Digging into Ty France’s SLG-less season
Perhaps France's power outage this season was more attributable to a memorable event from last year than some of us realized.
It’s possible Ty France never hits 25-plus home runs a season on a regular basis. After all, he’s averaged 17 round-trippers annually since becoming a regular with the Mariners in 2021. For some Seattle fans, this isn’t good enough.
To this unsatisfied group, France’s home run production isn’t commensurate with the power they believe a first baseman should deliver. To this point, the league-average home run tally for the position over the last three years is 26.
Still, I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking. As long as a hitter is an above-average run producer, why must his power numbers align with his positional peers?
Having said that, there’s no denying France wasn’t above-average at producing runs this year. His 99 OPS+ makes this clear.
Even worse, France experienced a 70-point drop in his slugging percentage (SLG) from the season prior. An alarming development for a hitter entering the 2023 campaign with a career .438 SLG.
How extreme was France’s seemingly sudden loss of power? Just five hitters with 500-plus plate appearances this year experienced a sharper decline in SLG than the 2022 All-Star did.
Largest Drop In SLG (2022 to 2023)
Paul Goldschmidt (-.131)
Nathaniel Lowe (-.078)
Hunter Renfroe (-.076)
Jeff McNeil (-.076)
Nolan Arenado (-.074)
Ty France (-.070)
Manny Machado (-.069)
Carlos Correa (-.068)
Eugenio Suárez (-.068)
Javier Báez (-.068)
Andrés Giménez (-.067)
George Springer (-.067)
So, what exactly led to France’s dwindling power in 2023?
Let’s go directly to the source for an answer.
That swing thing
In late-September, France told Adam Jude of the Seattle Times his swing mechanics haven’t been right since Oakland’s Sheldon Neuse collided with him on June 23, 2022. If you enjoy watching car crashes, a video of the mishap can be found here.
“I just haven’t really been able to find my swing since the All-Star break last year. I’ve been trying to find it, but it just hasn’t been able to happen. Last year, trying to play through what I did, it kind of just threw me off mechanically. And it takes awhile to fix bad habits. I’m not saying it should take this long. But I’ve been trying to figure out what’s going on and compensate. It just hasn’t been there.” - Ty France
It’s tough to disagree with France’s assessment for two reasons. First, he’s an actual major-league player who knows how to hit. Not only that, the data aligns with his remarks.
Across the board, France’s run production numbers have been down ever since his run-in with Neuse. Particularly, in the power department. What stood out most to me was the right-handed hitter’s post-injury SLG. It was identical to his pre-injury OBP.
Armed with this knowledge, let’s consider several statistical issues likely attributable to the swing challenges France has been working through.
Hopefully, this conversation won’t come across as stating the obvious. But I believe there’s value in reflecting on how a hitter’s swing mechanics can subtly affect his ability to generate quality contact and ultimately deliver power with his bat.
Over the last three seasons, big-league hitters have produced a 4.3% home run rate, .281 AVG, and .482 SLG on pitches landing within the strike zone. Prior to being banged up, France easily exceeded these marks. Since then, not so much.
4.4% home run rate
3.3% home run rate
Clearly, out-of-whack mechanics - even on pitchers in the zone - can lead to fewer productive batted balls. This has certainly been the case with France since June 2022.
Batted Ball Direction
Following his injury, France has pulled the ball more frequently and gone to the opposite field less often. The changes haven’t been dramatic, but notable nonetheless. It’s worth mentioning his SLG declined significantly on balls hit to all parts of the field.
Following his run-in with Neuse, France produced fly balls more often. But they traveled an average of eight feet less. Furthermore, his power numbers were noticeably diminished post-injury.
Fly Balls Pre-Injury
20.5% fly ball rate
16.7% HR/FB ratio
Fly Balls Post-Injury
23.3% fly ball rate
11.7% HR/FB ratio
When we sharpen our lens to a smaller subset - hard-hit fly balls - similar results emerge. To be considered “hard hit” by Statcast, a batted ball must have an exit velocity of at least 95-mph.
What’s particularly striking to me is the 15-foot decrease in the distance traveled. How many of France’s hard-hit fly balls were converted into outs instead of hits or didn’t leave the park because of this shorter average distance?
How many times did Mariners fans take to social media to gripe about France grounding into a double play this year?
That said; it’s plausible France’s GIDP woes were a manifestation of disrupted mechanics. From the beginning of the 2021 campaign until his fateful collision, the California native’s .323 AVG on grounders was third-best among players hitting 250-plus ground balls.
Baseball fans are familiar with the two players ahead of France - Trea Turner (.358) and Paul Goldschmidt (.331). It’s also worth noting Turner and Goldschmidt were the only players with a higher SLG on grounders than the San Diego State product.
Ground Balls Pre-Injury
961 plate appearances
47% ground ball rate
Since June 2022, France’s AVG and SLG on ground balls ranks in the bottom 15-percent of the league. What’s extraordinary to me is the massive jump in double plays.
