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What’s been working lately for J.P. Crawford

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Seattle Mariners Photo Day Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sometimes articles fall into your lap. I’ve been tinkering with an article on J.P. Crawford for a few weeks, eager to discuss how his bat was progressing in Tacoma, and whether the fresh start on the west coast seemed to have buy-in. Sometimes you get waylaid, though, and much like J.P. himself, the article was on the back-burner.

Then J.A. Happ went up and in one too many times and drilled Dee Gordon on the hand, Dylan Moore went and had the same issue, and just for kicks Edwin Encarnación dove for a grounder at 2nd base and rolled his wrist too. With Moore in “a lot of pain swinging” and Gordon uncertain but definitely not in the clear, J.P. Crawford was pulled from last night’s game and is a good bet to be called up today.

For me, there are three questions to be answered with a Crawford call-up.

  1. Is he the right guy to call up over Shed Long at this point?
  2. Does he look comfortable defensively at shortstop again?
  3. How has his bat progressed from last year?

For number one, the answer may be moot if both Moore and Gordon require time on the IL. On the other hand, while both Long and Crawford are hitting well in Tacoma, there is still more to do for Shed at the AAA level than Crawford. This is Long’s first crack at AAA. It’s Crawford’s fourth. Long is trying to get a handle on a couple new positions, while Crawford is attempting to show mastery of one. Tim Beckham has 544.0 professional innings at 2B, and should be able to slide over comfortably enough. Bring both youngsters up if needed, but J.P. has earned the call and fits the need most.

Next, the glove. I’ll be damned if I’m going to make a conclusion on Crawford’s defensive progression when this is the high-quality video we have to work with.

Kate Preusser / MiLB

I’ve been down to Tacoma twice this year and Crawford has looked smooth, with arm strength to make plays on balls to his right and hands to adjust to balls to his left. I’ve seen scouts worry about his footwork, which has likely lead to the occasional errant throw, as I highlighted in a prior dive, but the strongest I’m willing to go is that he’ll be a step up from Beckham at short.

So he’s the right guy and his glove is probably an upgrade over whatever the M’s have been doing at a minimum - is there something specific behind his improved work in the batter’s box? Great question, John, I’m so glad you asked. Lauren Smith of the Tacoma News Tribune wrote a great piece on Crawford a week and a half ago chock full of the kind of quotes you want to hear about a new player joining the organization.

“I think the confidence is there, but the main thing is I’m healthy,” Crawford said. “I definitely feel stronger, and my body feels a lot better than in years past. I’m taking care of my body this year. Last year was definitely a wake-up call for me. I’m doing a lot of things differently.” Crawford said he’s getting in the weight room, stretching more, and making a concerted effort to prevent more injuries.

That’s a good start, but what about the hitting plan specifically?

[Rainiers Manager Daren] Brown said the Mariners made some adjustments with Crawford’s swing during spring training, and he’s carried those over well. “Anytime you adjust somebody’s swing, you’re either trying to improve swing decisions or you’re trying to improve the quality of contact,” [Mariners Director of Player Development Andy] McKay said. For Crawford, both of those tweaks were emphasized. He hit well last September in his final call-up with the Phillies, producing a .292 average in 15 games, and the Mariners have built on that.

Ahhh we’ve got some good stuff. To figure out what, if anything, is different, we need to know where we started. Last April, Crawford struggled quite a bit, then was beset by injuries that further sapped his effectiveness and playing time. His hands were high, with an open stance and a medium-sized leg kick.

His swing drew criticism last year for getting long and loopy, and there’s a bit of that here, but most jarring is how much his head moves right before contact. On this pitch it is somewhat exacerbated as Crawford adjusts to a breaking ball, but similar head whacking occurred on numerous swings I observed from early 2018.

Nod if you agree that’s a lot of head movement
Baseball.Theater

So what’s new? In late 2018 Crawford reappeared following injuries with his hands lowered to start the swing, a slightly more direct swing path, and a smidge less head movement.

It looked a bit better, although a lot of swings will look good on a 3-1 fastball right down the middle.

Baseball.Theater

But that only gets us to the building blocks McKay references them working off of this spring. Looking at Crawford swing earlier this week, we get a tightened up version of that late season swing against Strasburg. The head whack is still there, but slighter still, his knees are a touch more bent, the leg kick is a bit more pronounced, and his hands appear quicker, getting the barrel out sooner for a line drive here...

MiLB

...and a homer in a 3-2 count off a different lefty here:

MiLB

On that latter swing in particular, we see a similar swing and result on an equally meaty pitch to the Strasburg homer, yet Crawford’s hands are quicker through the zone in a borderline Vogelbachian fashion. The leg kick and more direct hand load results in a smoother cobra-like coil that uncorks in sync. No doubt MLB off-speed will challenge him, but he’s getting much more out of his swing, with less of his body going in multiple directions, and his chances of putting the ball in play sharply seem to be going up.

Thus far in the PCL Crawford has hit well, as he should, but the type of contact has been particularly encouraging. His 26.4% line drive rate is a career-high in the minors and just a tick off his first taste of time in the bigs in 2017. He’s still popping the ball up a lot, but he’s keeping the ball in the air and on a line often, which is the pathway to success for most hitters right now. For Crawford, it’s meant a .319/.420/.457 line with double-digit BB% and a K% not far ahead. PCL numbers are notoriously hard to project, but it’s seemed like better process from J.P. at minimum.

I’m not certain that translates to sticking permanently in the bigs right now, although the results of Gordon’s injury diagnosis may answer that question for Seattle. I want to see J.P. Crawford play for/in Seattle now, with the team fully returned to earth, and we may get that wish as soon as today. Until we know more about the health of Gordon and Moore, however, we can at least acknowledge the strides Crawford has made to be ready for this moment.