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

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

Texas Rangers 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 second in a three-part series celebrating the 2023 edition of Crawdaddy. Yesterday, we dug into what’s behind his improved numbers at the plate. Today, we’re looking at his baserunning.

Considering that J.P. Crawford is a contact-hitting shortstop, you’d think he’d be an excellent baserunner. But mostly he hasn’t been, and he’s actually accrued negative value on the bases over the course of his career. The biggest reason is that he’s not as fast as players with a similar profile. His 26.6 feet-per-second sprint speed is not only below average for a shortstop, it’s below average for the league. Like most players, he’s gotten slower as he’s aged, but even taking his Mariners career as a whole, he’s only been about as fast as the league-average runner. Yet despite slowing down, he’s still managed to become a better baserunner this year.

When we think of a good baserunner, the first thing we usually think of is a good base stealer. But J.P. Crawford’s never really had that skill, swiping just 20 bags in 34 attempts coming into this year. Since an out does more to lower your win expectancy than a stolen base does to add to it, this is below the rate at which attempting to steal is a good idea. So he’s brought negative value as a base stealer. But this year, he’s done what a player like that should do, which is to simply stop trying. He’s only made one attempt in the first quarter of the season, which, it must be noted, was successful. That one free base might not count for much, but refusing to give outs away counts for a lot.

Not that this should deter us from praising the thievery he pulled off, though, because boy, what an attempt it was:

It’s no joke to steal off of J.T. Realmuto, who Statcast says is the best at catching runners over the last three years, and by a huge margin. What made J.P.’s attempt successful was going on the right pitch. Connor Brogdon leads with his change up, which gives Crawford more time both because it gets to the plate slower and drops way down out of the zone.

It’s indicative of what’s made J.P. a much better baserunner this year, despite his speed: he’s making better decisions. And that decision-making is all the more important for the baserunning skill that really adds up over the course of a season—taking the extra base. Where the best baserunners really make their mark is in going first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, or scoring from second or first on a single. And at that, J.P. has been aggressive and in the right situations.

He’s taking the extra base 60% of the time this year, which puts him in the 85th percentile. That’s new. In 2021, he was at 29% and last year, 37%. Those numbers are well below the league average that’s usually in the low 40s.

You can see the new aggression on his face and by how far toward third he is by the time Robbie Grossman gets the ball in this clip. He’s thinking third the whole way (which is pretty bold when the ball was hit to left), and it pays off big.

This added aggression isn’t just helping himself. He took third on another ball hit to left field when the Mariners were in Oakland, and by drawing the throw, he lets Caballero waltz into second base. That’s basically two extra bases that J.P. got for the Mariners on one play.

Of course, the chance to take an extra base can be driven by opportunity more than anything the runner’s doing. Not all singles are equally easy to advance on. But the size of his jump between his prior numbers and this year is so big that it makes me think he’s actually changed his approach. A quarter of a season is a small sample, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

The base coaches help too, but we saw on Sunday that J.P. is making plenty of these decisions for himself. Watch his stutter around second base as he decides to take third, which allowed him to then score on a balk. This decision isn’t rocket science, but it’s all him and it led to a run.

He’s not scoring every time he advances, but those opportunities are adding up. So far this year, the only times he’s not taking the extra base have been in truly impossible situations.

Here’s one that won’t show up in his extra-base percentage, but demonstrates just how good he’s been on the bases. The rule for a runner on second is to head for third if a ground ball is hit behind you, and stay put if it’s hit in front of you. But J.P.’s dancing puts Bregman between a rock and a hard place. Bregman’s slight hesitation helps Trammell just beat the throw to first, and J.P.’s decisive aggression to run as soon as Bregman commits lets him make it to third. Most times, this play ends with two outs and a runner on second. Instead, thanks to J.P., it ends with one out and runners on the corners. His baseball IQ, always high, seems to be higher than ever.

To be sure, grounding into a few double plays is dragging down his BsR, the baserunning metric that goes into fWAR, but I’m not worried about that. On the whole, he’s become an asset in an area of the game where he’s often been a surprising liability.

The reason I credit this improved decision-making rather than just increased aggression is because he’s not making mistakes. It’s not just that by throttling his stolen-base attempts, he hasn’t gotten cut down. He also hasn’t made any outs when trying to advance an extra base. Not once.

It’s a marked improvement. In his first year as a Mariner, 2019, he made four outs on the bases to go with his three times caught stealing. In the shortened 2020 season, he had three TOOTBLANs and three CS. The next year, fielders nabbed him four times to go with his six times caught stealing. Last year, he finally cleaned up his baserunning, with no outs on the bases (though with two CS). It’s great that he’d learned to stop giving outs away, but it came with taking the extra base much less often. This year, he’s finally putting it all together.

Our final installment will run tomorrow. All stats through Sunday, May 14.