With promising shortstop J.P. Crawford, the Seattle Mariners have a former top-20 pick who won a Gold Glove at the age of 25. They also have a player who’s struggled at the plate. Crawford is meant to be a weight-bearing wall in the Mariners’ new house. But now that he has basically a full season in his rearview mirror – 146 combined games from 2019 and 2020 – Crawford is exhibiting signs of a glove-first shortstop.
Since coming over from Philadelphia in the Jean Segura trade, Crawford has made 628 MLB plate appearances. He’s hit a weakling .237/.322/.359 during those, carrying around an 89 wRC+ and 88 OPS+ that also don’t do him any favors. He’s got virtually the same amount of hits (130) as strikeouts (122), and by most metrics has been a worse offensive player than Dylan Moore, who we all like, but didn’t arrive in Seattle with the same expectations as the Phillies’ ex-prospect. Since the Mariners hit the reset button before the 2019 season, Crawford is second in total plate appearances, trailing only Kyle Seager.
Over those two seasons, though, Crawford has a worse batting average than Tim Lopes (.252), fewer home runs (9) than Tim Beckham (15), and a lower wRC+ than Ryon Healy.
Now, this does not mean Crawford is a bad player or a categorical failure already. Quite the opposite in fact. According to FanGraphs, the Mariners’ shortstop of the future has been worth 2.4 fWAR since moving to Seattle. While this isn’t something worth throwing a parade over, the shortstops he’s sandwiched between can offer some consolation. That 2.4 combined fWAR from 2019-20 puts Crawford right between Bo Bichette and Andrelton Simmons on the American League shortstop leaderboard.
In Bichette, the Blue Jays have an organizational cornerstone who, like the Mariners with Crawford, they hope will be a face of the franchise-type guy for years to come. With Simmons, the Angels had the poster child for shortstop defense, and someone whose glove made him a very productive infielder even when the bat didn’t show up.
To simplify Crawford’s offensive problems as much as possible, he doesn’t hit the ball hard enough. In both 2019 and 2020, Crawford beat the ball into the ground 44 percent of the time while never posting a hard-hit percentage above 30 percent. Among all Mariners to make 200 combined plate appearances over the last two seasons, Crawford’s average exit velocity ranks above only Mallex Smith and Dee Strange-Gordon, the exact guys you don’t want to sit next to in the exit velocity cafeteria. Statcast says he recorded just three “barrels” in 2020, tied for the third-lowest among all qualified hitters. If Crawford wants to avoid becoming a bottom-of-the-order, light-hitting shortstop – an outcome that would be a major disappointment given his pedigree – he needs to make sure that when he hits the ball, it stays hit.
Being a contact hitter, which is how Crawford profiles right now, is absolutely not a bad thing. That faint noise burrowing in your ear is youth baseball coaches across the nation reminding their players that simply putting the ball in play forces the defense to make a play. “Make THEM get YOU out,” they say, grimacing over a rotator cuff ready to burst all over the L-screen. The problem for Crawford, though, is that he plays in the major leagues. You can’t just slap a grounder anywhere you want and hope some loser throws it into the parking lot. To succeed at this level, hitters have to either drive the ball for extra base hits, be a good enough line-to-line hitter that placement outweighs their poor exit velocity, or be very lucky. Right now Crawford is none of those things.
There are plenty of successful hitters that don’t necessarily tear the cover off the ball. DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, and Jeff McNeil all hit over .300 last season while rocking some of the lowest barrel percentages in the entire league. LeMahieu was able to do it partially because he hit the ball to the opposite field over 40 percent of the time, making it extremely difficult to defend him. Blackmon definitely enjoyed Coors Field’s fruited plains and his .347 BABIP that came with it, while McNeil specializes in doubles, whacking 52 over the last two seasons to Crawford’s 28. Hitting .300 may be too much to ask of Crawford. But with a glove as shiny as his, which could still theoretically get better, even a .260 line would do the trick. Tampa Bay’s Willy Adames, who’s posted a .256/.321/.434 slash line and 104 wRC+ over the last two seasons, is a perfect statistical blueprint for Crawford to emulate.
By FanGraphs’ Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF), the Mariners have had one of the dozen-best shortstops in the game over the last two seasons. UZR is also a big fan of Crawford, ranking him eleventh over the same time span. In layperson terms, Crawford is one of the very best shortstops at preventing runs, something the club has heralded as one of the pillars of their rebuild. In addition to the calculator stats, the traditional eye test stuff that typically results in Gold Gloves obviously had a thing for Crawford too.
It’s clear that the Mariners don’t have a mecha-shortstop like the ones in San Diego or Los Angeles. What they do have, though, is a terrific gloveman who could easily become one of the top players at his position with some offensive improvements. The problem is, how do you just start hitting the ball harder? Squaring up MLB pitching is already impossible, and I certainly don’t know how to do it. You gotta hope the Mariners are aware of these troubling batted ball trends as well and are cooking something up.
Will we see a swing transformation? A significantly altered approach at the plate? Regardless of what does or doesn’t happen in the lab, when the 2021 season begins, J.P. Crawford’s habits and results in the batter’s box will be something to keep both eyes on.