Evaluating players based on small 2020 samples is not an easy task. The weird environment did some pretty strange things to player stat lines, in both positive and negative ways. Players may have endured a run of success that doesn’t look too sustainable when looking under the hood. The same can be said in the opposite view, as players may have had poor seasons but still look promising for the future when digging deeper.
Ty France is a rather interesting case from the 2020 season. He did quite well, with a .305/.368/.468 triple slash, a .362 wOBA, and a 132 wRC+. After being moved to the Seattle Mariners at the deadline in the Austin Nola trade, he finally got an everyday role and with his good performance, should be penciled into an everyday role in 2021.
It’s tough to evaluate a season like the one France had. He had a small Major League track record coming into the year, and while he’s always hit well in the minor leagues, there are always doubts about PCL hitting stats, and despite hitting well, he was never viewed as much more than a fringe prospect, as he never sniffed a top-100 prospect list. He still has less than 400 Major League plate appearances to his name, so there is still a lot that is unknown. What should we ultimately make of France’s strong 2020 season?
A good starting point would be to look at the Statcast metrics. That’s a fine idea. Going to his Statcast player page, we see that France was quite an extreme player last season:
He was about middle-of-the-pack in terms of barrel and whiff rate, but pretty much everything else in this snapshot skews to either one extreme side of the spectrum or the other. What looks really unusual is that France, despite being towards the bottom in terms of hard-hit rate and average exit velocity, France actually graded out quite favorably by Statcast’s expected wOBA and slugging metrics. It’s unusual because it’s expected that hitters that hit the ball harder are the ones that are more likely to have better expected stats. Take a look at the xwOBA and xSLG leaderboards, it’s not a coincidence that the top of each list contains some of 2020’s very best hitters, and there is no shortage of hitters that hit the ball hard on either list. Further, the same is true for the xwOBA on contact leaders. France definitely looks like some sort of Statcast oddity, and he rather stands out when plotting, for instance, each hitter’s hard-hit rate against their expected wOBA on contact. Conveniently, this plot is below:
Not many hitters were in a similar boat to France last season. Overall, France doesn’t look overly impressive just based on some of the most trusted Statcast metrics in hard-hit rate and exit velocity, but yet Statcast was a fan of his last season? It goes against expectations for sure, but perhaps there is something beyond this that explains why this was the case for France in 2020. Let’s try to find out.
The first thing that stands out when evaluating France was that he was able to hit a good amount of balls in the air last season. That’s usually a good start in trying to figure out how France was so successful at the plate. Indeed, when combining the fly ball and line-drive rate of each hitter with a minimum of 150 plate appearances to effectively show “Air%”, we see that France had an Air% of 62.5%, above the league average and inside the top 35% in the league:
|League Average (2020)||21.8||36.4||58.1|
More specifically, France had an advantage in 2020 was in hitting line-drives, with the third-highest rate among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances. Obviously, it’s good to get more balls in the air but more importantly in France’s case, he put many of these air-balls in play in the more optimal launch angles. This can be measured using Sweet Spot rate, a Statcast metric that notes how frequently a batter’s batted-balls leave the bat at a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees. France managed to do this better than all but two hitters last season, as shown below:
Sweet spot rate is not a perfect statistic by any means, but it is a good and useful one. There are some stranger names, but likely a big part of the strong seasons from hitters such as Iglesias or Solano can be explained by a large jump in their sweet spot rate. Whatever the case may be, the hitters in the top-ten had good seasons for the most part, and many of the game’s top hitters are represented in the top-30 or so of the leaderboard.
Knowing that France was one of the top hitters in terms of sweet spot rate helps us start to answer the question about how he was able to be so successful at the plate despite a lower-than-expected hard-hit rate. We now know that France was good at getting the ball in the air, and also that of those balls hit in the air, a high rate of them were hit in the more optimal launch angles. Both of those are good things, but even more so important for a hitter like France. France was perhaps not lucky enough to win the genetic lottery and be given the superior hard-hit genes at birth like a hitter such as Fernando Tatis Jr., or Miguel Sano, or your other favorite hard-hitter. Despite that, France can still be quite the productive hitter because of his ability to hit the ball at the more desirable launch angle slots. Continuing to do that consistently should remain a good recipe for success in the future for a hitter like France. Batted-balls in the sweet spot had wOBAs ranging from .496 to .855 in 2020, meaning those batted-balls tend to get great results more often than not. Additionally, that means that contact quality matters less when it comes to batted-balls in this range, which works in France’s favor, as we know he isn’t all that hard of a hitter, which is true for France even in the sweet spot. His average exit velocity on batted-balls in the sweet spot last season was 90.9 miles-per-hour, whereas the league average was slightly above 93 miles-per-hour.
