If there’s anything Mariners fans should know by now, it’s that development isn’t always linear. We’ve are the beneficiaries of that truth with Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales, and even Edwin Díaz. It’s also stung us with names that ring memorably - Chris Taylor, Shin-Soo Choo, Ketel Marte, or Luis Rengifo. MLB is overflowing with examples of the fluidity of talent levels right now, but sometimes a story is simpler than a revolutionary adjustment or a player showing up in the Best Shape Of Their Life. Occasionally the talent was always apparent, but the opportunity and availability weren’t. This year, one IL stint and service time manipulation behind him, J.P. Crawford is available and delivering. More than that, he’s the best thing about the Mariners right now.
That’s not to say there haven’t been adjustments. In an interview with Shannon Drayer, Crawford acknowledged something that had plagued him throughout his career, even into this season with the Rainiers.
“I need to use more of the field and not try to pull too much. It causes a little bit of a loop in my swing. Not trying to hit the ball too hard allows my hands to work through the zone and out the zone instead of pulling off of it. Trying to hit the ball up the middle every time, no matter if it is inside or outside, you always want to keep your hands going forward instead of going around. It’s a feel thing getting out of the pull. Sitting inside trying to hook balls and trying to hit homers, that’s when I get into a little funk.”
If you’ve played baseball or softball (or been around them much) you recognize that ethos. It’s far from revolutionary, and every little league game has a dad yelling something similar at their wee ones. It’s not the right approach for everyone, and getting comfortable with pulling and mashing is appropriate for some players (see: Vogelbach, Daniel). But for J.P., who appeared to almost have two different swings when I saw him in Tacoma early this season, this approach works.
In May I wrote the article linked above, noting Crawford’s adjusted hands, leg kick, and smoother, quicker bat. I was optimistic with the results he’d had, but he’s outpaced my wildest expectations. Sometimes 24-year-olds aren’t finished products; go figure. J.P.’s gotten back to the type of approach he had at his best in the minors, but thus far this year it’s been almost a perfect split: 33.8% pull, 33.8% to center, 32.5% oppo.
That sound you heard is a thousand high school coaches clapping their jaws shut after realizing they were drooling. Crawford’s adjusted from a loopy, pull-happy swing that afflicted him somewhere on his first trip through AAA in 2016 towards a short, sharp, targeted strike on a mission for line drives, wherever they may reside.
Sometimes that’s in right-center.
Other times they’re in left.
Some days he spreads the love all over.
He’s added a double-digit walk rate and a 2019-tolerable 25% strikeout pace, showing the preternatural plate discipline that helped buoy his prospect profile. If this Crawford is here to stay, he’s likely the beneficiary of an outdated scouting book. Though he hardly faces the level of shifting some lefties like Kyle Seager do, Crawford’s been shifted on 32.5% of the time this year. It’s not as though Crawford’s totally beating the shift, but he’s liable to see less and less of it if he continues scattering the ball.
Mostly, though, J.P. has just been peppering line drives and quieting doubts. His >.400 BABIP will fade, but Baseball Savant’s xBA and xwOBA note nothing out of the ordinary for his numbers considering the quality of the contact he’s putting on the ball. Just as Mitch Haniger would have been a satisfactory player with a 110-120 wRC+ and a 2-3 win pace, J.P would be great as a lesser player than what he’s been thus far. But in a season that has not given joy at the big league level with both hands, Crawford’s early breakout has been the guiding light suggesting this step-back has hope.
I was skeptical of the trade at the time, as Jean Segura had been a stellar player and was far from underwater contractually. I still have mixed feelings about the deal as a whole, though it’s grown into a more palatable organism as it now includes Juan Then, Isaiah Campbell, and 20 beautiful parrot rides. But the biggest turning point has been J.P. himself. He’s made mistakes in the field, but no greater kindness was done for him than this organization subjecting us to two months of Tim Beckham, Dylan Moore, and Ryon Healy on the left side of the infield before calling up Crawford.
A lifetime ago, after the 2015 season, Baseball America had this to say of the then-20-year-old Phillies farmhand:
At the plate, Crawford’s discipline is above-average, especially for someone his age, and he has nearly as many career walks (160) as strikeouts (163). That falls in line with the views expressed by those who saw him in the EL this season and praised Crawford for an advanced two-strike approach. That plate discipline helps his already excellent hit tool play up to the point that he could be a plus hitter once he reaches the majors. Scouts also note he does an excellent job staying inside the ball with a compact lefthanded stroke. He’s got pull power now, and most evaluators give him a chance for at least average pop at the highest level.
He was the No. 6 prospect in baseball then. Four years, three IL stints, two surprising demotions, and one organization later, J.P. Crawford is looking like that guy at last.