Over the offseason, the Seattle Mariners began what they are calling a “retooling” process, in which they traded James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and Jean Segura (among several others) and let Nelson Cruz sign elsewhere. The Segura trade specifically drew criticism, as the Mariners’ return was seen as underwhelming given Segura is in the middle of his supposed prime, and they had to add players on top of everything else. There was much more to this trade than Segura, but by my count, the Mariners are saving approximately $27.3M over the course of the next three years. Additionally, they moved a 29-year-old shortstop in Segura whose skillset is likely not so conducive to aging, in exchange for J.P. Crawford, who is 24 years of age. As it turns out, he’s maybe not all that inferior to Segura, even in the short-term.
The season is young, and the trade is younger, relative to how long it will take to play out, but I first want to take a look at the two key players in the trade: Crawford and Segura.
Segura started off the year hot, cooled down in May, and has been absolutely frigid in June. Crawford, despite being slowed by an ankle injury, has started to really come on as of late. In the table above, I think a few things stand out. First, the sample size. Crawford hasn’t been doing this for all that long, and many mediocre players have been far better for much longer. Second, for a player with rather limited game power, Crawford strikes out an awful lot. Lastly, the BABIP! My god, the BABIP!
While the numbers are impressive, what also stands out is Crawford’s approach—we’ll touch on this later, per usual. In terms of strikeouts, I don’t think this is representative of Crawford’s plate discipline or contact skills. At all. If you’re not convinced, here’s a rolling graph of Crawford’s strikeouts:
As a major leaguer, we haven’t seen Crawford strike out this infrequently, for this long. This isn’t the only reason for optimism, but it’s a reason for optimism. I don’t think the strikeouts will remain this low forever, but I am a believer in this as a sustainable change.
As for his .400 BABIP, I’m not convinced that he doesn’t deserve every single bit of it. Per Baseball Savant, Crawford’s BA-xBA is .015—for reference, teammate Dee Gordon has a BA-xBA of .014. That’s convenient, because by sprint speed, Crawford ranks in the 71st percentile, while Gordon is currently ranked 80th. They both have consistently outperformed their expected statistics over the past few years, because they’re both fast. Combined with the fact that Crawford hits the ball with more authority than Gordon, this all leads me to believe that Crawford has been neither lucky nor unlucky—he’s just been good. And it’s all supported by a sound approach.
A Sight For Sore Eyes
To demonstrate how good of an eye Crawford has, I filtered by the lowest outside-swing percentages, and exported the data into an Excel sheet. By outside-swing percentage, Crawford is 28th lowest. This is good—it means that Crawford is one of the stingier hitters in the league when it comes to pitches outside of the zone. But hitting isn’t all about taking unfavorable pitches. It’s also about swinging at good ones. Here, by zone-swing percentage, Crawford ranks 139th of 320th. That doesn’t sound great, but it’s a touch above average—57th percentile—and that’s all you can ask for.
Next, I created a table a list of the top 50 players by outside-swing percentage and then filtered by zone-swing percentage minus outside-swing percentage. It’s not perfect, but it’s a nice cheap way of looking at plate discipline—all zone pitches are not created equal, and the same can be said of outside-zone pitches. General speaking, though, you want to take balls out of the zone and find good ones to hit inside the zone. Here, we find that by zone-swing minus outside-swing percentage, Crawford ranks 13th. To give you an idea of who he stacks up with, he’s surrounded by the likes of Anthony Rendon and Brandon Belt. Needless to say, that’s pretty good.
During spring training, the Mariners worked on making some adjustments to Crawford’s swing. According to Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, Crawford was a specific target of several members of their analytics team during the offseason. This is likely why: They saw a buy-low opportunity and went for it. Over at Lookout Landing, John Trupin looked at the adjustments Crawford has made from last year. Essentially, his swing had gotten long and loopy last year, which explains his subpar 2018. This year, he’s shortened it and has become a much more complete hitter as a result.
Per 710 ESPN Seattle, Crawford on his swing:
“I need to use more of the field and not try to pull too much. It causes a little bit of a loop in my swing. Not trying to hit the ball too hard allows my hands to work through the zone and out the zone instead of pulling off of it. Try to hit the ball up the middle every time no matter if it is inside or outside you always want to keep your hands going forward instead of going around. It’s a feel thing getting out of the pull. Sitting inside trying to hook balls and trying to hit homers, that’s when I get into a little funk.”
Really, what Crawford is talking about here is not pressing or selling out for power. When he does this, his mechanics get out of whack and, well, 2018 happens—and 2018 was not good. His swing has been much more compact this year, which has helped him to keep the ball up the middle or dump the ball the other way. For Crawford, that’s the name of the game. If he gets into one that goes over the fence, that’s nice too.
He’s done a much better job of spreading the ball around in 2019. Crawford’s spray charts, in 2018 and 2019:
What we’ve seen is a greater distribution of balls to all fields, as well as more power the opposite way. You may also notice that Crawford has begun hitting doubles the other way—a few of them may have been home runs in other parks, too.
Here’s an example of his loopy swing from last year:
Really, really sloppy. Everything is out of sync, and there’s a lot of superfluous movement. Namely, when he sets to plant his front foot, the head of the bat moves back towards the pitcher before he sends his hands towards the ball. Overall, there’s a lot of head movement, hand movement, and too many moving parts.