It’s probably best to help show this using a table. First, doing some querying to find all of the hitters with a sweet spot rate of at least 38% returns with 43 hitters. Filtering down further from here to find those hitters with an average exit velocity in the sweet spot below the league average of around 93 miles-per-hour returns 18 hitters from the original group of 43. Adding in the last layer of filtering to find those hitters that had wOBA on contact marks greater than the league average of .387 returns ten hitters:
|Player||SwSp AVG EV||SwSp%||wOBACON||xwOBACON|
While featuring two sensational hitters in Mookie Betts and Anthony Rendon, these ten hitters are admittedly not all that special on the surface. While these hitters on the whole were not able to match the production of a Betts or a Rendon, they were able to still be productive when putting the ball in play. While they maybe aren’t the game’s hardest hitters, they were able to make up for their varying degrees of hard-hit deficiencies due to an elevated rate of batted-balls in the sweet-spot. Other areas of their game may explain why their production did not match the level of some of the better hitters on this list, but the overall conclusion should be that these hitters generally did well when they put the ball in the play. Sure, it would be nice if France hit the ball harder, but it’s not the death sentence that it appears to be on the surface. If he can continue to keep the ball in the sweet spot at a high rate, he should continue to get good results when putting the ball in play.
That is just one area of his game, though. France is able to get good results on his batted-balls because of how frequently he puts them in the air and in the more optimal launch angles, as shown in the previous section, but that doesn’t fully explain his strong overall results. After all, there are many hitters who hit the ball well but lag behind in their overall wOBA or xwOBA numbers, with Matt Chapman, Evan White, and the aforementioned Sano being three of the biggest examples of that from the 2020 season.
While France’s plate discipline is not all that impressive on its own, he has been right around league-average in many plate discipline stats so far in his Major League career:
|MLB Average (2020)||67.8||84.2||75.3||30.6||45.9||11.3||21.8|
From this, we see that France is, for the most part, right around league-average or better in most of the plate discipline categories. France is slightly better in terms of chasing, and he swings at pitches in the zone a little bit more than average, and he whiffs less, but he is just fractions of percentage points away from league average in terms of plate discipline. His strikeout rate is a little higher, there is also a chance that his strikeout rate drops in the future as he gets more experience and getting used to Major League pitching. France never had much of a strikeout issue in the minor leagues, with a minor league-high of just 18.4% in 60 A ball games in 2016.
Why this is important though is because with even plate discipline that is roughly league average, he’ll have more opportunities to put the ball in play, and as we saw earlier when he puts the ball in play, he usually does so in the more optimal ranges.
Just for fun, let’s try to find some comps for France. Meaning, let’s try to find hitters that have above-average Air rates, and with overall plate discipline that is slightly above league average or better as France did last season to see how well hitters of this type tended to do last season. It’s not the most scientific of queries, but it can still tell us something. There were a total of 43 hitters that had an Air% above the league-average of 58.12%, and were also above the league-average in zone contact, swinging strike, and contact rates (referenced in the previous table). The average wOBA of the hitters in this group was .350, and the average wRC+ was 121, with all but nine hitters having wRC+ marks above 100. Again, it’s not a perfect exercise, but it does show that hitters with a similar profile to France are generally more successful. Being able to put the ball in the air at an elevated rate while maintaining a plate discipline profile that is even just slightly above league average appears to be a good recipe for success, and it ended up working out that way for France last season.
All in all, it appears that France is a good example of a player where there is more to him than meets the eye. There isn’t much about his surface-level Statcast stats that immediately jump out, but that doesn’t mean he should be dismissed entirely. What France lacks in terms of hard-hit ability, he makes up for with great ability to hit his batted-balls in the sweet-spot at an elevated rate, and a rate that was among the best in the game last season. Exit velocity generally matters less when it comes to batted-balls in the sweet-spot, as batted-balls in that interval usually play no matter what. He didn’t exactly hit them hard, but he didn’t have to, considering he hit so many of them, which is ultimately what drove up his contact-related metrics in 2020. Add in plate discipline ability that saw him put more of those optimal batted-balls in play, and we start to see how France was able to have such a strong season, despite lagging in terms of the traditional Statcast metrics we reference so often.
France is far from a sure thing going into the 2021 season, but he has shown the ability to be a positive contributor with the bat, even going back to his minor league numbers and even with several Statcast metrics that are far from what we would consider ideal. France should get the opportunity to show what he can do in an expanded role with the Mariners in 2021 and has plenty of room for upside. If he maintains his offensive profile into the future, he may continue to “beat” Statcast, and if that happens again, we perhaps shouldn’t be so surprised.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)