one was popped straight up along the third base line and would have been an out if the Angels could field even a little bit).

So what’s the deal with France’s second-half performance? Is the wrist really the main culprit? I’m guessing it’s at least a factor, given the downturn in his batted-ball data, along with the various bumps and bruises a player who gets hit as often as Ty France suffers in the dog days of a long season. No one is 100% right now, lingering wrist injuries or not. But if it was all the wrist and not being able to impact the fastball, it seems improbable France would be able to do something like this in late July, sending 94 MPH to dead center:

In looking at a bunch of France’s swings in researching this piece and over the course of the second half, I’m wondering if there’s something going on with his timing. Over and over in the videos from this past month, I saw France swinging late, fouling off balls with emergency hacks. Another batter being that late would have missed entirely and struck out, but sometimes the gift of making a lot of contact turns into a curse, as France makes contact with balls he doesn’t want to, dribbling them out in front of home plate or back to the pitcher for easy outs: the flip side of having a barrel that stays in the zone a long time when you’re scuffling. And a few of those “balls in play” could drastically impact his overall exit velocity—a few 60-MPH taps can really drag the average down.

The Mariners are far from the only team that’s struggling offensively as the dog days of August have set in; as a team they’ve been just a smidge above average, at a 106 wRC+, but that’s ninth-best in baseball and third-best in the American League behind the Orioles (!) and of course the Astros. But Ty France is such an integral part of this offense, the Mariners have to have his bat producing in order to maintain a hope of earning a Wild Card berth. Here’s hoping that whatever is going on, it gets turned around soon.