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We’re seeing the best version of J.P. Crawford: Part I

J.P. Crawford’s never been a better hitter

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Welcome to J.P. Crawford Appreciation Week!

The beginning of this Mariners season has been all about the pitching, with less to root for on the position player side. Jarred’s had a scorching hot start of course, and has deservedly gotten a lot of coverage. But this week, we’re making sure that the steadiest hand gets his due as well. After all, the most underrated player in baseball is the reliable one, the guy you can feel comfortable slotting into the lineup day after day, season after season, and never worry about it. For this era of the Mariners, that player has been John Paul Crawford. But right now, J.P. is in one of those patches where he’s a bit more than that, and it might just last. Over the first quarter of the season, he’s been the best version of himself, in all aspects of his game. This is the first in a three-part series laying out all the improvements we’ve seen from Crawdaddy. Today, we cover his hitting, and we’ll pay tribute to the rest of his game over the next two days.

Any team would take a 116 wRC+ from their shortstop, and for J.P. Crawford, it’s a career best. It starts with his calling card, and he is, as you’d expect, walking an absolute ton. His 17.1% walk rate is top-ten in MLB and the best mark of his career since his 87 PA cup of coffee as a 22 year old in 2017. But walking alone does not get you to a 116 wRC+. Rather, he’s doing that by complementing his sharp eye with better contact than he’s ever made before. Here’s the first clip in a series that’s going to be full of them.

That double off Aaron Civale doesn’t exactly jump off the bat, clocking just 90.6 mph, but that’s exactly why I wanted to highlight it. J.P. has the highest average exit velocity of his career, at a 90.2 mph. Never having been better than the ninth(!) percentile in baseball, he’s all the way up to the 63rd this year. He’s had a few big bangs, like his 107-mph, 25-degree, 420-foot revenge grand slam against the Phillies. But his sub-3% barrel rate signals that he hasn’t done this by suddenly blistering the ball. Instead, what he’s done is eliminate soft contact. It’s great to get more hard contact, but for a player like J.P., that’s unlikely to ever happen. He doesn’t have the natural strength to be a masher, and we don’t want him to add much more muscle to become one lest he limit the athleticism that makes him so good at shortstop. He’s kept his hard-hit rate about the same, at a respectable 26.1%, but there’s probably not more in there.

What he can do is minimize his mishits, and thus reduce the number of outs he’s just giving away. Historically, he got soft contact on roughly 20-25% of his batted balls every year of his career, above the league average that’s usually in the high teens. Until this year, when he’s cut down by more than a third, to 14.1%, which is better than league average for the first time. Where soft contact is almost always an out and hard contact is where you do damage, medium contact always gives you a puncher’s chance, like that double off Civale.

Are there sexier ways to improve as a hitter? Sure. Every year brings guys who increase their max exit velocity or who’ve always hit the ball hard and are suddenly elevating and celebrating. But cutting down your mishits will get you better results all the same.

Part of this improvement may be due to a slight change in his load, perhaps borne of his offseason session at Driveline. Here are two shots of his stance facing the same pitcher, from the same camera angle. The left shows his stance in September 2022, and the right is from this year.

I notice two things. First, he’s crouching a little more this year. Second, and I suspect more impactful, he seems to have relaxed his traps a little bit, lowering his hands from eye-level to shoulder level without changing his elbow flexion.

His great eye and quick hands have always helped him excel at getting the bat to the ball (he’s in the top 10% in contact rate over the past five seasons), and the swing itself looks very similar to past years. But more time is always better. If you’re already getting the bat to the ball, more time lets you get the right part of the bat to the ball. Even the small difference of getting his hands behind the ball rather than on top of it seems to be paying dividends. Here’s what that can look like, getting the head of the bat to a 99-mph inside pitch from one of MLB’s best relievers.

The other piece to this is that he’s taking even more advantage of his keen eye, which has always been his best skill. In the first quarter of 2023, he’s being more selective than ever. Always a player that kept his bat on his shoulder more than usual, toying with being too passive to succeed, this year he’s swinging about 3% less than he has over his career. The temptation of drawing a walk can be a Medusa, turning some into stone. But for J.P., it’s a perfect fit for his high contact rate. His ability to get the bat to the ball helps him protect the plate if he ends up at two strikes, so he can afford to let some strikes go by if he doesn’t like them. And that’s exactly where he’s made the change: He’s taking more balls, yes, but the real change is from swinging less at pitches in the zone. That extra patience is not only letting him get on base for free, as always, but it’s also letting him wait for his pitch, which may be helping drive his reduction in weak contact. After all, just because he can make contact doesn’t mean he should.

To be sure, he’s had other good stretches. In the first half of 2021, when we were pushing his case for the All-Star Game, he relied on a lot of flares dropping in between the infielders and outfielders, which requires a precise launch angle that’s hard to replicate. And the best stretch of his career was his first 26 games last year, when J.P. put up a 202 wRC+. But I think too much of that was buoyed by good fortune. Even over that stretch, he had four home runs, which in retrospect looks like a fluke, and a .387 BABIP.

I’d take 2023 J.P. over either of those hitters because he seems to have leveled up at a real skill. During the first half of 2021, his soft-contact rate was 20.2%, ranking 126th out of 132 qualified hitters (which is to say, only six hitters made more soft contact); during early 2022, he was at 27.8%, 169th out of 174.

This year, his 14.1% soft-contact rate puts him at 72nd out of 168. Exit velocity starts to stabilize around 40 batted balls, and J.P. is already at 92, so there’s every reason to think this is real. Even if he’s had hotter stretches, I’ll still take 2023 Crawford because this version looks built to last. Adding those improvements to his already elite walk rate has earned him a promotion to the leadoff spot, and that seems likely to stick too. The team sees what we do—that in the box, J.P. Crawford is the best version of himself he’s ever been. But what he’s doing at the plate is just the beginning.

Parts II and III will run tomorrow and Thursday. All stats through Sunday, May 14.