After Justin Verlander departed to the New York Mets after his 2022 Cy Young campaign, Framber Valdez easily filled his shoes by placing himself as the current favorite to bring the award back to Houston in consecutive seasons.
Cristian Javier propelled himself into the national conversation with an incredible postseason run last year with two starts and three total appearances, where he allowed one run across 12.2 IP. Hunter Brown joined the team full-time this year as the Astros’ #1 prospect … Am I rambling?
The Astros have set up an infinity pool of pitching excellence that has maintained the Astros’ high standards, and they’ve done it with significant injuries to their Opening Day starting rotation (Luis Garcia, José Urquidy). Somehow, I still haven’t mentioned today’s main character after all of that.
J.P. France is on a roll. While he hasn’t outright dominated the opposition, France has earned six consecutive quality starts, which is nothing to sneeze at. In the pre-season rankings, France was roughly in the back end of the top-25 prospects for the Astros but has rounded into form as a reliable arm in their depth chart.
The former 2018 14th-round pick has brought consistency to the rotation. Considering the Astros are surging toward the Rangers for 1st place in the AL West, it’s impressive how France has stayed away from crooked numbers and had positive contributions through June and into the dog days of summer.
It’s time to look back and see if it is sustainable for both the Astros and fantasy owners alike.
Quality is King
The Quality Start (QS) statistic has been under fire recently with calls to look at Quality Appearances in its place or banish QS altogether as obsolete and declining (17% drop in QS from 2014-2019) due to new pitching strategies across MLB. Sure, a 4.50 ERA threshold for giving up three runs over 6.0 IP isn’t exactly an elite performance, but I’d argue it provides a clear and concise definition.
As of July 6th, the MLB average runs scored per game is 4.58, so one could argue that the QS does precisely as intended. The QS indicates whether or not the starting pitcher gave you an opportunity to win that day, on average.
This is where France’s recent streak comes into play. France has given up 3 ER in three of the six starts but never allowed a significant blow-up inning. During this stretch of games, France only allowed more than one run in three innings, two of which were in the 7th inning.
This is all high-level and devoid of the underlying statistics. However, J.P. France has found a consistent routine, allowing the Astros to control the game. Now it’s time to see how he approaches hitters and manages through these most recent starts.
What to Make of the Metrics?
J.P. France’s Statcast doesn’t jump off the charts and, at a glance, is underwhelming:
When you think about a starter who’s been able to put together a streak of performances like France has, you’d expect to see something better than this. Besides the Fastball Spin rate, France sits right around the league average or below it in most key metrics.
Looking deeper into the usage rates, you’ll find that France has begun to rely on his fastball command instead of more breaking balls aimed for strikeouts. France throws a fastball variant (4-seam or cutter) 63.1% of the time on average this season, and it has ticked up to 69.9% within the last five starts.
In his first five starts, France threw fastballs 58.1% of the time, which is an uptick of 11.8% in the last six starts:
The reliance on the fastball has paid off. The slider is still used almost exclusively against right-handed hitters out and away, but the fastball plan has shown variety across both sides of the plate. France relies heavily on his 4-seam fastball vs. left-handed hitters, where he only throws the cutter 5.9% of the time. Instead, he stays up and out with the fastball against lefties:
Then against right-handed hitters, the cutter comes out in full force. France aims down and away and has been highly effective:
According to PLV, France’s cutter ranks 3rd amongst qualified pitchers with a 1.68 PLA:
There’s been an intentional shift from France’s pitch frequency to focus more on a defined game plan around his fastballs.
The Game Logs
Back to our streak where France was still working his way into his new approach. Here’s the recap of those six starts:
The streak started with a strong outing against the Angels. France kept his walks down and only surrendered one run. He relied on his fastball early and then, around the 2nd time through the lineup, leaned on the slider against right-handed hitters. France faced the minimum through five innings, finally allowing the first hit, a home run, to Luis Rengifo in the 6th inning off a hanging changeup.
