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40 in 40: JP Crawford

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John Paul has a climb ahead of him

Seattle Mariners v Pittsburgh Pirates
Perry’s Prodigy
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

J.P. Crawford is an exceptionally talented defender” - Jerry Dipoto

“I want to win a Gold Glove, I can do it, I know I can do it. So that’s going to be one of my main goals.” - J.P. Crawford

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Moon Hill Climbing Crag, Yangshuo, China. December 2nd, 2018

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Acid rain drips down my brow as I navigate my rusted cruiser bike to the side of the road, chicken-filled tri-bikes and semis alike blaring their horns as they travel up and down the Chinese highway five paces in front of me. I have been making this bike journey three times a week in search of the best climbing in China. A Mariners notification had come in moments ago, and I’m eager with excitement to check my phone to see if the Díaz/Canó-Kelenic trade has now been made officially official. Knee-deep in the likes of squatting toilets and spicy food assaulting my gentle Idahoan palate, the constant movement of Trader Jerry and the front office has been equal parts scary and grounding.

...Oh. It wasn’t about the Cano trade.

Quick shootin,’ fast dealin’ Jerry Dipoto has swung another move. This time Jean Segura was on the move for the young, unproven JP Crawford and the old and expensive (wait, not another prospect?!) Carlos Santana.

This makes sense, The M’s are re imagining rebuilding, Jean Segura doesn’t have the best locker room reputation and Ah! JP Crawford! I recognize that name, he’s been a top five prospect over the past couple of years. What were the Phillies thinking?

Eager to indulge myself in the fleecing that just took place, I impatiently refresh FanGraphs as I pace up and down the muddy highway shoulder until it loads. Ok, ok, 95 wRC+ last season with the Phils in limited PA’s, but he put up a 114 wRC+ in AAA, which is good enough. I cough as a cloud of exhaust from a truck briefly consumes me, and, breathing heavily, I scroll down the page, finding his fielding numbers. Considering his offensive numbers from last season and his former Top Prospect status, he must be a gold glove caliber shortstop, right? (RIGHT?) I can get behind that; plus defense at SS is always fun to watch.

Waaaaaiiiit. No that can’t be it. I’m on the wrong page or something.

I refresh the page, now camped under the leafy fronds of a tree as I strain my eyes to read the small FanGraphs table on my phone.

I guess it was right. 8 errors...... in 116 chances...... a 93% Fielding percentage?! Wait.... Every error was a throwing error?! All culminating in a -21 UZR/150???

Defeated and wet, I mount the cruiser and pedal slowly up the hill, eager to get to the climbing crag and forget about the trade at hand for the rest of the day.

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T-Mobile Park. July 26th, 2019.

Top of The Ninth, 2 outs, Game tied 2-2.

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Roenis Elias winds up. One more out and then the Mariners have a shot to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. He releases the 78 mile per hour curveball; Jeimer Candelario swings and makes contact. The ball launches off his bat, traveling 100mph towards the gap between Crawford and Kyle Seager. JP tracks the ball, diving out of the dirt and into grass as leather hits leather.

And then, the throw. Or as it’s now known (or as the Mariners want it to be known), The Throw.

I knew that JP Crawford had a propensity for making big plays with his glove, but this play was something else altogether. After being called up to the big leagues May 10th after some much needed service time manipulation AAA at-bats in Tacoma, JP’s defense seemed to confirm my worst fears. 7 errors in the first 28 games is about as bad as you’ll see from an MLB SS, yet he continued to work with the legendary infield coach Perry Hill to get his defense to where it needed to be. “He really saved my career,” said Crawford in a May interview. “He kind of just simplified everything up…..We worked in January, and he gave me some [fundamental] stuff to work on, and it helped me so much.”

Hill’s work with Crawford began at the bottom floor with his footwork and feet placement. Hill worked to eliminate some of Crawford’s bad habits, like crossing his feet when he threw that would ultimately make it harder to be accurate with his throws. In 2019, with over 250 more chances at fielding the ball, Crawford only had three throwing errors compared to the eight he had the year prior.

Yet, unlike in years past, Crawford was making flashy plays while still executing the mundane ones. Coaching from Perry Hill again proved to be instrumental here, as through using Coach Hills 6F’s of fielding Crawford was able to execute these plays at a much higher rate. By season’s end, Crawford was one of the most reliable shortstops in the AL. In the time since his infamous catch he had a .982 fielding percentage, good for second in the AL over that span, while not giving a single error in the month leading up to it. Crawford finished the season with a 1.7 UZR/150, which although not amazing, was a 22.7 point swing from the year prior.

Crawford will be 25 throughout the entire 2020 season, meaning he will hopefully have time to develop areas of his game he didn’t get to last season; namely, his bat. In his first season playing over 50 games in the bigs, Crawford struggled. He turned in a below average .684 while being in the bottom of the 5% of the league in both exit velocity and xSLG.

Yet despite this, Jerry Dipoto and much of the Mariners staff like his approach not only at the plate, but the game as a whole. In 2019 he turned in a .518 BB/K ratio and a serviceable .5 UBR. His work ethic has been praised by people at every level of the organization, Perry Hill noted it after working with him last January before Spring Training:

“He wants to be good, so he applies himself, and takes every opportunity,” Hill said. “He doesn’t take a ground ball off. He plays every ground ball when we’re working on our routine things like it’s the seventh game of the World Series.”

If Crawford is able to bring this approach to the rest of his game, the sky is the limit. In hopes of adding durability and a little extra pop to his bat, JP is hitting the weight room hard this offseason. “Hopefully it will make a difference in terms of staying healthy and with the power numbers, too,” Crawford said. “I need to get stronger everywhere. I think it will pay off even better next year.” Considering his lean frame—6’2 and under 200 pounds—it’s impressive that he was able to rank second on the Mariners in extra base hits (32) since he was called up in mid-May. This extra bit of pop should go a long way in putting the ball over the fence for Crawford, who only was able to collect seven long balls last season. The extra muscle should also help JP, who is about to embark on his first full season in the MLB which means more inherent fatigue and wear and tear.

JP Crawford has no real pressure in terms of prospects on the farm as Noelvi Marte is still quite a ways out and may not even stick in the infield; however, for 2020 to be a success for JP he must continue to perform on defense while swinging the bat better.

No longer the youthful top prospect he was, sometimes I fear that J.P.’s progression might halt to a stop sooner than later, leaving us with a plus defender at shortstop who can’t really hit. This would certainly leave Dipoto with an L in terms of this trade last winter. While at this point the jury is still out on if JP will turn into the superstar scouts once thought he would be, it certainly appears that JP will develop into an average to above-average everyday option at short.

He’s shown he knows how to put the work in and succeed at something he once struggled with. He’s shown flashes of capability like his .338 and .983 OPS June of last year, yet he still needs to put it together.

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Soaking wet and tired, I arrive at the climbing crag. The arch of rock cascades above, towering above me. The bike ride is behind me, yet the real challenge lies ahead, I strap up my pack and begin the hike up to the base of the arch. Aware of the obstacles ahead, I begin to mentally prepare for the climbing above. I take a deep breath as the semis full of chicken ands trash-fires fall behind me and for the first time in a long time, all that is left is in my control.

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JP Crawford has already completed his bike ride to the crag; he has ridden through the rain and fought over lanes with the semis, and now he is at the climbing crag. His defense is top notch, yet the true challenge still remains. If JP applies the skills that got him here, he should succeed; although just like in rock climbing, nothing is certain in baseball.

The similarities between baseball and rock climbing are few and far between; however, sometimes you just have to stick out your tongue and go for it.

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These guys.

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