Today is the birthday of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (cheek-sen-me-hi), a Hungarian psychologist best-known for his work with “flow theory.” “Flow” is Csikszentmihalyi’s term for a highly focused mental state in which people are thoroughly engaged and absorbed in their task, and therefore highly productive. In a flow state, the doer is engaged by activities that are challenging yet achievable, and each activity flows seamlessly into the next, and the person, experiencing a feeling of well-deserved success and accomplishment, derives great joy and fulfillment from the task at hand. The Mariners, in the month of August, were in a flow state. Every win flowed seamlessly into the next; opponents were vanquished, but not always easily so; and players stacked good at-bats up and down the lineup, as multiple players achieved season-high bests. Everything was good, everything was happy, everything felt connected.
But in September, the Mariners have been in the opposite of a flow state. While mindfulness is an admirable pursuit, over-thinking is the enemy of being in flow. In September, the Mariners have scuffled and struggled at the plate, failing to string together good at-bats and put pressure on opponents. The offense and pitching have failed to get on the same page at times, with one showing up and the other not. Their at-bats have been more scattered than Waffle House hash browns, more shaken than Bond martinis, and less connected than trying to make a phone call from the bottom of the ocean.
But through the vicissitudes of September, one player has remained constant: J.P. Crawford. And it’s not just September, either: J.P. hasn’t had a single month this season where he’s been below-average, posting a wRC+ of 115, 102, 107, 180, 157, and 139. As the power in the lineup has slumped and scuffled, as the bad at-bats have piled up, J.P. has been the North Star, a dependable force at the top of the lineup regardless of what his teammates are doing. It’s the kind of leading by example that characterizes J.P.’s leadership: he is not the kind of leader to give inspirational pre-game speeches or get in other players’ faces; rather, he shows up every day, puts his work in, and lets his actions speak louder than the relatively soft-spoken Crawford’s words might.
J.P. has more often been the caretaker of the vibes, shooing negative energy away from the clubhouse, DJing the clubhouse music, instigating the home run trident the team uses as a celebration. After J.P. delivered last night’s walk-off winning hit, Scott Servais said, “we’ve often talked about how our team flows through J.P. - not just the music - but our team.” J.P. Crawford is a living example of what it means to be in a flow state, and tonight he followed up his game-winning hit last night with an equally huge hit.
Prior to tonight’s game, Scott Servais was asked whose at-bats have particularly stood out to him as the team has scuffled offensively over September. Servais pointed at three players: J.P., obviously, and less obviously, Ty France and Josh Rojas. Both France and Rojas would make their skipper’s comments hold true, hitting a pair of solo homers off Nathan Eovaldi in the third inning to give the Mariners an early 2-0 lead.
I see Rojas,— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) September 30, 2023
I see France,
I see two solo blasts pic.twitter.com/ZVO9m0U1ZC
But J.P. Crawford would also make his mark in that inning, working a four-pitch walk off a clearly rattled Eovaldi, who didn’t locate any pitches in the same zip code as Crawford. Two batters later, Eugenio Suárez, having worked himself into a favorable 3-1 count, would score Crawford on a deep double that got the normally surehanded Leody Taveras all turned around:
The flow continued into the fourth inning. Teoscar Hernández, after grounding out on a splitter earlier, made an adjustment on the splitter, shooting it into left field. Mike Ford then worked a four-pitch walk, because this Ford has three gears and that’s one of them. France followed with another good at-bat, working back from a 1-2 count to foul off a bunch of pitches, eventually work the count full, and finally get grazed by a pitch to load the bases. Rojas, the second member of the triumvirate, came through with a base hit to keep the line moving and put the Mariners up 4-0, both bouncing Nathan Eovaldi from the game and bringing up J.P. Crawford, or as he shall now be known, King of Flow:
J.P. CRAWFORD GRAND SALAMI pic.twitter.com/CfJKKx1S7u— ROOT SPORTS™ | NW (@ROOTSPORTS_NW) September 30, 2023
Those would be all the runs the Mariners would get tonight; those would be all the runs the Mariners would need. Just like, when J.P. Crawford has been in crucial situations, the Mariners get all that they need:
J.P. Crawford with the bases loaded in 2023...— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) September 30, 2023
11-for-16, 6 singles, 2 doubles, 2 homers, 26 RBIs, 1 sac fly, 2 strikeouts -- a slash line of .688/.647/1.250 (1.897 OPS)
Bryan Woo wasn’t necessarily in a flow state tonight, finding himself on the wrong side of the challenge-skill balance. The challenge: pitch to the Rangers, very skilled at not expanding the zone (per staffer Connor, the Rangers have the second-lowest chase rate in the majors, trailing just the...Pirates. Huh). Woo was understandably wary about challenging the powerful Rangers on the plate, but that led to him nibbling around the edges, a lot, and HP umpire Mark Carlson was not interested in expanding the plate for the rookie. It took Woo a laborious 29 pitches to clear the first inning, working around two walks, getting into deep counts with the top half of the order but eventually striking out the side.
