Missing .400, Padres' France hits his goal

Callup at .399 mark illustrates difficulty of rare feat in Minors

Ty France had never hit above .304 at any of his Minor League stops before this season. (Jorge Salgado/El Paso Chihuahuas)

By Joe Bloss / MiLB.com | August 20, 2019 10:30 AM

Ty France went 1-for-11 over the weekend. His .399 average for Triple-A El Paso didn't budge. It probably won't at any point over the next 14 days, when the Chihuahuas play the final 14 games on their schedule.

The Padres on Friday recalled the 25-year-old infielder, meaning he doesn't figure to see any more Pacific Coast League action this season. He started each of San Diego's three games in Philadelphia and accumulated his 45th day of big league service time, losing his status as the club's No. 23 prospect. With Fernando Tatis Jr. likely out for the season, France will get a shot to show that one of the best Minor League seasons this millennium can translate into Major League contributions.

"It's disappointing he was only hitting .399 when he got called up. I feel like we should have given him one more at-bat to see if we can get him over [.400], but he'll have to sit on that .399 average," Padres manager Andy Green told MLB.com. "He's had a really, really impressive year in the Minor Leagues, and it warrants opportunity to see what his bat can do here at the big league level."

No baseball player aims for a ceiling as a Minor League legend, so France will gladly trade his pursuit of history for a chance to prove himself in the Majors. But the circumstances of his callup underscore how much has to fall into place for a player to hit .400 in this game. Lessons gleaned from France's season -- and those of .400 flirtations past -- show just how elusive a batting average that high is.

Only a select few have even come close to pulling it off. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. threatened to join the elite club last season; late struggles had him wind up with a .381 average. Jose Altuve posted a .389 clip -- the best mark this millennium -- into the middle of the 2011 campaign only to arrive in The Show before the end of July. The all-time full-season record belongs to Bill Krieg, who hit .452 in 1895. But the only qualified hitter to surpass .400 with a full-season, affiliated club since the Minors' modern era began in 1963 was Erubiel Durazo. He hit .404 between Double-A El Paso and Triple-A Tucson in 1999.

France could have been the second. Now, as long as he isn't optioned over the next two weeks, he'll fall one point shy of .400 and 30 plate appearances short of qualifying for the PCL batting title.

"Obviously, it would be something pretty special," France told MiLB.com before his callup, "but right now, that's not one of my biggest concerns."

Video: El Paso's France rips three-run blast

In 1978, Gary Redus could recite his batting average on the spot. Although he pulled off the feat while playing a 68-game schedule, his average was the best of any Minor Leaguer, ever. It still is. He bought a newspaper almost every day to see how his numbers changed. One morning, with a little more than a month left in the Pioneer League season, his routine stats check prompted a few Billings Mustangs teammates to do some math. They deduced Redus could go 0-for-100 and still finish the year above .300.

Redus, then a 21-year-old second baseman freshly plucked by the Reds in the 15th round of the Draft, only went 0-for three times and finished his first pro campaign with a .462 mark in 253 at-bats. No, it was not for a full-season affiliate, but the .400 plateau is rarely reached anywhere in pro ball. Redus blew past it.

He knew he needed at least two hits every game.

"Anything over that, we would say that's gravy," Redus recalled. 

Falling short of a pair of base knocks each game, though, meant he'd lose the daily competition he held with Skeeter Barnes, his teammate and best friend. Cincinnati took Barnes in the 16th round, just after Redus, and their drive to prove superiority made each other better. Barnes finished second on the team with a .368 average, nearly 100 points lower than Redus'.

From his vantage as a coach for Double-A Montgomery with a .252 average over 13 seasons in the big leagues under his belt, Redus laughs at the idea that some players today don't know their average. Because it's not that they don't know. It's that they don't want to know.

"If a guy is swinging the bat well," Redus said, "he can tell you what he's hitting."

France knew -- avoiding the noise in 2019 can prove nearly impossible -- but he tried to block out the pressure, anyway.

"I look up at the board and I can see all the numbers that they put up there," France said. "So I definitely notice it, but it's not something that concerns me too much. I'm worried about playing my game and going out there and trying to help the team win."

Fixating on one's average -- or in France's case, ignoring it -- factors into any player's hunt for .400. It pushed Redus to succeed. In 2005, though, letting the chase occupy too much headspace brought Rick Short down.

Short, now the hitting coach for Double-A Jackson, had his run at the accomplishment derailed in the final month of that '05 campaign. He knew he was having a good season for Triple-A New Orleans. August arrived, and as he continued to rack up hits, opposing players wished him good luck. Realizing what was within reach made offense instantly hard. His .402 average on Aug. 19 dropped to .383 by the end of the PCL season. He got his first September callup and Major League debut as consolation but played the rest of his career in Japan.

2019 MiLB include

"It can be overwhelming at times," he said. "It's hard to get one hit a night, let alone two hits every night. … I don't want to say 'pressure,' because you're having a great year if you're sitting in that position. But, yeah, you want to make a run at it. It's just that it's better if you're numb to it. When you become aware, it's tough."

Short spent 12 years in the Minors -- hitting north of .300 in all but three -- and his ability to steer clear of any early slumps in 2005 was step one in earning a shot at .400. A simplified swing, with his hands moved closer to avoid getting beat inside, gave him repeatability. Redus' load did the same; he made sure the stride with his front foot never changed. The technique worked so well that players on other teams started to mimic it. The worst slump Redus can recall from his record year was something along the lines of a 6-for-20 stretch.

France, though, had never hit above .304 in any of his Minor League stops prior to this year. His best full-season average was .294 and he'd yet to crack MLB.com's list of the top 30 prospects in San Diego's system. Hitting .400 would have been an absurd proposition before this campaign. So this past offseason, he crafted an approach that focused on his strengths.

"I realized the kind of player that I am and the hitter I need to be if I want to play in the big leagues," France said. "I'm not going to be a stolen base threat. I'm not going to beat out a bunch of infield hits. If I want to be successful, I need to elevate some pitches and drive the ball."

His adjustment showed immediate results. France batted .418 over 19 games in April before San Diego beckoned him to the bigs for the first time. He started 25 games and hit .235 with two home runs before being optioned back to Triple-A.

"Everybody [in the Majors] is good," France said. "If you even take five minutes off mentally, it's going to get you. Just trying to maintain that elite level is not easy to do, and now that I've got a little taste of what it's like and know what it takes, I definitely think, hopefully, round two will be a little better."

France earned that round two by resuming his decimation of PCL pitching in early May and never letting up. His 27 home runs ranked second on the team that leads the Minors in roundtrippers (with 245 through 125 games). His 1.247 OPS is still tops on the circuit. He hit .500 in August. When an infield spot opened up with the Padres last week, no possible replacement had a case as strong as France's.

There is no lone formula for hitting .400, but France seemed to have found most of the ingredients. He made carefully considered changes before the season. He got hot early. He did not cool off after a forgettable big league debut. He kept his head level.

Doing everything right got him into a Major League lineup instead of the Minor League record books.

Joe Bloss is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jtbloss This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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