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40 in 40: Ty France is a headliner

 France will be an important part of the Mariners 2024 story, but will that story just be clickbait?

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In a manner of speaking, Ty France’s time with the Seattle Mariners has been a resounding success after first arriving with the club in a trade that sent Austin Nola and a couple relievers to the Padres, netting him and three other players in return. Since then, Ty had enough of a breakout with his bat that he played his way into being the everyday starter at first base over the last few seasons. In terms of pure value comparison, France alone has far exceeded what they likely would have gotten out of Nola, and certainly more than what the Padres who recently non-tendered him did in fact get, and that alone is a win for Seattle.

However, as he has played his way into prominence with the Mariners, he has also adopted the higher expectations that come with it, and injury and struggles at the plate have shaded what was otherwise a bright addition to the Mariners lineup. The peaks and valleys of his time with the Mariners rightfully have the fanbase wondering which exact version of Ty France will show up for the 2024 season.

A Story Told in Headlines (and some quotes)

The baseball community loves to complicate things. The deeper we dive into mathematical nuances of nearly every aspect of the game, the more we can find ways to tell a player’s story. Their strengths, their struggles. That level of insight is certainly not needed for every player. Sometimes it really is as simple as “they hit the ball really hard”, or, sometimes, “they stopped hitting the ball really hard”. Ty Frances’ profile, successes, and struggles, have been well documented here at Lookout Landing. In part due to it being what we are here to do, but certainly aided by the fact that his story is generally an easy one to tell. In fact, if you read just the titles of the Lookout Landing pieces on France in order, they basically tell you all you need to know about his time with the team.

Ty France is Bacon (Sep 2, 2020)

What Happened to Ty France? (May 11, 2021)

The fix is in for Ty France (Aug 10, 2021)

Ty France is the same as ever, yet new and improved (Apr 26, 2022)

Stop hitting Ty France (Jun 6, 2022)

Death, taxes, and Mariners All-Star snubs (Jul 11, 2022)

Ty France is an All-Star (Jul 17, 2022)

What’s eating Ty France? (Aug 22, 2022)

40 in 40: Ty France, is there more? (Jan 30, 2023)

It just hasn’t gotten better for Ty France (Sep 23, 2023)

When the infielder first arrived mid-season in the trade, he did so with a history of impressive minor league numbers, albeit tempered by hitter friendly parks, and still needing to show that his contact skills would play at the highest level. He played his way into an everyday role as the starting first baseman, struggled at times with the inciting incident seeming to be injury, played his way to earn an All-Star selection, be snubbed, be chosen anyways, struggle more likely because of injury, get hot again in bursts, only to ultimately struggle some more but this time perhaps less directly tied to injury and therefore more worrisome about the peripheral numbers.

I could painstakingly craft a retelling of the journey so far, but instead I will opt for pulling quotes from the aforementioned articles to not only let my colleagues’ work continue to shine, but to present an unfiltered view on the perspectives on France at the time, and how they have changed - or in some cases, haven’t.

Kate Preusser was the first to get an opportunity to do a write up on Ty back in 2020, in a series of pieces analyzing the individual players received in the Austin Nola trade, in “Ty France is Bacon”. Kate had this to say:

“On to the hitting, which is France’s carrying tool. His minor-league numbers are very shiny, but it’s important to remember that San Diego plays in two of the offense-friendliest places in baseball in their Triple-A stadium in El Paso and High-A Lake Elsinore. The Triple-A stadium is particularly egregious, and that plus the juiced ball in 2019 combined to give France an otherworldly line of .399/.477/.770, but again, and I cannot state this firmly enough, do not allow your eyes to bug out while going awoogha-woogha like a cartoon character looking at that line.”

And then on his then limited time in the majors:

“As a pro, France hasn’t yet hit the ball particularly hard—hit exit velocities are below league-average, and his hard-hit rate was in the 40s in his debut season in 2019 but that has shrunk in half in 2020. He’s also been a heavy pull hitter and struck out much more in the majors than he ever did in the minors, but that could easily be a function of not getting regular reps in San Diego’s crowded lineup.”

For those particularly well versed in all things Ty France, the foreshadowing about hitting the ball hard sticks out like his elbow does when a ball veers inside. For the less informed, don’t worry, our journey of quotes will take us there. Although since it hasn’t been explicitly stated here yet, I should clarify the elbow sticking out comments; another long standing part of Ty France’s profile is his ability to wear pitches, making up for his lack of walks with a different kind of OBP magic, but also causing concern over the potential consequences of such a strategy. Fast forward to May of 2021, when Matthew Roberson gave us What Happened to Ty France? In it, he examined how France’s hot start turned into a slump, seemingly because of a HBP.

