Ty France returned to the Mariners’ lineup on Thursday in Boston, a welcome sign that the right forearm that sustained a 98.4 mph hit-by-pitch on Monday is healthy enough for him to play. He was also a major catalyst in the Mariners' improbable 7-3 win over the Red Sox by hitting a game-tying, two-run double that jolted Seattle's offense, which had zero hits into the sixth inning to that point.
France's presence marks the return of the second punch of Mariners manager Scott Servais' 1-2 tandem at the top of the order, which has emerged as one of the more formidable in the American League. With Mitch Haniger hitting leadoff and France batting second, Seattle entered Thursday receiving a combined slash line of .311/.368/.548 to go with seven homers from those two spots in the lineup.
Haniger and France have also put up a wRC+ of 153 and 166, respectively, where league average is 100. Those marks are among the top 30 in all of baseball among 176 qualified hitters. Haniger also had a big night in Boston, crushing a three-run insurance homer in the 10th inning, his fifth of the season.
When trying to put their production into context with the rest of the league, consider that France’s .922 OPS combined with Haniger’s .909 yields 1.831, which is the best in the AL from 1-2 hitters this season. All counting stats were as of first pitch.
Highest combined OPS in 2021 (primary 1-2 hitters)
1. Braves: 1.919 (Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman)
2. Reds: 1.901 (Jesse Winker, Nick Castellanos)
3. Marlins: 1.816 (Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte)
4. Dodgers: 1.802 (Mookie Betts, Corey Seager)
5. Mariners: 1.799 (Mitch Haniger, Ty France)*
*Kyle Lewis batted second on Tuesday while France was sidelined
In an ideal situation -- which, believe it or not, hadn't happened this season until Sunday -- Haniger is reaching base and France is driving him in. That scenario played out twice in Sunday's 7-2 win over the Astros, when France doubled and homered home Haniger, and each had three-RBI games. It played out again with France's double on Thursday.
Here's Haniger on France: "He's a really good hitter. He swings at good pitches, handles the bat very well, hits the ball to all fields, hits breaking balls well. It's been really fun to watch that guy. I'm glad he's on our team."
And France on Haniger: “To have him on base, it’s just, he works great at-bats. So, before I get into the box, I've seen pretty much everything the pitcher has thrown, which helps me out a lot. But yeah, just putting that pressure on the pitcher with someone on base, especially with a guy like Mitch who can run, it's nice for me, and guys don't want to pitch to Mitch. So hopefully they'll pitch to me. We're feeding off each other well right now.”
Kyle Seager also lurks in the No. 3 hole, and until a few games ago had been just as productive as Haniger and France. Seager is hitless over his past five games, but he single-handedly willed the Mariners to wins in Minnesota and Baltimore on the last road trip.
Kyle Lewis slotted into cleanup for the first time on Thursday after missing the first 17 games of the season on the injured list. In 2020, Lewis led the Mariners in homers (11), wRC+ (126) and WAR (1.6), while hitting .262/.364/.437 and playing in 58 of the club’s 60 games.
All of this is to say that an offense that relied almost exclusively on Seager and Lewis for its biggest damage last season now has two other key contributors that are hitting as well as any 1-2 punch in the league.
Mariners receive first vaccines, not at 85%
The Mariners made the vaccine available to their Tier 1 personnel -- which includes players on the active roster and at the alternate training site, coaches, training staff and select support staff -- after Tuesday’s loss to the Dodgers in Seattle, but they did not reach the 85% threshold required for relaxed protocols.
Clubs were informed on March 29 that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to relax certain health and safety protocols contained in the 2021 Operations Manual for fully vaccinated Tier 1 individuals and for clubs where 85% of their Tier 1 individuals are fully vaccinated. As part of that memo, players and staff have been encouraged to receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines when eligible.
“We’re not at the 85% yet,” Servais said. “I’m still very hopeful that we can get there. Again, it's an individual choice for guys, to see where they're at. But I think we’re moving in the right direction, and hopefully we can get there. But the focus right now, obviously, is on the road trip here and getting after the Red Sox tonight.”
To be clear, relaxed protocols would not be in place until two weeks after 85% of the Tier 1 group received their second shot, so that would still be at least five weeks away. But the Mariners are not on that trajectory currently. Tuesday was also just their first opportunity to receive the vaccine, and there will be more chances throughout the season.