SEATTLE – This might read as a J.P. Crawford appreciation piece. And it is, to a degree.
Really, it’s about Seattle Mariners first baseman Ty France.
But to understand what might be possible for France in 2024, it’s instructive to look at the transformation his teammate, Crawford, went through a year ago.
And if France can replicate something close to the breakthrough Crawford achieved last season, the 2024 Mariners lineup would become much deeper and much more dangerous – a legitimate contender, dare we say, in the American League. We’ll dive into France’s hopeful turnaround here as we continue our Mariners spring training position previews with a look at first base:
That’s the real question, isn’t it: Who’s back on first? More pointedly, which version of Ty France will be back in the M’s lineup this spring?
Will it be the Ty France who, in 961 plate appearances from the start of the 2021 season to late June 2022, posted a .299/.375/.455 slash line? (Because that’s a valuable middle-of-the-order bat.)
Or the Ty France who, in 967 plate appearance from June 2022 to the end of the 2023 season, posted a .244/.321/.375 line? (Because that’s someone who should probably be platooned.)
As the numbers clearly show, France just hasn’t been the same hitter since he injured his left elbow during a collision in Oakland in June 2022. He tried just about everything during the 2023 season to rediscover the swing that made him a 2022 All-Star, and he was transparent about the struggles he’d been working through.
“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,” he said late last season. “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.”Trending up
Crawford was certainly trending up last season, finishing with a Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement of 5.1 – the best season in club history by a shortstop not named Alex Rodriguez.
In just one offseason, Crawford had effectively remade his swing in working with the hitting specialists at Driveline in Kent, Washington.
Crawford increased his average exit velocity by more than 3 mph (from 85.1 mph in 2022 to 88.3 in 2023) and made a significant improvement against fastballs – posting a .313 batting average, a .519 slugging percent and a 40.4% hard-hit rate against four-seamers (up from .255, .362 and 25.7% from the year before).
The transformation was staggering: Crawford posted career-highs in virtually every offensive category – 19 home runs, 94 runs, .380 on-base percentage, .818 OPS, among others, and established himself as a bona fide leadoff hitter to set the table for Julio Rodriguez, et al.
France witnessed Crawford’s turnaround up close and embarked on a similar experiment this offseason at Driveline.
By all accounts, France was open-minded to new ideas and made a commitment to necessary changes. He used motion-capture technology to break down his kinetics, and Driveline posted several videos on social media this winter showing France’s progress.
What that means this season remains to be seen, obviously. France needs to translate his experiment from the lab onto the field, and there’s no guarantee he’ll have similar results as Crawford.
But there is a growing level of optimism around the organization that France is on the right path, and how his tweaks take shape will be one of the more important storylines of the early season for the Mariners.
France’s chase rate has increased each season of his MLB career, from 27% in 2020 to 33.3% in 2023. He ranked in the 22nd percentile, according to Statcast, in chase rate last season.
France also saw a precipitous drop in production against fastballs, posting a .204 batting average and a .346 slugging percentage against four-seamers in 2023. In 2022, he hit .310 with a .462 slug off fastballs.
Luke Raley was acquired from Tampa Bay in a Jan. 5 trade for Jose Caballero. In 2023, Raley broke through during his first full big-league season at age 28, hitting 19 home runs and 23 doubles with 14 steals and a .249/.333/.490 (.824 OPS) slash line in 406 plate appearances.
Raley is expected to spend the bulk of his time in one of the corner outfield spots, and the left-handed slugger should to be in the lineup just about every day against right-handed starters. He’s probably even the Mariners’ best option in center field when Julio Rodriguez needs a (rare) day off.
But Raley did make 35 appearances at first base for the Rays last season, and he made 104 appearances at first during his minor-league career. That gives the Mariners something they didn’t have last season: a true backup behind France. Beyond that, Raley offers some insurance if France is slumping, or injured, or just needs a day off against a tough right-hander.
Tyler Locklear, a 2022 second-round pick out of Virginia Commonwealth, could be on the fast track to the big leagues. The 23-year-old was sidelined for two months last season because of a hand injury, then returned to post a .305/.422/.549 (.971 OPS) slash line with 12 homers and 10 steals in 226 at-bats at High-A Everett. He finished the 2023 season in Class AA Arkansas, posting an .786 OPS in 22 games.
By the numbers
82: Since the start of the 2021 season, Ty France has been hit by a pitch 82 times, the most in the majors. He was hit a club record 34 times last season, the most by an MLB hitter since 1997 (Craig Biggio, 34).