I’ll break them up even further to show you exactly what I’m saying. Here’s the extra movement of his bat before he throws his hands forward toward the ball, from 2018:
As you can see, the top of his bat points towards the pitcher and then starts towards the ball. If that’s not clear, watch his hands: They move back before they move forward. His hands are moving away as the pitch is moving towards him. Inefficient, unneeded movement.
And here, you can see all of the movement in Crawford’s hands as he works toward the ball. Again, from 2018:
This is really, really awful. You can see his hands lower, and then they go out towards the ball. It’s quite literally almost two completely different movements, whereas it should be one direct movement to the ball. And actually, it’s quite reminiscent of Jean Segura before he changed his setup a few years ago. If you’ll remember, Segura lowered his hands in 2016. Before then, his hands would go down, then up, and then to the ball. In lowering his hands, it allowed him to reduce hand movement and go straight to the ball. After this change, he had a career 5-WAR year that he has yet to eclipse. This is precisely the change that Crawford has made.
Here’s an example of sounder mechanics, from this year:
Crawford sets up with his hands lower, with a more open stance. His timing is much better, and there’s significantly less movement of the bat as he unloads his weight onto his plant foot. Although this is a fastball (the 2018 video is a breaking pitch), we’re seeing less movement overall, and a much more direct path to the ball once he initiates his swing. Because everything is cleaner, he’s able to coil up, keep his hands in, and explode towards the ball to send it the other way inside of yanking it to right field. As a result, he’s been more aggressive on pitches in the zone and making more contact overall. It’s not perfect, but significantly better.
First, movement (or lack thereof) of his bat as he goes to plant his front foot:
As opposed to 2018, you can see that his hands and his lower half are in sync. It’s beautiful. There’s still some movement in his hands, but we’re not asking Crawford to be perfect.
And next, hand movement as he goes into his swing:
It’s not easy to see his hands here, but in both respects, these are considerable improvements from last season, and it results in the aforementioned double to left field. The double is a home run in some parks, too.
This is all correlates with the following changes in batted ball profile:
All of this is good. For other players, you may want to see in increase in flyball percentage, but that’s not where Crawford thrives—at least not at this point in his career. We’ve seen a gigantic increase in line drive percentage, a decrease in pull percentage, and increases in balls hit the other way and up the middle. His flare/burner percentage has also increased from 23.2% to 37.0%, which tells me that he’s taking what’s given to him and dumping it into the shallow outfield for base hits. Some may view this as a bad thing, but—to use verbiage from Baseball Savant—it’s preferable to topping a ball, getting under it, or hitting it weakly.
Bottom Of The Barrel
Relatedly, if there’s one substantial criticism to be made of Crawford, it’s that he hasn’t hit the ball especially hard. This may be related to his approach. Let’s look at how he fares in a few relevant statistics, by percentile:
- Barrels/PA%: 29th
- Barrel/BBE: 31st
- Max Exit Velo: 25th
- Exit Velo, FB/LD: 4th
Clearly, he’s not exactly tearing the cover off of the ball—especially on flyballs and line drives. Although rather nitpicky, it is a very real aspect of his game that currently limits him as a player. Let’s remember, though, he still has plenty of time to develop some power—Crawford is just 24 years old. Ketel Marte is just now tapping into his power at age 25, and they’re similar in build. I’m not insinuating that Crawford is the player that Marte is—especially since their plate discipline profiles are different—but there was a time not long ago when John Sickels said that Marte “is not a home run hitter and never will be.” (Side note: This is not to dog on Sickels. I’m a huge fan of his work!) Sometimes, players simply mature, grow into their bodies, and fully identify mechanics that work for them. Sometimes it happens what feels like overnight, and sometimes it’s a slow progression. For most (and likely Crawford), it’s somewhere in between, and I do expect these numbers to improve over the course of this season.
So, sure, he’s not hitting barrels, but he there is one area in which he’s improving: sweet spot percentage. Sweet spot percentage is defined as balls hit between eight and 32 degrees—this is what Baseball Savant deems the optimal range of contact, in terms of launch angle.
Crawford’s rolling sweet spot percentage:
While it’s important to hit the ball hard, it’s also important at what angle the ball is coming off of the bat. In this way, Crawford checks one of two boxes.
Oh, and barrels aside, Crawford can still do this:
That’s a 96 mph four-seam fastball, up and away, off of Gerrit Cole. Although he appears to have missed his spot, Cole could do far worse than missing where he did. Regardless of pitch quality, Crawford displays his improved mechanics here and sends the ball over the fence.
For Mariners fans, you have to be delighted to see Crawford figure it out—he’s blossoming right before us. What’s maybe of equal importance is that the front office should be credited for targeting an underappreciated player and helping him actualize more of his potential, almost immediately. He’s already been showing improvements as a fielder since working with infielder-whisperer Perry Hill, but now he’s improved his contact skills to go with his pristine plate discipline. I’m eager to see how the league adjusts. Pitchers have recently started to pitch to him in the zone at a career low, and they’re increasingly starting to locate down and away—I expect more breaking and offspeed pitches to follow. With that said, the contact has come, and some power has accompanied it soon after. It remains to be seen if he’ll continue his current successes at the plate—especially in the power department—but don’t be surprised if he starts getting into balls and they start landing over the fence, especially as his body fills out. For now, consider me a full-fledged J.P. Crawford apologist.
(Photo by Stephen Hopson/Icon Sportswire)
(GIFs courtesy of Michael Ajeto and Max Posner)