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Looking at J.P. France’s Success And Potential Regression

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

I keep reminding myself lately that results are the results whenever I watch J.P. France pitch because a 2.87 ERA in 84 23 innings is worthy of applause. If you limit your view since the start of June, a 2.34 ERA in 57 23 innings. At least six innings in all but one start since June 4. That’s great! Could you imagine where this Astros’ staff would be without France? It wouldn’t be pretty, especially if Framber Valdez’s recent skid continues. But in a season fraught with injury and inconsistency, France has become that stable presence in a rotation since his debut in early May. I certainly didn’t have this development on my bingo card for 2023.

France’s success this season derives from a combination of factors. While the right-hander doesn’t strike out many batters (16.7%), he also doesn’t allow that many walks (6.9%). A healthy enough 44.7% ground ball rate certainly helps along with keeping the ball in the park. He also strands a high percentage (81.1%) of baserunners. But his BABIP and the quality of contact on batted balls, or lack thereof, have been a major aspect of France’s success.

France’s continued success will likely hinge on the quality of contact he surrenders. Thus far, he has done a decent enough job in limiting home runs, and his wOBACON and xwOBACON are among the best out of all qualified pitchers. He also does a decent job about limiting hard contact — 67th percentile — and barrels aren’t a particular issue. But France has less margin for error than most pitchers simply due to a lack of swing-and-miss material. Using the same qualifier as earlier — at least 80 innings pitched — France’s 9.1% swinging strike rate is better than only 19 pitchers. The Astros’ rookie is, in fact, only one of two pitchers in baseball with a sub-3.00 ERA and a swinging strike rate lower than 10%. Alex Cobb of the Giants is the other. If the quality of contact against him improves, or even if his BABIP regresses, it could lead to a downtrend in his overall numbers.

Since his debut on May 6, only two qualified starters have a higher differential between their ERA and FIP (1.47) than the rookie right-hander (Nathan Eovaldi and José Berríos). France overtakes Berríos in ERA and xFIP differential. If you prefer SIERA, which is more predictive than FIP, it doesn’t get much better, as France’s 4.85 mark is better than only nine other starters. Of course, it does take some time for these figures to stabilize, but you get the point. He, Dane Dunning, Bryce Elder, and Michael Lorenzen are the only starters with at least 80 innings pitched this season with an ERA below 4.00 and a strikeout rate below 20%. At this point, France’s lack of strikeouts places the onus of his performance on the amount of contact he allows and the quality of it.

There is a lot to like about France as a starter. He has saved the Astros’ bacon more than once this season. The bullpen owes him at least a steak dinner. While he doesn’t possess one pitch that stands out, his complement of secondary offerings provides varying looks to opposing hitters. It establishes a floor of at least a backend starter. But while we can celebrate France’s well-deserved success, the odds feel high that France will regress. The question now is when exactly will regression occur.