The second inning wasn’t much easier for Woo, requiring another 20 pitches to work around a leadoff single from Josh Jung that just squeaked over the glove of a leaping Josh Rojas, but the third inning, although not as punishing pitch count-wise as the first, was Woo’s toughest task of the day. Marcus Semien led off with a base hit, ambushing the cutter Woo had been using heavily against the Rangers, and Woo then walked Seager for the second time of the game on five pitches, all of which were well off the plate. Woo was able to get Mitch Garver to fly out on just three pitches, advancing Semien to third, and then struck out Adolis García on three pitches, getting a rare expansion of the zone as García went after a high four-seamer. One of the hallmarks of a flow state is a seamless merging of action and awareness; unfortunately, Woo’s action wasn’t able to catch up with his awareness, as with two outs and in a 2-3 count, he hit Nathanael Lowe with a cutter, loading the bases and extending the inning.
Facing Josh Jung in a high-pressure situation, Woo busted out the sinker he’d been reluctant to throw all night, missing low twice to put himself behind 2-0. He recounded by getting back on the plate with a four-seamer at 96 that Jung whiffed at, and then after missing with a cutter, threw the pitch again—slightly lower, and in a more dangerous part of the plate, but Jung was late to the pitch, fouling it off. With the count full, Woo reached back for 96.5 mph and placed a fastball perfectly on the top rail of the zone for a harmless pop out.
Sometimes you’re not in a flow state, but you grit your teeth, push through, and get the job done anyway, and I feel like all of us who have experienced that recognize Woo’s relieved sky point here:
Woo would come back in the fourth to get two more outs, ironically his easy-peasiest two outs of the day, a flyout from Jonah Heim and a groundout from Leody Taveras, until his pitch count hit the magic number of 83 and Scott Servais summoned lefty Tayler Saucedo to finish things off with a four-pitch strikeout of rookie Evan Carter.
Sometimes, gritting and grinding through and coming out on the other side is what helps one achieve flow, like when baseball players hit with the donut on their bats and experience the lightness of removing it. It wasn’t exactly easy going for the bullpen against Texas’s fearsome lineup, but Tayler Saucedo, Trent Thornton, Isiah Campbell, Eduard Bazardo, and Dominic Leone combined, Captain Planet-style, to hold the Rangers off the board for the remainder of the game and earn a franchise-record 17th shutout on the year, which also leads the majors. Against a team that does not expand the zone much in the Rangers, Seattle’s pitching staff walked an unusually high eight batters, but also collected 12 strikeouts. They also saved the leverage arms in the bullpen for another day, with Luis Castillo taking the mound tomorrow, while Texas will use a spot starter in Andrew Heaney tomorrow.
One of the elements Csikszentmihalyi identified as being part of a flow state is “clarity of goals.” The goal has never been clearer this season, nor closer. Csikszentmihalyi used the rock climbing as an example of a flow state: you get to the top of the rock glad to have completed the climb, but really what rock climbing is about is the climbing itself, the continuous flow of the experience, hand over hand as you ascend. Regardless of what’s happening with other teams or other places, the Mariners need to stay focused on the climb rather than what’s waiting at the top. Hopefully what seems to flow naturally through J.P. Crawford can continue to flow to the rest of the team, as well.