Baseball delights me. As a fan, I can see the best in most any situation, and care little for indulging the negative possibilities of a situation. If something goes awry, it will be the expected outcome, so why not look for what can go well? But as someone seeking to scout and analyze talent, nitpicking and worrying is a must. So what can we worry about in early January? How about the Mariners’ new Shortstop of the Future’s defensive skill-set?
J.P. Crawford comes brimming with talent, but the 2017 and 2018 season represent flags of increasingly crimson hues for his once-star-bound trajectory. Crawford’s youth makes him a good candidate to develop further at the plate, and multiple injuries dragged down his production in each of his last two seasons, but it’s worrying to see subpar defensive numbers from a player long viewed as a stalwart at the position.
Unfortunately, what we have at our disposal to mathematically evaluate defenders is limited, and doubly so for players with limited MLB experience. The soon-to-be 24-year-old received glowing defensive writeups for both his glove and arm. In 2017, he was pegged with a 60-grade (great, essentially) on his arm and glove by FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen. Baseball Prospectus labelled him “a no-doubt shortstop with smooth, strong actions and more than enough arm for the position.” Clay Davenport’s numbers, which offer our best glimpse at advanced defensive metrics in the minors, grade him as an average-to-above-average defender at every level since 2015.
So what happened the last two years—and in 2018 especially—to sour many on Crawford? After being jerked around from his natural SS to play 2B and 3B in favor of Freddy Galvis, Crawford was finally given command of SS with the Phillies this season. His struggles both preceded and followed a right forearm strain that sent him to the DL April 29th. Crawford later suffered a broken left hand on June 20th, although he looked far better in all facets following his return on September 4th. But let’s look at what was amiss for Crawford this past year.
Crawford played 229.2 innings of shortstop at the MLB level this year. He made eight errors while doing so, seven of which came between Opening Day and his broken hand on June 20th. One additional error was also made while playing 3B, also within that early season timeframe. All nine errors were throwing errors, and I have watched and enclosed all eight shortstop errors below. Errors and fielding percentage are a sloppy metric for evaluating a defender’s quality, so it’s important that we’re mindful of what we’re looking for. Crawford’s range and arm talent make him a candidate to attempt plays that aren’t always possible for other players, and while sometimes that spurs errors, it can also elicit greatness. If you need evidence of his arm’s strength and accuracy at times, even his brief MLB career offers examples:
With that in mind, let’s investigate some errors, and what went awry.
The first error of the season comes on a difficult play. A bouncing GIDP opportunity off the bat of speedy Ozzie Albies leads Crawford to rush his throw with a sidearm angle, delivering a low-but-manageable hop that Carlos Santana can’t handle. We’ll see this again soon.
Error two comes the following week, with Crawford coming inches from a stellar inning-ending play. He catches an unsuspecting Todd Frazier napping and lasers a near-perfect throw to Santana, who is unable to corral the ball as it unluckily ricochets off Frazier’s chicken wing. Note a more over-the-top/three-quarters motion from Crawford as well.
A full three weeks pass before Crawford’s next recorded miscue. A deflected grounder up the middle sends him up the middle, then readjusting, before ultimately leaving the sidearm throw a few inches too high for the 5’11 Santana to catch while on the bag.
Error number four is what initially made me consider Brad Miller as a useful framing device for Crawford. In a different light we could be right back in 2013, watching Crazy Legs do his thing. More pertinently, this play seems to be a mental mistake as much as anything - Paul Goldschmidt looks like a loafing 1B but the man really can run, and Crawford appeared to be caught off-guard, rushing his throw late.
Rushing things once again comes for Crawford, as a high chopper leads him to leave the ball low with heavy topspin, and once again Santana cannot dig it out. Kurt Suzuki is hustling, bless his heart, but Crawford sets himself up perfectly and then just fast forwards the ending. This was Crawford’s final error before a forearm strain on this bizarre play sent him to the DL for over a month.
Upon his return, it’s entirely possible Crawford felt 100% healthy; however, his two worst errors of the season would soon follow.
In a delightful blend of genres, a chopper up the middle, with what appears to be a completely bizarre pair of zig-zag hops, leads Crawford once again into a tough-but-makeable play. Instead, the throw tails wide, and Orlando Arcia narrowly avoids a dangerous blow to the head from the errant toss. This play came in just his second game back at shortstop since returning from his forearm strain.
Three days later, Crawford’s most egregious play of the season reared its ugly head. I don’t mean to make light of what was clearly a frustrating point in the season for the 23-year-old, but this was astonishingly far off.
Unlike Arcia earlier, Dexter Fowler is blissfully unaware of the danger he narrowly dodged. The slo-mo above reveals the issue plainly: a higher-than-anticipated hop places the ball on the heel of Crawford’s glove, and his atypical grab point leads him to fully palm the ball, resulting in an erratic toss. And, finally, after another sizable interlude for a broken left hand off a pitch that struck him, the final error of the season:
Ryon Healy catches that. It’s a misplay at least partially forced by the miscommunication of base coverage. Typically, base coverage is determined by the middle infielders before the at-bat, so Someone Screwed Up, but the error rests on Crawford, ultimately.
So there are Crawford’s mistakes. They add up to the errant plays of a 23-year-old splitting time between positions and perhaps pressing too hard. Despite the fixation on his miscues, I find myself encouraged after filtering through dozens of Crawford’s games. The arm strength, erratic as it may have been in 2018, is real, and it manifests positively and negatively. We’ve examined some of Crawford’s worst miscues, but there are also plays like this:
Carlos Santana isn't the only one on the squad who's smooth.@jp_crawford made this one look easy. pic.twitter.com/bvu0B4oJFB— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) March 22, 2018
No glove, all hustle for @jp_crawford. #SpringTraining pic.twitter.com/c0cNeyJqCP— MLB (@MLB) March 9, 2018
@jp_crawford, have mercy! #MiLB pic.twitter.com/ZSALzQHpPn— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) August 9, 2017
Being jerked around by the Phillies over the past two seasons has done him few favors, and hopefully a fully healthy 2019 awaits. I fully expect Seattle to employ some service time shenanigans to earn an extra year of control at Crawford’s expense, but once he magically emerges from Tacoma, ready after a month and a half of extra seasoning, he’ll have the keys to the kingdom, and at least two years of time to take the shortstop position and make it his own. Brad Miller became a decent MLB player, even if he never quite lived up to some expectations, and perhaps the same will be true of Crawford, but I think we’ll ultimately be pleased with what we get from the Mariners’ new Shortstop of the Future.