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J.P. Crawford, soft contact, and hitting in 2021

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Dejuice deez bloops.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

This will be a short piece, I want it stated at the forefront. It started with a general curiosity: is J.P. Crawford this good? It’s a question I’ve chewed on a few times before, both in 2019 and in 2020, but each nosh on this particular snack leaves me with a new flavor. Today’s root question is about contact; does J.P. Crawford make “good” contact, and should we expect him to continue to perform like one of the league’s elite shortstops thanks to a great glove and surprisingly solid bat?

I’m going to start us off with a look at Crawford’s hits (all data pulled after Wednesday’s game but prior to its updating of some databases). The image below is a radial chart, courtesy of Baseball Savant. What we’re looking at is launch angle (marked on the outer reaches of the curved edge) AND exit velocity, measured from softest (nearest to the batter in the semi-circle) to hardest (the entirety of the outer reaches of the semi-circle, radiating up, right, and down).

Baseball Savant

The darker the region, the more likely it is that contact becomes a hit. The darkest zone on the far right, slightly above midway, is what is considered a “barrel,” something 95+ mph AND having an optimal launch angle to become a hit. You’ll notice Crawford has just three or four balls in that zone, all three of his home runs as well as, on the fringe, a double or two. The vast, vast majority of Crawford’s hits lie in the secondary lip of hits that become contact, well struck low line drives and rather softly stroked fly balls. Is that happenstance or actually good?

Crawford is among the league’s leaders in this sort of contact, in fact, ranking 12th in MLB in non-barreled contact (<95 mph, launch angle >10 degrees) on a line or higher, and running a slightly above-average .269 batting average (league average .260) and .250 wOBA (league average .248) on that contact. This is contact that’s clearly better than striking out, a fate Crawford avoids better than most, but it’s still not ideal. This contact will never turn into home runs, rarely triples or even doubles. And yet, if we look at it more broadly, we can see how Crawford is absolutely outpacing most of the league thanks to this genre of contact.

The table below (linked here) shows soft contact in the air, line drives and fly balls. Not only is Crawford getting some of the best results, as outlined below, he’s created this type of contact more often than most, tied with Jonathan Schoop for 6th-most soft air contact so far this year.

FanGraphs

Yet most of the other frequent parachute hitters are having nothing near Crawford’s good results. Of the 20 hitters with at least 20 soft in-air bits of contact, Crawford is one of just two players with a wRC+ of 100 or better, and he’s had the best results by leaps and bounds. Over half this contact has been up the middle or to the opposite field, suggesting Crawford is taking advantage of the frequency with which clubs shift their defense on him and is not shying away from soft, inside out contact, even as he aims to pull the ball with power when possible.

If we expand the pool to Soft AND Medium contact, again Crawford is among the leaders in production and comfortably above league average for the sample, though not as elite.

FanGraphs

Does that make him a regression candidate? Is it even regression in samples this small? Good questions, good questions. My inclination is this is mostly fortune with perhaps a dash of self-optimization, but I do want to touch on one last piece that makes me curious going forward.

League-wide production on Soft air contact has improved significantly in the past couple seasons, something touched on tangentially by Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus recently. The crux of Arthur’s piece was a fascinating one: defenses have improved so immensely in the past five years or so that they have positioned themselves into eradicating thousands of groundball hits per year. Moreover, worse results on higher exit velocities, likely a combination of the new and less juicy baseball, as well as wider spread humidor use, are putting defensive brilliance in the spotlight. As it is the header photo for the piece, I will pull it for your visualization.

Baseball Prospectus

Bluer/purpler areas represent increased out chances over the past half-decade, while redder and orange/yellow spots are zones of greater hit opportunity. J.P.’s beloved Soft+Medium contact seems exceedingly well suited for dropping balls in that narrow equatorial line, and thus far it’s working.

J.P. 2021 hits spray chart
Baseball Savant

And now we’re back at the uncertainty. Is this a skill? Is it a feasible long-term pathway to offense? I think it’s ultimately well-suited to Crawford’s profile, as a defensive stalwart who can take a walk and flash only minimal pop, finding a way to defang the shift is vital. So far J.P. has done it, and whether by a combination of intent, the deadened baseball, a few fortuitously placed bloops, or any number of things, he’s having the best season of his career. That’s something we all can agree the Seattle Mariners dearly are depending on him to continue.