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

Number three on his back; number one in our hearts

Seattle Mariners v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/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 final installment in a three-part series celebrating the 2023 edition of Crawdaddy. On Tuesday, we dug into what’s behind his improved numbers at the plate. Yesterday, we took a look at how he’s leveled up on the basepaths. Today, we examine his defense.

Defense is best enjoyed as a visual medium, so let’s start with a highlight reel:

Of course, J.P. has never lacked a highlight reel. Even in his worst defensive seasons, he’s regularly made eye-popping plays. This incident from his uneven debut season with the Mariners, for example, is so iconic that people know what you mean when you simply say “The Throw.”

To his credit, even though he’s always had highlights, he’s sure compiled a lot of them this year in just a quarter of the season. He’s grabbing weird hops out of the air like he always does thanks to his quick reaction time, natural agility, and some great coaching on when to attack the ball and when to fade back.

His arm strength has consistently ranked below average, and that’s unlikely to change—just think about how rare it is for a pitcher to add velocity. But when J.P. Crawford is excelling, he does it through accuracy. Ty France almost never has to wrangle, scoop, or even come off the bag. Look again at the throw to get Nolan Arenado.

That velocity isn’t going to break Statcast, but the ball is getting directly to first base, which is what J.P.’s throws always do during his good defensive seasons. If he feels like he can make a throw, it might get there late, but it’ll find leather rather than the seats, a point we’ll get back to.

His steady play at the 6 has given him the credibility to be the leader that a young team needs. It’s little surprise to learn that J.P. was one of the instigators of the home-run trident, but he’s moved that leadership onto the field too as you’ll regularly see him joining the meeting on the mound when Cal or Murph comes out for a visit. J.P. wasn’t the most obvious choice for field marshall, but like a real leader, he saw a need and stepped up to do it. Up-the-middle positions have traditionally been in charge on the diamond, but the Mariners feature players even less experienced than J.P. at catcher and centerfield, and a rotating cast of guest stars at second base over the past few years. So J.P. has followed through on his promise to take over as the unofficial team captain when Kyle Seager’s departure left a void of true veteran leadership in his wake.

On the numbers side of things, the 2023 defensive stats like J.P., they just don’t like like him, an experience to which I’m sure most of us can relate. But defensive metrics require the biggest sample size to stabilize, usually an entire season or even more. So I’d advise against anyone relying on them too heavily. Ultimate Zone Rating is pretty down on his 2023, though a big chunk of that is from his failing to convert several of his double-play opportunities. The generous interpretation of those incidents is that he and Kolten Wong are still learning how to play together. The less generous interpretation is that this is simply all Wong’s fault. But I don’t think there’s a realistic interpretation that places the blame on J.P.

The advanced stats have a hard time attributing credit and blame to plays that involve multiple defenders, especially when one of them isn’t the first baseman. So I think when you dig deeper, the statistical hits on J.P. here are unearned.

Not that J.P. would ever pass the buck. Kolten Wong came into the organization talking about wanting to be a clubhouse leader, but it looks like he’s actually taking J.P.’s lead, either using J.P.’s bat or at least copying the Captain’s iconic red, green, and yellow grip tape.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all, that kind of respect has to be earned.

In any event, UZR is balanced out by different takes from Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average. DRS has always liked Crawford more than UZR has. (Since bWAR uses DRS and fWAR uses UZR, this is one of the main reasons that J.P. has had a higher bWAR every season.) This year is no exception, with his 3 DRS on pace to be a career best. Given the unreliability of early-season defensive metrics, that’s not something anyone should take to the bank, but it’s a nice counter to UZR’s suggestion that J.P. has been worse this year. OAA splits the difference, and says that J.P. is just average. Again, some of that is driven by not converting double plays. But even getting to zero OAA is a big improvement from last year, up to the 45th percentile from last year’s 2nd percentile.

I believe that much of the metrics’ demerits last year came not from a lack of breathtaking plays, but rather was largely driven by making errors, an area where J.P. has been a lot steadier this year. Avoiding errors is even more important than making spectacular plays; giving a runner second base for free because your throw sailed out of play is worse than allowing a runner to reach first base because you couldn’t get the ball to the first baseman in time. When Crawford’s defense has slipped in the past, it hasn’t been the lack of web gems, but rather because he’s gotten sloppy. It was true during his bumpy road in Philadelphia, and it was true last year, even while he was making up for it with the bat. But this year, he’s back to the surehandedness that makes hard plays look easy, like these:

The advanced stats—to the extent they can be believed at this point—may not point to another Gold Glove incoming. But being such a reliable hand at shortstop who can also make a few Gold-Glove caliber plays will do just fine at the hardest position in fair territory. True enough that he seemed to be a better defender in the 60-game 2020 season when he took home the hardware, but he’s never been this good at defense while also hitting well. This year, though, his defensive rejuvenation is complementing real improvements at the plate and on the bases.

J.P. may not be the kind of guy that’s equivalent to having an extra hitting coach (miss you, Mitch!), but he’s been a complete player this year and has been central to creating the team’s identity as a young, fun group of dudes being dudes. And fostering that sense of joy and togetherness is crucially important for successfully navigating the highs and lows of a 162-game slog. And this year, he’s also leading by example. As the offense has struggled to begin the season, with seemingly every player slumping at the same time, the Mariners have been in desperate need for a reliable hand to help complement the pitching and guide the team through some choppy waters. The player who’s come through is the one who’s been the most steadfast Mariner of the era. Excelling in all aspects of his game at once, he’s been the total package for the first quarter of 2023, the best version of J.P. Crawford that we’ve ever seen.

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