On a team with young pitchers like Houck, Whitlock, and Bello, Kutter Crawford might get a bit lost in the mix. I wouldn’t blame you for overlooking him. He didn’t have a particularly inspiring rookie campaign in 2022 and his peripheral stats also didn’t impress. He began the year as a reliever before moving into the rotation where he saw mixed and inconsistent results– ending the year with three clunkers before being shut down with a shoulder impingement. So if he doesn’t have a track record of success above AA, is 27 years old, and is fighting for a rotation spot, what are we doing here? We are talking about Crawford because, in the few starts where he’s performed well, he looked like a strong middle-of-the-rotation starter with a bright future in this game.
(All pitch metrics are from the 2023 season unless stated otherwise)
Kutter Crawford’s fastball is special. It didn’t play like a special pitch last season but it has the potential to get there. It may not look like anything too crazy visually, coming in at 94.6 mph on average, but he occupies rare air when it comes to the amount of movement he gets on this pitch. The specs come in at 20.3” IVB, -9.6” HB, from a release height of 5.9 feet. He achieves this by throwing with an astonishing 99% of his 2499 RPM spin rate contributing toward movement. He is the ONLY pitcher to get that much movement on both planes. This ties him for the second* most IVB on any fastball with his teammate Nick Pivetta and places him behind Colin Poche. Pivetta is averaging the exact same 94.6 mph while Poche’s heater comes in at a less intimidating 92.1. The advantage he has over either of those guys is his release point. While a bit generic it is substantially lower which allows for a flatter vertical attack angle. So while Pivetta’s IVB is marginally more impressive due to having less time to fly with his extra half foot of extension at release, Crawford’s fastball is superior in its bat-missing potential. While this pitch got clobbered when struck last season, it did miss bats at a well-above-average rate and he got a bit unlucky with his batted balls. This season, however, BABIP has yet to betray him and he’s getting even more whiffs on it!
Fittingly, Crawford throws a cutter. While it may not be the devastating pitch you’d hope for considering his first name, it’s useful in a different way. He varies its shape quite a bit with a wide range of velocities and movement. It usually tunnels well with his fastball, having 7” of IVB, and 4.9” of glove-side break at 88.2 mph on average. Despite this, it has never played particularly well on its own. He doesn’t throw it low very often, generally aiming at or above the belt on the glove side of the plate. This is a strange location for a slider-ish pitch until you remember that his fastball lives best above the zone. This is how he uses it to tunnel. It looks like a fastball above the zone until it drops down into it, sometimes breaking out of the zone to the side. Unfortunately, this can land the pitch in a hittable location. That is potentially a risk worth taking as it sets up the fastball above the zone just as well as the fastball complements it. It plays like a 45-grade pitch with less-than-desirable batted balls off of it and not enough whiff rate to compensate for that. It may consistently wind up with mediocre run values and other similar evaluating metrics. However, the work this pitch does to set up the high heater, as well as the bridge it creates between his fastball and curveball makes it highly valuable to his arsenal.
Throwing a good curveball is hard. Sliders seem to be more in vogue right now because for many pitchers they’re easier to locate. They don’t necessarily need to have premier movement or velo to be successful either. Curveballs, on the other hand, usually need power behind them if they’re going to miss bats. Otherwise, they tend to get relegated to being called-strike-only weapons flipped in when the pitcher thinks he can sneak one by. This is how Crawford uses his curveball. It comes in at 80.3 mph and dives downward with -14.4” IVB and 8.5 HB. Despite what looks like good movement visually, this is sadly a somewhat generic curve profile. As such, it doesn’t miss many bats. That said, Crawford has become quite good at the aforementioned strike-stealing usage. He lands it in the zone fairly consistently while managing to avoid the heart of the zone. Stuff+ metrics may not be fond of this pitch but PLV smiles on it because he’s found a niche for it; throwing it 15% of the time and using it to get free strikes and keep hitters honest. It probably helps that he creates a nearly perfect spin mirror between his fastball and curveball.
This is a new version of changeup that Crawford introduced this year and it’s really weird. It’s slow considering his fastball velocity– 82.1 mph on average. He kills so much spin (1066 RPM) with his grip while also lowering spin efficiency that it moves way less than most changeups, just 8.7” of fade with 5.4” IVB. That’s a pretty unique pitch. This kind of movement is more common with splitters. It could be that he’s only thrown 41 of them, but it’s flummoxed hitters so far. Assuming a hitter makes contact, it’s been harmless. Hitters have whiffed on it 39.1% of the time. Compare all of this to his old changeup, which was 4 mph faster, had ~250 RPM more spin, and much more spin-based movement leading to an extra 5.2 IVB. This is a problem for many pitchers with great rising fastballs; they struggle to throw a changeup that can get good vertical separation from the fastball. Crawford was already doing a decent job with it, with around 10” of vertical separation on the old cambio, and this new version does even better. He’s even throwing it in 2-strike counts which suggests he already has some confidence in it. Admittedly, the pitch has a somewhat inconsistent shape and those movement numbers aren’t always representative of what the pitch does. This unpredictability can be really good if it’s intentional. The more likely answer is that due to his new throwing method, he doesn’t always know exactly how it’s going to move. This certainly makes the pitch a bit volatile but it hasn’t hurt him yet.
(Note: It was a bit different in his 4-inning relief outing against Cleveland on April 28th. He was throwing it a couple of ticks harder and picking up much more fade while keeping the IVB suppressed. This makes it more traditional in its movement, but it’s still such a good shape that I don’t think that would change its effectiveness much.)
Lastly, Crawford throws a slider that is pretty distinctly his fifth pitch. The shape is fine but it’s nothing to write home about (84.5 mph, -1.7 IVB, 4.7” HB). His feel for locating it seems to come and go. Sometimes he can absolutely dot it on the glove-side corner or place it nearby to hunt chases. Other times, it’s in the dirt or up in the zone. He doesn’t really throw it enough for me to get a great read on his ability to command it. We’ll see how this one progresses. It’s at least worth keeping an eye on. PLV loves what he’s done with it in the small sample, for what it’s worth.
A Bit Of Illusion
You may have noticed in the gifs that Crawford’s arm action is extraordinarily short. He never goes below flat with his forearm save for a little wiggle before bringing it up in his delivery. An added bonus of this type of motion is that he hides the ball behind his body and head until very late in his delivery. This can confuse hitters and compensate for his generic release point. This isn’t a huge thing, but it’s a small positive and I wanted to include it somewhere in this breakdown.
Keys To Success
While his fastball is excellent, it’s not a 50% chase rate excellent. That will cool down eventually. That will coincide with his absurd 2.5% walk rate regressing to something a bit more normal. Crawford has mostly solid command of his pitches but the current rates are unsustainable. Despite that, I don’t think his overall performance will see a similar regression. He’s so close to putting it all together. He has an issue facing lefties at times, particularly when he’s struggling to place his cutter well. That’s probably the biggest thing for him going forward– he has to keep that cutter out of dangerous spots. In the meantime, keep elevating the fastball. If I could request anything of him, I’d ask him to try to remove some of the spin activity from his slider or to see if there’s any extra velocity to be found in the curveball. Beyond that though, just keep that fastball elevated. That’s going to be the pitch he builds a career on.
*This was written before Bryce Miller debuted and took the top spot on the IVB leaderboard.