“Now, slumps happen all the time. It’s certainly possible that France is just in baseball’s notorious stranglehold right now, and soon he’ll free himself and start hitting again. But, like, at the same time, his drop off started pretty immediately after that hit by pitch. …Luckily, some of the underlying numbers paint a brighter picture for France. His average exit velocity in the games up to and including the HBP was 88.5 miles per hour. His average exit velocity since getting drilled is still 88.1, so it’s not like the juice has been completely squeezed from his bat. Unfortunately, he’s not getting the barrel to the ball nearly as much (15.9 Barrel% vs. 4.1%).”

So what about the rest of France’s 2021? From John Trupin’s “The fix is in for Ty France” we pull not a quote, but instead a table.

John Trupin

Overall, good! From the time Matthew wrote that article all through the rest of the season, France had returned to the more optimistic side of his form, posting his best overall major league season to date, amassing 3.1 fWAR in the process. He carried that success through the beginning of next year, leading to John contributing the entry “Ty France is the same as ever, yet new and improved” towards the end of April in 2022. That means less than a month of sample size, and in a year with a delayed start due to lock out, but small or not the sample was the kind to turn heads no matter which numbers you looked at.

“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.”

Alas, the Lookout Landing crew remains cursed with the gift of knowledge, and through the glasses of hindsight seem to be viewed as almost having foresight, as John also added this:

“This is the part where I tell you France will obviously regress, and it’s true, there will be tougher stretches than this.”

Always a ball magnet and after setting a franchise record for most times hit by pitches in a season in 2022, that trend continued throughout 2023 as well, leading Zach Mason to pen “Stop hitting Ty France”, which was not only a plea to pitchers to stop implementing the strategy against him, but cited how it wasn’t working as well. Also, he rightly questioned the benefit versus risk of France’s strategy of wearing pitches.

“You might think his conk rate is a good thing, though. Getting hit by pitches is a skill, and it’s unquestionably a part of Ty France’s skillset, helping elevate his OBP despite his below-average walk rate. But I ask, is the extra 3% of his plate appearances that end in a welt (compared to league average) worth the risk? Even if they all became outs, that’s hardly game-changing OBP. And in reality, those plate appearances should average out among his other outcomes, not automatically become outs.”

These were the good times, when France’s play was sweet like hon hon honey. A career year of 2022 turned into a strong first half in 2023, and Isabelle Minasian first highlighted the fact he was snubbed for an Alll-Star appearance in “Death, Taxes, and Mariners All-Star Snubs”, and then gave him his flowers with “Ty France is an All-Star” when a roster opening had him ultimately named to the team. Those flowers would quickly wilt in the August heat though, and Kate once again tagged in, this time to document his struggles at the time in “What’s eating Ty France?”. At the time the consensus was deeply in speculation that he was playing hurt and not being forward about it, and the peripheral numbers seemed to support this.

“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.”

The second half concerns remained and colored France’s entire season, leading a dramatic shift in narrative in just a year, which would explain Ezra Roberts’ title to France’s 40 in 40 last year, “40 in 40: Ty France, is there more?” Ezra properly outlined the concerns, but also provided an avenue of hope.

“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.”

Narrator voice: He did not.

Ezra wondered about it, and John in the back-end of September 2023 answered it with “It just hasn’t gotten any better for Ty France.” In short, his ability to wear pitches and make contact remained, but the quality of the contact he was making absolutely bottomed out. John attempted to get to the heart of the problem and upon finding it heart of the problem fits perfectly because the issue did lie in the heart of the zone.

“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.”

Quite the journey, and one with so many peaks and valleys it can be easy to not see the ocean for the waves. Despite a down 2023, France provided significant value for the cost he was acquired with, and his contact skills have played at every level - if not the quality of the contact itself the whole time.

The Drive(line) to Return to Form

Going into 2024, Ty France is still secure in his spot as the starting first baseman. There is more legitimate first base depth behind him now than ever with the addition of Mitch Garver and even Luke Raley, but Garver is intended to be used primarily in the DH role and Raley needed for a thin and questionable outfield. Luckily, we don’t have to wonder about what Ty France is doing in the off-season to try and turn things around, only if the work will be enough.

Ty France, like many a Mariner in recent years, is spending significant offseason time at Driveline. That first video was taken in November, and given all the noise (rightfully) made about the issues in his contact, it is refreshing to see that Ty France is taking it just as if not more seriously than anyone else.

After drilling throughout the off-season, Ty came back for a retest assessment last week.

It needs to be said: Ty France is looking good in those videos. They are obviously just practice and drills, but the focus is absolutely on improving his power and quality of contact, just what he needs. France has always had a good enough eye and baseball smarts to make consistent enough contact, and can put the ball all over the field enough when he’s good that even T-Mobile Park falls victim. The missing element in his struggles is actively being worked on in the offseason, and it can truly be a piece that completes the Mariners puzzle if he finds it again. There is no doubt that Ty France has played his way into prominence on this team, the kind to make headlines. He has headlined with plucky performance, poor performance, and plunked performance. But if he can return power to his bat and start punishing the ball again? The headlines this year will be sensational.