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J.P. Crawford isn’t playing up to his defensive potential this season—yet

If J.P.’s offensive explosion has come at the cost of his Gold Glove defense, it’s a champagne problem, but I don’t think it’s true

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Bad Zach (Zach Gottschalk) has a theory that Fernando Tatís Jr. didn’t want to wait for his wrist to heal before returning to baseball and so has inhabited J.P. Crawford’s body. With it has come vastly improved offense but also some defensive plays more disappointing than season 2 of Russian Doll.

Defensive statistics are so unreliable in small samples that I sometimes wish outlets wouldn’t even publish them. But it’s hard to ignore that zaffer-colored slider on Crawford’s Savant page telling us that he’s in the first percentile in Outs Above Average, lowest in baseball. OAA is my preferred defensive metric because it takes each opportunity and accounts for where a player is actually positioned before the play, how far he had to travel to get to the ball, and the runner’s sprint speed. It then estimates the average defender’s rate of success in making such a play and compares it to whether the defender in question made the play. Savant sees J.P as having made four outs below average, with a 74% success rate compared to the 79% they would expect an average defender to have made of J.P.’s opportunities. He’s been bad going in and going back, bad going to his right, and only average going to his left.

To be fair, Crawford looks better by the two other major advanced defensive metrics, though they are worse metrics. He’s got two Defensive Runs Saved and a 0.8 Ultimate Zone Rating, both in the top 50. And again, it can’t be overemphasized how large a sample you need for defensive statistics to stabilize.

But Crawford’s OAA matches how he’s been doing according to a very un-advanced statistic: the humble error. With five errors over 25 games, he’s on pace to tie the club record for most errors in a season. (Russ Davis had 32 errors in 1998, making a mockery of my choice to ask for his shirsey for my birthday the prior winter.) Statsheads generally don’t like errors because they’re judgment calls by the official scorer. They often punish a player for mishandling something in a rush that another, worse player wouldn’t have even gotten to in the first place. But looking at the tape, it’s clear that none of Crawford’s errors match that description. Rather, they’re all accounting for outs that I’m sure OAA would say an average defender would have made. I looked at that tape to see if there’s been a collapse in Crawford’s skills, a Tatísian Being John Malkovich situation, or something else. Here’s what I found.

J.P.’s first error came in Chicago on April 12th and it’s pretty clear that the issue is that he loses his footing as his right leg buckles. This wasn’t the monsoon game, but that dirt looks terrible to my eye. I’m willing to blame this one on playing April games in the roofless AL Central and issue a pass here.

He then had two errors in the same inning on April 21st, that cursed Rangers game where the M’s jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first, including a J.P. homer, but then had everything collapse in the fifth.

In the first error of the inning, Crawford doesn’t get his whole body in front of the ball. He makes this kind of grab to his right somewhat often, but there’s no need to here. That ball came off the bat at 72 mph. There’s no reason to violate Perry Hill’s second F (field), in which he advises setting your feet wide to maintain balance. J.P. compounds the problem by transferring the ball away from his body (a violation of the third F, funnel), causing him to double clutch and then ultimately rush the throw to catch the speedy Eli White.

In the second error that inning, he’s set up better:

But the ball takes a harder hop that J.P. seems to have expected and it ends up hitting the heel of his glove:

This is what causes the ball to bounce out of his glove. (As an aside, I recall a story about how Kyle Seager used to have the padding removed from the palms of his gloves to prevent this from happening, even as it created a higher risk of injuring his hand.) Once the ball is out, it’s over, and the rushed throw has no upside; it only increases the likelihood of the ball going out of play, which would have gifted Garver second base.

Crawford’s fourth error of the season is, simply put, a clusterfart. So much goes wrong it’s almost not worth analyzing. J.P., baby, what are you doing.

The slo mo makes clear that the big mistake is trying to throw the ball at all once he had that kind of grip on it. To J.P.’s credit, he knows it, embodying us all with his staring-at-the-ceiling-in-the-dark pose.

His fifth error looks uncannily like one of the errors he made in Philadelphia that John broke down when J.P. was first traded to Seattle.

And that’s the perfect transition to the good news here. Crawford has fixed these kinds of issues before. I don’t see any deterioration in underlying skills. Instead, it looks like he’s gotten a little sloppy and made some mental errors. In that second error in the Rangers game, does he make that ill-advised throw because he’s in his head as the once-comfortable lead is collapsing? I ask because he can still make that play. He’s clearly as strong as ever and his sprint speed (the best publicly available metric that’s even close to a proxy for agility) hasn’t decreased.

He’s still able to make side arm throws on the run:

And he’s still making highlight reel plays, like this one from the same inning as he made the error in the White Sox game:

With the accelerated Spring Training and the team’s COVID outbreak, Perry Hill hasn’t been around a ton yet this year, and he’s seemed to have his hands full with Suárez and Toro. I’m just speculating here, but I wonder if J.P. has been the not-squeaky wheel not getting the grease. But as I said above, these are the types of problems he’s fixed before, and I see no reason for concern that he can’t fix them again.

Of course, if he keeps hitting like Tatís, then his defense should be the least of anyone’s worries. On the other hand, if he can keep even half the gains he’s made at the plate while returning to his Gold Glove ways on the other side of the ball, we could be looking at the year of MVJP Crawford.