Yesterday’s loss to the Texas Rangers stung, as the Seattle Mariners brought a poor approach - or at least poor execution - to Arlington against Dane Dunning. Swinging the bat is an enticing way to win a baseball game, but one of the core lessons of the expansion of analytics in baseball still holds true: getting on base is all good, no matter how. And yet, for Ty France, whose wRC+ sits now at exactly 100, with a .247/.335/.357 line that accurately highlights a career-low ISO, his primary value to the club has slipped into territory that’s been hard to overcome.
France’s skillset is an uncommon one, no matter what time period you look at across baseball. He has long been an above-average line drives hitter, spraying singles in the way you’d usually expect of a slighter, speedier player. Though France hit 20 homers last year and clubbed plenty of big flies in Triple-A El Paso, the hitter the M’s have gotten has been one who excels by getting hits and getting hit. The brave SoCal kid succeeds in large part due to his willingness to stay in on pitches and flick them the other way, however this leaves him exposed to constant bombardment by offerings off the inner half. France led the league in hit by pitches in 2021 with 27, tied with Mark Canha. That total dipped to 21 in 2022, merely 5th as Canha took the title once again with 28. 2023, however, has been France’s magnum opus, with 33 peggings (phrasing) ahead of Saturday’s game. Not only does that lead the league that is tied for 11th all-time, and 4th since 1900, trailing just 1997 Craig Biggio (34), 1986 Don Baylor (35), and poor 1971 Ron Hunt (50!).
It’s a skill to get hit by pitches, as Biggio and Anthony Rizzo have helped popularize in the sport alongside France, and France’s 81 HBP since 2021 leads baseball by a mile, with Canha the only close competitor at 70 and Rizzo a distant third at 58. But all those bruises can take a toll. It’s been an annual writeup for us at LL to note the point in time where a specific hit by pitch has turned France from one of the league’s finest hitters into a limp noodle who cannot make up for his limitations due to glacial foot speed and merely solid glovework at the least-challenging defensive position.
This year, with France’s power at career lows and his entire offensive skillset seemingly shrunk, it’s tricky to pinpoint whether a particular hit by pitch could be the culprit, as France once again started hot in April and May before slowing over the season. Moreover, a hit by pitch is easily tracked, but less so are other possible injuries, as France has been dinged by foul balls, plays at first, and even collisions on the basepaths.
It can also be misleading to place too much on one hit by pitch. For instance, the inciting incident of this season for France could easily have been this brutal HBP to his hand on May 23rd, after which France described it as thinking “his wrist had been shattered” in the moment.
However, as Ryan Divish notes in the linked tweet above, the pitch hits France on the hand, France was able to return two days later and had his best offensive game of the season, clubbing two home runs! Of course, France was hit by ANOTHER pitch in that game, albeit a seemingly glancing blow off the brim of his helmet. The before and after splits on May 23rd are not nonexistent (107 wRC+ before despite cooler weather, 97 wRC+ since) but there’s no smoking gun in the way other years have had a clear delineation point. This grisly ball off the forearm on 9/2 has likely had an impact on France’s power, as he’s had just one extra-base hit since, slashing .194/.286/.210.
However, that only explains three weeks of underperformance.
What France has been unable to do in 2023 is, as mentioned at the top of this article, make good things happen when he takes the bat off his shoulder. That’s fairly catastrophic news for a hitter who has never walked more than 7.1% of the time, even as his HBPs ensure a quality OBP. Every aspect of the 28-year-old’s offensive profile is that has been his bread and butter in years past is pointing the wrong direction compared to last year, outside of a slight uptick in traditional walks. 2022 France was an aggressive hitter who did not necessarily barrel the ball consistently but was challenging to position against defensively and was genuinely elite at handling sliders and curveballs, while still getting to fastballs capably. This tracks generally - France has typically had preternatural bat control, choosing to trust his significant strength to help him get decent contact on lots of pitches over excellent contact on a lower percentage of pitches a la Joey Gallo. This year, sliders have crushed France, as have heaters, as his bat speed has seemingly been sapped, leaving France just off on pitches he’s previously been able to flick to the outfield.
Some of this may be Kyle Seager Syndrome, as France’s expected stats are essentially in alignment with years past and there’s been no drastic shift in his exit velocity or barrel rate. KSS, as it is commonly known* (*I made it up just now) is when a hitter with excellent bat-to-ball skills and decent-but-not-overwhelming power tries to alter their contact profile, in Seager’s case in 2017-19 when he attempted intermittently to appease those grousing about his pull-only approach and would consistently end up flying out 380+ feet to dead center instead of pulling his usual 364 foot homers. But France’s issues, if they are mechanical and not physical, are difficult to identify, leaving us with barely a week to hope he can turn things around.
Here’s where France’s missing production is, right over the plate:
2022 All-Star Ty France was a pain to pitch to. The “Shadow Zone” is where pitchers want to live, and they should be taking run production away from hitters in that space by called strikes, bad contact, and whiffs. That France “lost” merely six runs in that space is a testament to how well he could get to pitches and put them in play serviceably (even if he still probably swung too much and could swing himself into double plays exasperatingly). France was in the top 20% of 300 qualified hitters last year in production in the Shadow Zone, and above-average over the heart of the plate as well.
This year, you probably know what it’s going to look like, but it’s still worth a gaze (and here’s a link if you’d like to investigate for yourself and zoom in on the image, Savant makes these tiny for some reason.)
Ahhhhhhhhhh! France is essentially just as good (or better!) in terms of what he’s produced as a hitter when taking pitches (33 HBP will help with that!) but the swings, my god the swings. Essentially, this is only telling us what we already know: Ty has not been punishing mistakes and he’s been unable to make anything out of what had previously been a skill in hitting tough pitches. I combed his video and perhaps France is opening his hips slightly earlier than he should, but it’s hard to say exactly.
Down the stretch here, France is unfortunately not in a position to be hidden much by the M’s. If he is limited by the beating he’s taken this year, and it seems all but certain he is, both at the dish and on the basepaths, it has only highlighted that Seattle did not build a roster with much offensive depth. Only two position players on the M’s 40-man roster are unavailable presently: Tom Murphy and Evan White. Of course, AJ Pollock, Tommy La Stella, and Kolten Wong are also out of the picture, but what’s of consequence is that this is who they’ve got.
Should Mike Ford be starting every day going forward against RHP? Yes.
Should Mike Ford be starting every day going forward against LHP? I don’t think so. 106 PAs in his career vs. LHP does not a splits-worthy sample size make, but if France is truly playing hurt right now, it may be a moot point.
Can Ty France still contribute to this team in their final eight games? I think so, at least as a platoon bat.
Do the Seattle Mariners plan to have France in their Opening Day lineup next year? It’s really hard to envision, but that is a winter question. If the M’s are to keep playing into this fall, they have to be honest with themselves - and France must be honest with them - about what he is capable of right now.