J.P. Crawford had the highest Win Probability Added on the Mariners yesterday. If WPA measured defensive plays, it might not be so, since he had a wayward throw that started Justin Dunn’s fourth inning off quite poorly, but the M’s leadoff man made up for it with a couple other nice bits of glovework and a whole lot of excellence at the plate. 2-for-3 with a pair of walks looks nice enough, but by far his most notable plate appearance was his last - facing lefty specialist Ryan Buchter in the top of the 8th.
Buchter had just walked Shed Long Jr. after relieving Ty Buttrey, who managed to give a free pass to Dee Gordon. The crossfire lefty has allowed just a .261 wOBA against lefties in his career, or a .188/.264/.336 slash line. He starts Crawford out with a high fastball for strike one.
Like many lefty relievers, Buchter’s bread and butter is a fastball-breaking ball combo that is especially hard on lefties. He’s had a successful career despite an elevated walk rate thanks to a knack for wriggling out of jams, perhaps a great deal of luck, and some good defenses, but his next pitch is a nasty curve. J.P. slices it foul, but now it’s 0-2.
In the driver’s seat, Buchter goes back to the well. Crawford spoils it again, popping a near perfect curve out of play.
Buchter responds with a 17 mph jump in nearly the exact same spot, dotting a fastball just below the zone, but close enough to possibly get a called strike three in many circumstances. Instead, Angels catcher Jason Castro nearly entirely whiffs the ball, and any framing-based shenanigans are allayed as the runners move up 90 feet.
Now at 1-2, back to the curve Buchter goes. It’s a flatter version that winds up further off the plate is a shade too obvious to entice Crawford. The pitch begins in the zone and dives out, but Crawford’s patience is enough to stay his swing. The count evens.
Buchter reverses tact again, hitting his target with an elevated fastball on the outside part of the plate. It’s not a great pitch, but he’s changing the eye level yet again for Crawford. Instead, another foul ball.
With Crawford spraying everything to the left side in this PA, Castro and Buchter call for the same pitch, attempting to put away the seemingly back-footed shortstop with Buchter’s best heat of the PA thus far at just over 93 mph. Instead, another foul ball, as the plate appearance heads to its eighth pitch.
This is, to me, the crucial pitch. A take on a power curve, which he’s seen as a more sweeping pitch to this point, that drops precipitously out of the zone and puts the count at 3-2. Crawford has always been commended for good plate discipline, as he’s run a Chase% (swings at pitches out of the zone) of just 18.1% for his career that is well beneath the MLB average of 28.3%, and his Whiff% of 21.2% is better than league-average (24.4%) as well. But Crawford has to do more than spit on the bad stuff, he has to do damage the good stuff. He’s already fouled off a few fastballs in the middle of the plate, and he gets another heater on pitch number nine of the AB.
The chyron rounds up to 94, but Baseball Savant puts this at 93.5 mph. It’s Buchter’s best fastball of the night, and while it misses his spot outside, even with a poor frame it could easily be a called strike three if Crawford doesn’t get the bat to it. Instead, we head to the final offering.
Booyah. Like a swallow desperately feinting to avoid a diving falcon, Buchter throws his first cutter of the battle, to no avail. The 89 mph pitch gets tracked and laced by Crawford 105 mph off the bat, skipping into the outfield grass, easily scoring both Gordon and Long, and putting some breathing room between the M’s and the Angels as they head to the ninth. The full at bat chart is a thing of beauty.
Crawford has been magnificent at the plate in the first week of the season, but he had hot stretches last year and fell off as he tired. While I mentioned Crawford’s commendable plate discipline earlier, that trait only goes so far for hitters unable to punish pitchers who adjust. If a guy won’t chase out of the zone, pitchers will bring their best stuff over the plate. That’s no guarantee of success.
Hitters like Mallex Smith and Leury Garcia for example, tend to see high percentages of pitches in the zone, as pitchers don’t fear giving up powerful contact to them. Sure, Mallex might slap a ball into the gap or the corner and get a double or triple, but that’s a lower risk far preferable to walking him and letting him use his elite speed to get to second or third anyways. Last year, Crawford was in the bottom 6% of the league in hard hit rate, at just 24.8%, with a bottom 4% average exit velocity of just 85 mph off his bat. As a good defensive shortstop with solid speed, Crawford doesn’t have to become Nelson Cruz to be a solid everyday player, but he has to be able to put enough hurt on the ball to make pitchers respect him. Plate appearances like last night’s show a glimpse of what that version of the 25 year old SS would be like, and friends, it’s a sight I’d like to see a whole lot more of.