If the Seattle Mariners fall short of the postseason, which is a distinct possibility, there will be spirited debate within the team’s fan base over the success of the Mariners’ 2021 season. A topic likely to generate much less deliberation is the identity of the team’s best hitter. Most fans will agree Ty France has earned that distinction. But what if France could eventually become more for the Mariners?
Ty France, future MVP?
At this point, some of you are probably thinking that I’ve lost all sense of reality. Undoubtedly a result of too many statistic-themed tweets by me over a long baseball season. Yes, France ascending to an MVP-caliber performer may seem like a far-fetched idea. After all, the San Diego State alum’s production numbers from his brief career are nice. But they don’t necessarily suggest greatness.
Being the most productive bat for the offensively-challenged Mariners makes France extremely valuable to his team, not MVP-worthy in 2021. But we’re talking about the future. Could the 27-year-old eventually be an MVP candidate?
Obviously, we can’t predict the future. So, I decided to have fun with my question by seeking out players with similar numbers to France’s. Maybe I’d discover a few stars or even an MVP.
It turns out the search identified several notable names. I even stumbled over a comparison that might make the heads of some Seattle fans explode. Remember Mariners faithful, this is an exercise in fun. We’re not trying to actually trying to predict France’s trajectory or label him better than any of the names we’re about to discuss.
As illustrated in the preceding table, France has played in 245 games since debuting with the Padres in 2019. He has hit 27 home runs and 44 doubles with a .278/.347/.437 slash-line, and a 117 OPS+. With this in mind, I established a search criterion of right-handed hitters from ages 23 to 27 with 200-300 career games played in their first three seasons. Performance-wise, the emphasis was on hitters with an OPS+ between 110 and 130.
On-base Plus Slugging Plus (OPS+) is a normalized version of OPS that adjusts for park and league conditions. OPS+ is scaled so 100 is always league-average. As a result, an OPS+ of 150 means a hitter was 50-percent more productive than the average player. An 80 OPS+ would be 20-percent below average.
Okay, here is the initial wave of names, sorted by OPS+. Please note, this list isn’t all inclusive – just a fun sample. As you review the table, bear in mind the number of games and plate appearances for each player can vary greatly.
|Lourdes Gurriel Jr.|
Our roster includes two active players – Lourdes Gurriel Jr. of the Blue Jays and Ramón Laureano of the A’s. Both began this season as key contributors to their respective clubs. It’s important to note that Laureano is currently serving an 80-game suspension for PED use.
Long-time A’s catcher Terry Steinbach played 14 MLB seasons and was a three-time All Star. He even appeared on an MVP ballot in his last season with Oakland in 1996. Just to be clear, the Minnesotan finished 21 of 21 in voting.
Chris Shelton delivered good production during his first three campaigns with the Tigers. After the 2006 season, Detroit dealt the former Utah Ute to the Rangers. He’d spend 2007 in the minors before playing with Texas in 2008. Shelton’s big-league career came to a close the following season with the Mariners at the age of 29.
Infielder John Valentin spent 10 of his 11 seasons with the Red Sox. The Mineola, New York native’s best season was 1995 when he earned the only Silver Slugger Award of his career and finished ninth in AL MVP voting with Boston.
Joe Charboneau is an interesting story. He debuted with Cleveland in 1980 and was AL Rookie of the Year after hitting 23 home runs and slashing .289/.358/.488 in 131 games. Unfortunately, the right-handed hitting outfielder dealt with a back injury prior to his sophomore campaign and never regained his productive form. Charboneau was out of the majors after just three seasons.
The final player in our initial salvo hails from a baseball family – Moises Alou. Although Alou would eventually play 17 seasons, his career started unevenly. He debuted with the Pirates in 1990 and was subsequently traded to the Expos that same season. Then, his 1991 was lost to injury.
A year later, Alou finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting to Eric Karros of the Dodgers. His father Felipe Alou would also become manager of Montreal that year. The younger Alou would win earn two Silver Sluggers and be an MVP finalist twice, finishing third in voting in 1994 and 1998.
Of the players we’ve discussed thus far, Alou came closest to winning an MVP award. Having said that, two players from my search actually took home the hardware. Let’s discuss.
An MVP From Decades Ago
Before France was born, a player posted similar numbers to the Mariners’ current first baseman before eventually earning NL MVP with the Giants in 1989. His name is Kevin Mitchell.
Note: Twenty-two plate appearances from Mitchell’s age-22 season (1984) are included even though they fell outside of the ages 23 to 27 criteria. This didn’t noticeably alter the preceding numbers.
When Mitchell’s career began in earnest with the 1986 World Series champion Mets, he patrolled both corner infield spots, shortstop, and also spent time in the outfield. Despite not having a full-time position, the native of San Diego, California finished third in NL Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Todd Worrell and runner-up Robby Thompson.
A Contemporary MVP
Okay, I found a player from over three decades ago with similar numbers to France’s. Some of you may prefer someone who’s played since the internet became a thing. Fine, I have a name for you – Josh Donaldson, 2015 AL MVP.
Donaldson debuted with the A’s in 2010. However, he’d spend all of 2011 and part of 2012 in the minors before sticking for good. By the end of the 2013 campaign, the Auburn alum was a top-5 finisher in MVP voting. Two years later, his first with the Blue Jays, he was AL MVP.
A Hall of Famer?
Alright Mariners fans, it’s brain detonation time. Out of curiosity, I compared France to the young career of Edgar Martinez. Since Edgar didn’t play 100 games in a season until his fourth year in the majors, I bent the rules to improve the comp’s fun differential. As a result, the following contrasts France’s first three campaigns to the Hall of Famer’s first four.
Don’t stare too hard at the double and home run tallies since France has 71 more plate appearances than Martinez did. But each player’s OPS+ is almost identical, which suggests similar production. Does this mean we should anticipate a Ty France statue adjacent to monuments to Edgar, Ken Griffey Jr., and Ichiro outside T-Mobile Park in about 20 years?
No. This conversation has been a fun diversion, not thoughtful analysis.
Realistically, France’s career has a bright outlook. It’s true Charboneau and Shelton struggled to repeat their early success. But the remaining players we discussed enjoyed long MLB careers. Barring injury, the 34th round pick of the Padres in the 2015 draft should remain a productive hitter for well over a decade.
Who knows? Maybe France eventually elevates his game to an MVP-level in the future. How cool would that be? Even if France doesn’t soar to the same heights as Mitchell and Donaldson (or Edgar), what we’ve seen from him in 2021 suggests he’s now a foundational player for the Mariners.
Yes. I suspect the best is yet to come for Ty France.
And hopefully, the Mariners too.
My Oh My…
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