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40 in 40: Ty France, is there more?

Can Ty France be that guy?

Seattle Mariners v. Houston Astros Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

While it wasn’t his best season in Mariner blue, 2022 was still a national coming-out party for Ty France, who earned his first All-Star appearance, despite all his numbers being down from 2021. This was most likely brought on by France’s issues with a left arm injury, received in a game against Oakland on June 23rd, which immediately preceded a so-so June, an atrocious August, and then shaped back into form in time for the playoffs in September and October. Still one has to wonder if we can expect Ty France to take another major step forward this year. So far the first baseman has proved he can hang in the major leagues, but when will he take that step forward from good to great?

While France has shown he can consistently spray the ball all over the field, the deeper statistics show he’s more of an outlier in the Mariners lineup than one might expect. Despite having the fourth best on-base percentage on the team in 2022, France actually had the team’s lowest walk rate, at just 5.9%. France finished even lower than Jake Lamb (8.8%), Jarred Kelenic (8.8%), Justin Upton ( 10.5%), and Luis Torrens (7.2%). For someone who strikes out so little, it’s odd that France struggles to walk, and especially odd on a Mariners team that finished second in the AL in walk percentage. Simply boosting his walk percentage back to where he was in 2020 or 2021 (7.1%) could raise his OBP back to the .350 range rather than .338, where it stalled out this year. But showing more patience at the plate could help France out even more than that.

Getting ahead 1-0 makes France significantly more likely to get on base, slashing a very nice .299/.386/.453 in 1-0 counts last year, compared to a measly .257/.301/.380 in 0-1 counts. In two-strike counts, he only managed to slash .209/.268/.260. France’s 2022 Swing/Take data shows that while he’s going after the pitches he needs to in the heart of the zone, he’s also expanding the zone a little too often, swinging in the “Shadow” zone 61% of the time, vs. the league-average of 54%. And those numbers actually represent an improvement; in 2021, France posted a -26 RV for Shadow zone pitches, but was able to offset that with a +12 RV on “Heart” zone pitches, vs. just +2 in 2022. If France really wants to be the on-base machine in Seattle, and he has to tools to be that guy, he has got to work himself into better counts so he can better damage pitches in the heart of the zone, and maybe accept a few more free passes if he’s not getting the pitches he wants.

Funnily enough, this still may be difficult for France, not because he’s got some hidden strikeout weakness (although he’s still susceptible to a good changeup), but because he just hits the ball and puts it in play so often. Despite having the lowest walk rate on the team, France is still in the upper echelons of the league in both Whiff% and K%, finishing above 80% in both.

Baseball Savant

With a 90.2% zone contact percentage, it’s obvious that France is more than likely going to put it in play. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with a single—Ichiro famously made a career out of hitting singles—but when you’re a first basemen with a bottom 5 percentile sprint speed, it’s important that the ball be hit with authority. It’s possible some of France’s power outage may have had to do with the flexor strain he suffered in late June when Sheldon Neuse ran through his outstretched arm, as France did see a decrease in his ISO shortly after the incident. Consider, though, the path of his 2022 as a whole:

The injury happened around Game 65 and there is a decrease in France’s ISO shortly thereafter—but it’s nothing compared to his earlier-season slump, or a prolonged slump in late August (around the 100 marker).

The reality is, for as much as he seems like a prototypical power-hitting first baseman, Ty France has not hit the ball very hard over the past two seasons, rarely barreling it up. Since he begin playing in the major leagues, France has never recorded an average exit velocity above 90, and has never had a barrel percentage higher than 8%, roughly league average— and that was in the shortened 2020 season. France’s ability has always been to hit for average, spraying the ball all over the field, with some moderate power mixed in. To a certain extent, lighter-hitting first basemen can and do find places in this league—Todd Helton was just nearly elected into the Hall of Fame (should have been but that’s for another article)—but for someone who is making contact so often and walking so little it would be a massive improvement for both France and the Mariners if he could find the gap in the outfield a little more, get the ball up in the air a little more, maybe send it over the fence more often.

It seems odd to be hoping for a breakout from a player who will be playing in his age-29 season, but because of the constant nicks and bumps France has suffered at the hands of opposing pitchers, it feels like we haven’t seen his best yet. If he can come back fully healthy, maintain that solid contact, walk more, and start hitting for more power, I don’t see any reason why Ty France can’t become the superstar we all know he can be. At 29, France is well within his prime years, that time when players become who they will be for the rest of their careers. I hope for Ty France that evolution brings him beyond above-average and into legendary status.