When a baseball is thrown against a stucco wall with an above-average amount of velocity, it produces a dull thud that will echo off the surrounding outdoor structures and permeate throughout the building like a distant artillery report or construction work.
Back before COVID-19 interrupted and changed life, when baseball was in the midst of its regular spring training, which was actually only 8 ½ months and not 8 ½ years ago, those thuds could be heard on a near-daily basis at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Arizona. They produced a disjointed beat that eventually became rhythmic to those in the area.
Who was responsible for this cacophony in the early morning and late afternoon?
On many days, you would find either J.P. Crawford or Evan White alone in the concrete area between the field and the clubhouse firing a baseball against the wall, getting in proper fielding position to field the bouncing baseball on its return and perfecting that footwork of fielding it cleanly and positioning their feet to make an accurate throw. Throw, thud, field, get in position and repeat — over and over — until it became muscle memory.
It appears to be a repetitive, mind-numbing drill created for Little Leaguers to learn the fundamentals, not big-leaguers.
But it’s also how Gold Gloves are won.
Those hours of practice paid off Tuesday, as Crawford and White earned baseball’s highest defensive honor, being selected for the American League Gold Glove at their respective positions — shortstop and first base.
They are the first Mariners to win the award since Kyle Seager won the Gold Glove at third base in 2014. And based on their talent and commitment to their defense, this won’t be the only time either player takes home the award. They join Ken Griffey Jr. as the only Mariners’ players age 25 or under to win a Gold Glove.
“We will be better defensively this year,” manager Scott Servais declared emphatically at the team’s pre-spring training luncheon in January.
A big reason for that confidence was the expectation of having a full season of the much-improved Crawford at shortstop and White at first base.
“These guys are going to win multiple Gold Glove awards,” Servais said during spring training.
At the infield’s most prestigious position, Crawford beat out Houston’s Carlos Correa and Detroit’s Niko Goodrum. He becomes the second Mariners shortstop to win a Gold Glove, joining Omar Vizquel (1993).
“To finally see all those hours of work pay off and just to know that I’m heading in the right direction and I have a shot to be right there with all the top shortstops in the league,” Crawford said. “But the work doesn’t stop here, I’ve got to continue to get better and get ready for next year.”
Crawford, 25, finished the 2020 season ranked second in the American League in defensive runs saved with six. Correa led the AL with eight defensive runs saved. Crawford led AL shortstops with 62 out-of-zone plays and his 4.9 defensive runs above average was second to Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor. He had a 2.5 ultimate zone rating (UZR), which also ranked second to Lindor (5.8).
Asked about his favorite play, Crawford pointed to all the plays he was supposed to make and did.
He also ranked in the following categories among American League shortstops: assists (2nd, 145), putouts (3rd, 73), outs above average (3rd, four) and runs prevented (T-3rd, three). He is the Mariners’ best defensive shortstop since Brendan Ryan.
His success was a product of hours upon hours spent with infield coach Perry “Bone” Hill, starting in January 2019.
When the Mariners acquired Crawford as part of their 2019 rebuild plan, they knew that, despite his physical gifts, he was flawed fundamentally. They brought in Hill to correct footwork issues that led to inconsistent results on routine ground balls and throws to first base.
“Without Bone, I wouldn’t even be in this place,” Crawford said. “I love that man to death. He is one of the first people I called, besides my family, because I definitely wouldn’t have got this without him, hands down. He might say something else, but he’s just being humble. We would not be here without him.”
As an infield coach with the Marlins in 2018, Hill watched a young Crawford play for the Phillies.
“I didn’t think it was much,” Hill said of the work. “He just had a long arm action and his feet would never do the same thing twice. You could hit the same ground ball 10 times and they would do something different each time. It really was an easy fix.”
White, 24, beat out reigning Gold Glove winner Matt Olson of Oakland and Yuli Gurriel of Houston. He is the first rookie first baseman to win the award since its creation in 1957. He’s the second Mariners’ rookie to win the award, joining Ichiro, who won a Gold Glove in 2001.
White is the 11th rookie to win a Gold Glove since its inception and joins John Olerud as the only Seattle first basemen to win a Gold Glove. Olerud won three with the Mariners, in 2000, 2002 and 2003.
“They’re both such good kids and they work so hard,” Hill said. “They don’t ever take a ground ball off ever during our ground-ball routines and all the stuff we do in spring training. They never just have a day where they just don’t feel good or they’re just not feeling it. They’re not that way. They punch the clock every single day, and you like to see people like that get rewarded.”
White led American League first basemen in defensive runs saved (DRS) with seven, ranking ahead of Olson, the White Sox’s José Abreu and Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, who all had five.
White also led AL first basemen with seven “scoops” — a metric that measures outs saved from wayward throws — ahead of Santana (six). He led AL first basemen with 11 out-of-zone plays, ranking ahead of Olson (10) and Gurriel (10).
According to FanGraphs, his 2.2 UZR was second best among AL first basemen, trailing Olson (2.5). All three finalists had .998 fielding percentages that were decided by percentage points. They all committed just one error. White ended the season with 49 consecutive games without an error, successfully converting each of his 363 total chances (333 putouts, 30 assists) over that span. According to Baseball Savant, he tied for the most runs prevented (two) among AL first basemen with Abreu and Olson, while ranking tied for second in outs above average with two, one behind Olson.
“He was good to begin with,” Hill said. “It was more, if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it. I told somebody the other day that if he wasn’t left-handed, he could play middle infield. He’s that good.”
White’s defensive exploits became almost legendary before he reached the big leagues. It started while he was a first baseman at the University of Kentucky, where multiple amateur scouts said he could have been an elite defensive third baseman and solid shortstop if threw right-handed. He was such a good runner and so instinctive that some teams projected him as an outfielder.
“A few teams talked about it,” he said. “I don’t remember how many or which ones, but it was mentioned.”
But the Mariners never considered him for any other position other than first base, where he’s evoked comparisons to top fielding first basemen such as Olerud, J.T. Snow, Mark Grace and Keith Hernandez. He won a minor-league Gold Glove award in 2018, but a MLB Gold Glove award has a little more prestige.
“I’m kind of glad they kept me at first base,” White said.
Asked about those hours Crawford and White spent doing the drill of throwing the ball against the wall by themselves, Hill lauded their commitment.
“They’re so conscientious and they want to be so good and have so much pride,” Hill said. “They know what they’re supposed to do and they do it on their own. They don’t have to be told, or you don’t have to schedule a time for them. They’re told, ‘you need to do that and make sure it gets done,’ and you don’t have to worry about it, it gets done.”
Hill has coached 10 players to Gold Glove awards in his career, but he also credited third-base coach Manny Acta, who was in charge of defensive positioning, and Jesse Smith of the Baseball Operations staff, who handles the defensive data.
“They did such a good job of making sure we were in the right positions,” Hill said. “The hardware goes to Evan and J.P. and deservedly so. But there was an organizational effort in this.”