Armed with new pitch, France ready to prove himself in rotation

March 8th, 2024

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Shortly after he finished throwing 25 pitches to hitters for the first time this spring on the back fields at CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches on Wednesday, right-hander spent about five minutes having an animated discussion with star second baseman Jose Altuve.

France held a baseball and mimicked how his new sinker was meant to come in to right-handed hitters, and Altuve provided feedback while holding his bat. An eight-time All-Star and former league Most Valuable Player taking his time to share an observation with a 28-year-old pitcher with 136 1/3 career innings under his belt is part of what makes Altuve special.

“He’s seen plenty in his time,” France said. “To be able to get the feedback from him was awesome.”

It was a gesture deeply appreciated by France, who appears to have secured a slot in Houston’s Opening Day starting rotation and is adding a sinker this year to give him a pitch to throw inside to right-handers. The rest of France’s arsenal -- he threw a fastball, cutter, changeup, curve and slider last year -- goes away from right-handed hitters.

“You can tell it has good movement and is going to be a good pitch for him,” Altuve said. “Just the fact you know he has a two-seam coming at you, you stop diving forward. It could have two effects: one is good movement and gets you to roll over and the fact you know he has it is going to put hitters in a tough situation.”

France was one of the Astros’ key breakout performers last year, going 11-6 with a 3.83 ERA in 24 games (23 starts) as a rookie. He was thrust into the rotation after the Astros lost starting pitchers Luis Garcia (Tommy John surgery) and José Urquidy (right shoulder) to significant injuries a month into the season. France threw five scoreless innings in his Major League debut on May 6, striking out Julio Rodríguez of Seattle -- the first batter he faced.

France took off from there, going 7-3 with a 2.85 ERA in his first 15 starts to help keep Houston’s rotation afloat heading into August. In his final eight starts of the regular season, France posted a 5.84 ERA, which included a home start against Boston in which he gave up 10 runs and 11 hits in 2 1/3 innings. Overall, the body of work was solid and enough to put France in a position to start the season in Houston’s rotation, especially with Justin Verlander starting the year on the injured list.

“Like I said last year, every start was just ‘Earn my keep for another week,’” he said. “So I’m going with the same mentality here because I know we have a bunch of guys that want the spot I’m penciled in for. As far as last year, I definitely feel like I’ve far exceeded what people thought I was going to do, which I love doing. I love proving people wrong. I love being that nobody that comes out of nowhere.”

France learned a lot about himself last year, both as a pitcher and a competitor. His biggest takeaway? The mental side of the game is just as important as being able to spot a fastball on the corner. You can’t take one pitch off mentally or you’ll make a mistake. And mistakes get crushed in the big leagues.

“You also can’t go up there thinking ‘Don’t make a mistake,’” France said. “It’s really just executing pitches and getting ahead in counts and just mentally staying locked in every pitch.”

With his offseason a month shorter than he was used to last winter because of the Astros’ deep run into October, France didn’t have as much time to recoup his body. He started throwing at the end of November and felt some discomfort in his shoulder. He was diagnosed with inflammation and came to camp about 10 days behind schedule.

Still, France has just enough time to get built up to slot into Houston’s rotation to start the year. He still hasn’t pitched in a Grapefruit League game, but that should come soon. He’ll pitch most of this season at 29 years old, and is still trying to prove he belongs.

“I’m going to go into this season in the same head space I was last year,” he said. “I’m going to go out here and give these guys a chance to win and keep us on the field as little as possible. As far as personal stuff, I would say lower ERA. If I could keep my ERA where it was this year as it was last year, that would probably be a good goal. Honestly, maintain what I did last year. If I can do what I did last year again this year, I think I’ll be sitting in pretty good shape.”