Ground Balls Post-Injury
967 plate appearances
43.9% ground ball rate
France grounded into a double play over twice as many times post-injury than he did beforehand. Impressive in a bad way considering his ground ball rate was about three-percent lower after June 2022.
Some may view this as a trivial topic. But every batted ball event matters, especially for a hitter who frequently makes contact. France’s pop-up rate rose from 5.3% prior to getting hurt to 7.7% afterwards. This translates to approximately 15 extra pop-ups.
Again, I understand some of you may not care. But in 2023, MLB hitters had a .014 AVG on pop-ups. In France’s case, he’s never recorded a hit on this type of batted ball. Therefore, it’s likely he and the Mariners would’ve experienced better results if those 15 extra pop-ups had been fly balls, line drives, or ground balls instead.
Since 2021, the league-average chase rate on pitches outside of the strike zone has been 28.5%. Prior to his injury, France’s was a smidge higher (29.7%). Since then, it’s climbed to 33.8%. A problematic increase considering MLB hitters had a .159 AVG and .220 SLG on pitches outside the zone.
France’s increased propensity to chase since Neuse careened into him has undoubtedly played a role in a higher strikeout rate lately. Still, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Pre-injury - 15.5%
Post-injury - 17.4%
MLB SO% in 2023 = 22.7%
Despite the increase in chase, France managed to have the lowest strikeout rate (17.6%) among Mariners with at least 250 plate appearances this year. J.P. Crawford (19.6%) was second-best.
France’s walk rate has dropped about one-percent after June 2022. But it’s important to note he’s been below the MLB average in each of his three full seasons with Seattle. In 2023, only one Mariner walked less frequently than the 29-year-old did - Teoscar Hernández (5.6%).
2021 - 7.1%
2022 - 5.7%
2023 - 6.5%
MLB BB% in 2023 = 8.6%
It might be nice if France earned more walks. But we shouldn’t overlook an important factor regarding the on-base ability of Seattle’s first basemen. He was hit by a pitch an MLB-leading 34 times this season. Significantly more than the second-place finisher on the leaderboard - Pete Alonso (21).
If we created a metric quantifying the frequency a player drew walks and was hit by a pitch and called it “free pass rate,” France would look much better. His 11.6% free pass rate would’ve been 38th-best among 133 qualified hitters this year.
Heck, maybe such a stat already exists and I simply don’t know about it.
Obviously, France drawing walks is preferred to catching pitches with his body. Getting struck by a baseball over two dozen times must take its toll on a player over an arduous season.
Okay, everything we’ve discussed thus far drives us towards the conclusion France’s self-admitted poor habits have undermined his offensive productivity. Now, I’d like to present one more factor some Mariners fans may be thinking about when it comes to slugging.
We know T-Mobile Park has a reputation for depressing offense. Statcast routinely ranks the Mariners’ home field at the bottom of MLB from a run production standpoint. But some fans may be surprised to learn France’s power stats were significantly better at home than on the road this year.
Hitting well in Seattle isn’t a new development for France. His SLG at T-Mobile Park in 2021 and 2022 easily surpassed the MLB average for each season. This year, the 34th round pick barely missed the mark.
Just to be clear, France performed just fine away from the Emerald City in 2021 and 2022. Make sure to note his identical home and away SLG last year.
2021 - .433
2022 - .436
2023 - .412
2021 - .455
2022 - .436
2023 - .322
You may not agree with this take, which is fine. But I suspect a meaningful segment of Mariners fans would be more optimistic about France’s outlook if he produced his 2023 home stats for the entire season.
Reasons for optimism?
Even though fan support for France may be waning, the Mariners appear to remain confident in the five-year veteran.
After all, Seattle tendered France a contract knowing he projects to earn approximately $7 million in arbitration. It’s unlikely the organization would have committed so much money to a player unless it’s firmly behind him.
I too believe in France’s talent. We’ve already seen him perform at a high level. Moreover, his demonstrated ability to produce at home matters.
Finding hitters capable of succeeding at T-Mobile Park is crucial for Seattle as it tries to create a productive and long lineup. This is even more important following the recent trade of another Mariner with a history of good home field production - Eugenio Suárez.
There’s another reason to be encouraged. This week, Driveline Baseball posted a video of France being assessed at its facility.
Video: Ty France at Driveline
Perhaps working with an industry-leader will permit France to reconnect with the pre-injury mechanics that made him an All-Star. Then again, it’s possible a revamped swing and/or a reshaped body will emerge from the South Hills High School alum’s time at Driveline.
If France were to experience post-Driveline success akin to what Crawford achieved this year, I suspect impatient Mariners fans will once again view him as a foundational piece of the team’s lineup.
You can’t argue with results
Once the social media euphoria wears off from France’s Driveline video, what will matter most is whether we see a more productive hitter in 2024. After all, professional sports is a results-driven business.
Improving at the plate is particularly vital for a player, like France, who must produce with his bat to provide significant value to his club. After all, Statcast suggests he possesses below-average speed and was an average-ish defender this year.
Personally, I’m rooting for Ty France to rebound.
My Oh My…
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