The search for more than competence at perhaps the most important non-catching position on the field forced the Mariners down every path possible with no real permanent resolution.
Since that 2000 offseason when Alex Rodriguez left town in a Brinks armored truck with a Rangers logo on the side, Mariners fans have wondered: How difficult can it be to find a solid shortstop who can be relied upon for more than a season or two?
For the Mariners, it’s been almost impossible. They’ve drafted them. They’ve traded for them. They’ve signed them in free agency.
And the best of the group all had flaws. Carlos Guillen couldn’t stay healthy. Yuniesky Betancourt couldn’t stay motivated and couldn’t stop swinging at everything. Brendan Ryan couldn’t hit. Brad Miller and Nick Franklin couldn’t field or hit. Ketel Marte couldn’t understand he wasn’t Robinson Cano. And Jean Segura couldn’t stop acting like, well, Jean Segura.
Using a FanGraphs search, no shortstop has come close to equaling Rodriguez’s monster 9.5 WAR 2000 season. In fact, Segura was the only shortstop to produce a WAR of 3.0 or higher with a 3.7 in 2018. The next highest seasons were 2.9 WAR from Segura (2017) and Ryan (2011).
Now, J.P. Crawford is the latest shortstop to try to bring stability to the position as part of Seattle’s rebuild. And while manager Scott Servais and general manger Jerry Dipoto have lauded Crawford’s performance since being called up in May 2019 and taking over the position, he’s still yet to show the all-around consistency to reach the potential attached to him. He’s provided extended glimpses of that possibility, including significant defensive improvement. Yet there is still so much left for Crawford to prove.
“I’m really happy with the step forward he’s taken this year,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said in a video conference call. “He’s only going to get better as he gets stronger. He’s learning how to play every day, and then hitting in the leadoff spot is not easy, and he’s done a nice job there.”
With the Mariners going into a rebuild mode and tired of Segura’s attitude, indifference and obvious shortcomings as a shortstop, they traded him to the Phillies before the 2019 season along with two relievers for Crawford and Carlos Santana, who was traded shortly thereafter. Crawford was a former Top 10 prospect who had lost some of his shine after a handful of MLB call-ups that weren’t productive largely due to injury.
In 41 games this season, Crawford has a .239/.339/.342 slash line with six doubles, two triples, two homers, 15 RBI, five stolen bases, 22 walks and 29 strikeouts. He got off to a torrid start in the first 20 games of this shortened season as an on-base machine in the leadoff spot, posting a .398 on-base percentage. But that has since cooled, posting a .188/.283/.325 slash line in the last 21 games, including an 0-for-20 stretch.
“You just have to stay the course, stay positive,” Crawford said in a previous online video conference. “I’m hitting the ball hard. Eventually they are going to fall.”
If you combine that with the 93 games played last season, which also featured a hot start followed by an extended cold streak, Crawford has a .230/.321/.362 slash line with 27 doubles, six triples, nine homers, 61 RBI, 10 stolen bases, 65 walks and 112 strikeouts. That production is worth a combined 2.1 WAR, most of it coming from the defensive metrics of the equation.
Servais believes Crawford’s at-bats have been better than the numbers have shown and points to the swing decisions that the Mariners track as being solid.
“Hitting in that leadoff spot is not easy, and he’s done a really nice job there,” Servais said. “The thing about J.P., he’s continuing to make adjustments with his swing and you can see that. He has not come close to reaching his ceiling offensively yet. There’s still plenty of growth there and that will continue as he gets stronger and understands his swing a little more.”
Crawford has tinkered with his swing, particularly the position of his front foot, on numerous occasions. He’s still searching for the right fit in his setup and lead to his swing.
“One of the reasons I love J.P. in the leadoff spot is how competitive he is,” Servais said. “You often see it with runners in scoring position or leading off an inning late in the game when he knows he needs to get on base. You’re going to get a good at-bat. The numbers may be off a little in the second half of this season, but I appreciate the competitiveness of what he brings.”
There have been no complaints, only compliments, about Crawford’s continued defensive improvement at shortstop. It has steadily improved since he was first introduced to infield coach Perry Hill before spring training in 2019. With Hill’s constant fundamental work, Crawford cleaned up some footwork issues that stabilized his throwing motion and made his strong arm more viable. What’s noticeable this season is that while Crawford is still making the spectacular plays, he’s also become automatic on routine plays.
Per FanGraphs, he has a 3.1 Defensive WAR, which is third highest in the American League while being tied with Carlos Correa for the most defensive runs saved by a shortstop with four.
“I know what my eye test tells me,” Servais said. “He’s just been spectacular all year long. Then you start to see the metrics line up with that, which makes me feel really good because he’s been all over the field. We do a lot of shifting. He’s throwing from different parts of the field. The instinctive plays that J.P. makes have been fantastic.”