France searching for swing amid tough spell

September 23rd, 2023

ARLINGTON -- Fourteen months feels like yesterday and eons ago for , who on Saturday afternoon reflected on what’s been perhaps the most trying stretch of his career in the visiting clubhouse at Globe Life Field.

It wasn’t long ago that in this very room, he was being informed on the final day of the first half of 2022 that he’d been selected to his first All-Star Game. The venue is merely a coincidence, yet the disparity of where his offensive game has gone from then to now is stark.

“I think a lot of it's just, mechanically, I just haven't really been able to find my swing since the All-Star break last year,” France said. “I’ve been trying to find it, but yeah, it just hasn't been able to happen.

“It's kind of hard not to get frustrated when you have such high expectations for yourself and have proved that you're capable of competing at the highest level, and you go out there every day and it's just not there.”

France hit into a game-ending groundout with the bases loaded on Friday while representing the go-ahead run. He was hardly the lone culprit on a night where the Mariners fell into an eight-run deficit before marginally clawing their way back. Yet a dissection of that one key sequence reveals a greater story of his struggles.

France yanked a 98.3 mph fastball toward the pull-side hole and nearly into left field, but Texas third baseman Josh Jung made a diving grab and throw to halt the rally. It was the first pitch France saw against Aroldis Chapman, who was on the ropes, and it was off the plate inside, out of the strike zone; an offering with which any right-handed hitter would have had trouble. France also struck out swinging in the sixth on a fastball as part of an 0-for-5 night.

“There have been some at-bats where he gets away from his approach a little bit,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He wants to contribute. He wants to help his team as bad as anybody, certainly here down the stretch. And he's capable of doing it. He's just got to get back to swinging at the right pitches.”

Indeed, France’s expected batting average and expected slugging percentage are both far above his actual numbers in September (.239 to .194 and .349 to .209, respectively), illustrating that some of his hard-hit balls aren’t landing.

However, part of that could be correlated to a 49% ground ball rate this month, France's highest for any month this season. And given that his sprint speed ranks in Statcast’s seventh percentile, it’s hard for him to reach base unless he’s getting the ball in the air.

Players in ruts like France’s can tend to try swinging their way out of them -- especially contact specialists. France’s 81.3% contact rate since joining Seattle at the 2020 Trade Deadline is the highest among players still with the team.

As Statcast shows, France is swinging more regularly at all pitch types out of the strike zone.

Yet, his chase rate (swings on out-of-zone pitches) is up to 37.4% in September, a stretch in which he has a .508 OPS with just one extra-base hit (a double) in 77 plate appearances. He had an .846 OPS in the first half of 2022, his All-Star stretch.

“It's a curse and a blessing,” France said. “There are a lot of pitches where I get myself out because my bat-to-ball [tool] is, I'm very good at putting the bat on the ball. And then I ended up making weak contact and get myself out.”

France also dealt with a rough patch last season, though he revealed this spring that much of that struggle was rooted in a lingering left elbow injury.

“Trying to play through what I did, it just kind of just threw me off mechanically,” he said. “And it takes a while to fix bad habits. Not saying it should take this long, but I've been trying to figure out what's going on and compensate. And it just hasn't been there.”

France’s locker in the visiting clubhouse is in the same corner where he was informed that he was heading to his first Midsummer Classic. But during this road trip, he’s trying to dig himself out of a rut in the thick of a pennant chase.

“By no means am I saying I'm crushed and I can't go out there,” France said. “I know I'm a really good Major League Baseball player. I have the track record. ... It's one of those things where it just hasn't gone my way this year.”