Unfortunately, the Astros could not score more than a run in that game, where the Angels took the lead in the 8th inning and finished the game with a 2-1 victory. France’s season average slider use rate is 12%, and the uptick late in this game shows the dependence on the pitch against right-handed batters into the third rotation through the batting order.:
On a trip to Cleveland, France went deep into the game again with 105 pitches but struggled with his command. France faced six batters in a one-run 1st inning for the Guardians but escaped trouble with two runners left on the corners.
After that, France avoided further damage even though he only faced the minimum in the 4th inning, where he induced a ground ball for a double play after a leadoff walk. Not until the 7th inning did France surrender another run, a 2-out hit by José Ramírez. He was pulled after that, and another earned run was tagged against him when Bryan Abreu allowed another runner to score.
In this outing, France leaned into the effectiveness of his 4-seam fastball and cutter to battle through the night:
France found his command in the next appearance back at home against the Reds. Like the previous game, France hovered around a 70% use rate between his 4-seamer and cutter. Another strong first time through the lineup, France faced the minimum through the 3rd inning.
Entering the 7th inning, France had breezed through the Reds, allowing no runs, inducing a mix of ground balls and flyouts for 16 of the first 18 outs. Of those 16 outs, France used his fastball or cutter for 14. After his previous outing, where he allowed 6 BBs, it seems clear the game plan was to be aggressive in the zone.
Unfortunately, in the 7th, France was tagged for a home run against Tyler Stephenson on a slider. After that, he allowed his only walk and then a double to Kevin Newman, who drove in a run and chased him from the game.
In what will be the outlier of the streak, the Dodgers were the only team to score more than one run through the first three innings. He gave up a leadoff home run to the red-hot Mookie Betts and a 2nd inning run on a sac fly by Betts.
France allowed the most hits of the streak at Dodger Stadium, but considering the recent explosion from the Dodgers’ bats, he settled in after the two early runs. He finished the day with an unscathed 5th and 6th inning, ending with 93 pitches.
We’ve made it to the shutout. France and the Astros bats ended the game early against the disappointing Cardinals. Facing the minimum in five of the seven innings, France threw fastball after fastball while mixing in the breaking balls early or at the end of counts to avoid hard contact.
Both strikeouts on the day were on curveballs. France isn’t going to wow anyone with swing and miss, where he grades at the 36th percentile in Whiff%. But, the strategy has been fully adopted at this point, managing the game with fastball command and allowing your defense to play effectively behind you.
In France’s final outing before the All-Star break, after a leadoff hit from Jurickson Profar in the 1st inning, the Rockies were another team stumped by the early pitching from France. Not until the 5th inning, where Nolan Jones led off the inning with a walk, did the Rockies strike with a 2-run inning.
A home run from C.J. Cron in the 6th inning got the Rockies back in the game, but inevitably the Astros won 6-4 and continued their run towards first place in the AL West.
The Streak Recap
J.P. France has made significant adjustments by throwing fastballs about 70% of the time, in part to his command and ability to avoid hard-hit contact.
Here’s the difference between his season average and his last five starts:
Season Pitch Types:
Last 5 Games Pitch Types:
France was never chased out of a game before the 7th inning and had 90 or more pitches in each outing. Only the Dodgers got to him early, and even in that case, he kept the damage to a minimum—an impressive ability to keep the game close no matter the opponent.
Command is Key
Well, we have a rookie starter in his age-28 season for the Astros. What’s not to like?! The six-game sample size shows us his consistent performance against strong and weak teams. The Astros continue to be the class of MLB, and France has slotted in well behind the established veterans and fellow prospects in the organization. Aside from the concerns in his overall arsenal, if France continues to rely on his best pitches and control, he will be primed for a significant role during a 2nd half and postseason run.
The Astros have managed through injuries to their starting rotation with more excellent pitching, which has propelled them forward into a division race, where the Texas Rangers barely hold them off. After a relatively slow start for Houston’s expectations, they’ve made do with help from an unexpected place. France’s recent adjustments have paid off with encouraging results, and if things continue to trend this way, he may be in the middle of many big moments over the next four months.
Summer is heating up, and J.P. France is providing impactful performances for pleasantly surprised fantasy owners and Astros fans. Will the dog days of summer catch up to him, or will he continue to improve upon his recently tweaked pitch plan?