Ty France deserves the benefit of the doubt
When it comes to being hit by pitches, some concerned fans would prefer France adopting Patches O'Houlihan’s “dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge" strategy from Dodgeball: An Underdog Story.
Not long ago, I opined on Twitter a segment of Seattle Mariners fans doubt Ty France. The responses to my tweet varied from complete support for France to suggestions the Mariners bring in someone to compete with him at first base. That’s nuts!
The primary concerns about France?
A propensity for being hit by pitches, injuries, and a second-half slump. To me, these issues aren’t alarming, but let’s tackle each individually. From there, we can consider factors fueling my confidence in France heading into the 2023 season.
France was hit by pitches 20-plus times in each of the last two seasons. For some fans, this is problematic. I’m not convinced it’s the big deal some believe it to be.
Don’t get me wrong. Getting hit on the hand or wrist with a baseball can alter the trajectory of a hitter’s season. A blow to the head presents even graver implications. But it’s a risk France has willingly accepted dating back to his college days.
A 2021 story authored by Corey Brock of The Athletic discussed France’s penchant for catching pitches with his body. In Brock’s piece, the San Diego State product conveyed how his coach - Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn - viewed the HBP issue.
“He (Gwynn) called us crazy,” France said. “His take on it was that you do us no good if you’re hurt. But it’s just one of those mentalities that you kind of roll with. If it happens, it happens. It’s not like they’re intentionally trying to hit me.”
Fun fact: As an Aztec, France was hit 48 times in 839 plate appearances. Gwynn was hit by 24 pitches in 10,232 MLB plate appearances.
But wait, there’s more.
Between 2016 and 2019, France was hit with a pitch 100 times as a minor-leaguer. Per FanGraphs, that was more than any MiLB player.
Despite high HBP counts as a collegian and professional, France has always been a superb run producer. In college, the right-handed hitter boasted a .337 AVG and .905 OPS. As a minor-leaguer, he had a 135 wRC+. With the Mariners, a 128 wRC+.
Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) quantities how a hitter’s total offensive value compares with the league average after adjusting for park effects. League-average is always 100. Therefore, a wRC+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 wRC+ would be 20-percent below average.
Something else to consider. Other players with high HBP counts in multiple seasons have managed to flourish. Since World War II, nine players have more 20-HBP seasons than France. Among them: a Hall of Famer, an MVP, Silver Sluggers, and All-Stars.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the lone active player on our list - Anthony Rizzo - has never landed on the injured list (IL) due to an HBP. Chronic back issues have affected his MLB availability more than anything else.
Similarly, being struck by pitches hasn’t been the root cause of availability or performance challenges France has experienced.
As reported by Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish, France rolled his wrist making a diving play in April 2021. I suspect the injury happened on a grounder hit by Houston’s Kyle Tucker. You can observe a video of the play here.
France would tough it out for about two weeks before eventually heading to the IL. The Californian returned after missing nine games to hit .310 for the remainder of the season. All told, France appeared in 152 contests, although the wrist occasionally barked at him into the summer.
In 2022, France played in 140 games, but was sidelined for consecutive contests just twice. His first absence was 12 games. In late June, the 28-year-old suffered an elbow strain after colliding with Oakland’s Sheldon Neuse as he reached an off-target throw. You can watch the mishap here.
Now batting, Jekyll & Hyde
A superb first half prompted France’s first All-Star selection. But after the mid-summer classic, his production plummeted. This is indisputable.
Still, France’s second-half swoon doesn’t concern me. After all, he wasn’t the only recognizable hitter experiencing a late-season decline. To demonstrate this point, I identified notable names with a significant drop in wOBA after the All-Star game.
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a sabermetric version of on-base percentage (OBP) that credits hitters for how he reached base rather than treating all on-base events as equals, as OBP does. For instance, a double is more valuable to run production than a single, a home run more than a double, etc. MLB league-average wOBA last year = .310
For example, Boston’s Rafael Devers had a big drop-off. Granted, Dever’s .306 wOBA was better than France’s .294. But the 26-year-old experienced a steeper second-half decline.
Still, this negative delta didn’t deter the Red Sox from signing Devers to a reported 13-year/$331 million contract extension this offseason.
Furthermore, 2022 AL batting champion Luis Arraez had an average-ish wOBA after the All-Star break. For anyone wondering, his AVG dropped from .338 in the first half to .289 afterwards. Despite the dip, the Miami Marlins traded for Arraez last week.
Am I suggesting fans should accept France’s lag in production because others struggled too? No, but a trying half-season isn’t worrisome to me when we’re discussing a hitter with superb season numbers.
To me, France’s offensive skill set makes him an ideal linchpin for Seattle’s lineup. With the exception of walks, he delivered an above-average stat line in 2022.
A stat I want to highlight is doubles. Since the field dimensions of T-Mobile Park were changed prior to the 2014 season, six Mariners have hit 25-plus doubles in multiple seasons. France is one of those players.
Perhaps France doesn’t develop into a 30 home run hitter. But clobbering a similar number of doubles makes him an important cog in Seattle’s lineup.
Home field producer
Few Mariners have mastered hitting at the ballpark at the corner of Edgar & Dave as well as France has. This is an attribute fans shouldn’t overlook.
Yes, France has a noticeably lower SLG at T-Mobile Park. But he’s reached base more often in Seattle. Furthermore, his AVG and wOBA were stable.
Speaking of wOBA: Dating back to 2002, only four Mariners with 600-plus plate appearances at T-Mobile Park have a higher wOBA than France’s.
Home wOBA At T-Mobile Park (2002-22)
Nelson Cruz - .367
Raúl Ibañez - .355
John Olerud - .355
Robinson Canó - .345
Edgar Martinez - .344
Ty France - .344
Bret Boone - .341
Mitch Haniger - .338
Ichiro Suzuki - .337
It’s worth noting several names listed above played in T-Mobile Park prior to our selected timeframe. But detailed splits at FanGraphs only go back to 2002.
Still, seeing France in the same company as among so many great hitters underscores his value to the Mariners.
Several responders to my tweet suggested France and third baseman Eugenio Suárez could use more time off their feet in 2023. Suárez started 18 games at designated hitter, France had eight starts.
Conceivably, minor-league signee Colin Moran or recent addition to the big-league roster, Tommy La Stella, could help in that regard. It’s also possible the team is still searching for another bat capable of filling this role. Then again, management may be comfortable with its current cadre of infielders.
If France’s injury challenges became chronic, perhaps the Mariners take the extreme measure of making him the full-time DH. It’s what the organization did with Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez.
Based on what we know, it’s unlikely the Mariners consider making such a move in the near future. The team prefers rotating players through the DH spot to keep them fresh, which makes great sense.
Then again, some Mariners fans enjoy comparing France to Martinez. Perhaps the endgame involves Ty following in Edgar’s footsteps.
My Oh My…
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