Editor’s note: This is one in a weekly or semiweekly series called “The Player Plan,” analyzing key Mariners players or prospects, looking back on their 2020 seasons and ahead to the offseason and 2021.
In the imperfect world of prospect rankings, the ascension to the top of the overall lists can be meteoric, since it’s all largely based on talent and projection. But it also gives fans, many of whom have become obsessed with potential over the present, something to latch upon for hope and better days ahead.
Yet, those rankings don’t guarantee success in Major League Baseball nor do they provide security to stay at the highest level or stability within a players’ team.
J.P. Crawford understood this existence during his time with the Phillies. A first-round pick (No. 16 overall) in the 2013 draft out of Lakewood High in Southern California, he rocketed up the lists, landing in the Top 10 of several Top 100 lists going into the 2016 season, including Baseball America (No. 6), MLB Pipeline (No. 5) and Baseball Prospectus (No. 4).
By the end of the 2018 season, he was viewed by some as an overhyped prospect with an inability to stay healthy or produce at the MLB level.
Looking to win now and not wait for his development, the Phillies traded him to Seattle on Dec. 2, 2018, in a five-player deal that sent the petulant, but productive at the plate Jean Segura to Philly to play shortstop.
With a rebuild plan in place, the Mariners still believed in Crawford’s ability and that a new environment and new instructional voices could realign his path and trajectory as a player. They were looking for the shortstop of the future. A player that could anchor the infield’s most important position and be a core piece to the rebuild.
Have they found it in Crawford?
He believes this season answered that question.
“I think this year is about making a statement that I’m here and I’m here to stay,” he said. “I had that type of attitude. The year before I was just trying to show everyone what I got. But everyone knew this year what I have, and I had to make that step forward. I’m happy with my results. I just thank God that hours of work I put in finally paid off.”
Looking back at 2020: From a defensive standpoint, Crawford’s growth and maturation took on a new level of consistency in his performance. Thanks to the fundamental changes he made with his footwork at the behest of infield coach Perry Hill back in January 2019, Crawford has blossomed into one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball. He was rewarded with his first Gold Glove award.
When asked about his favorite play that he’d made in 2020, Crawford’s answer was quite instructive about his thinking and priorities.
“I don’t have one,” he said in a video conference. “I mean I made all the routine plays. That was one of my main goals. Making the cool plays is awesome and all, but you know the ones that really tear me down are those routine errors and those are really the ones I focus on. Everyone remembers you for a cool play, but my teammates and I remember the routine plays getting made, getting the pitchers out of innings faster and just getting the game moving along. I take pride in that. And this year finally just made the routine plays and those results finally paid off.”
Hill calls them plays in the box.
“That’s what we want,” he said. “Those are the plays that keep innings short, keep rallies from happening and keep our starting pitchers in the game longer.”
Crawford’s numbers on defense are impeccable and why he won the Gold Glove beating out Houston’s Carlos Correa and Detroit’s Niko Goodrum.
He 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).
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 just the second Mariners shortstop to win a Gold Glove joining Omar Vizquel, and he’s the Mariners’ best defensive shortstop since Brendan Ryan had the position.
“I worked my ass off this year and everything paid off,” he said.
And the offense?
Well, that’s an unfinished product. There have been two- and three-week stretches where the left-handed hitting Crawford has given glimpses of all that he could be as a hitter, working counts, flashing pull-side power for homers, gap-to-gap power for extra-base hits. But when those stretches dissipate, they often don’t return again for a four or five weeks where Crawford tries to hit his way out of it by swinging more, pulling the ball too much and losing his identity.
Over the first 20 games, most of them coming in the leadoff spot, Crawford posted a solid .293/.398/.360 slash line* with 22 hits, a double, two triples, five RBI, 15 runs scored, 12 walks and 11 strikeouts. Over the next 21 games, he produced a .188/.283/.325 slash line with 15 hits, five doubles, two homers, 10 RBI, 12 runs scored, 10 walks and 18 strikeouts.
He then missed the next five games after the passing of his grandfather. In his final 12 games of the season, Crawford posted a .306/.327/.327 slash line with 15 hits in 52 plate appearances, a double, nine RBI, a walk and 10 strikeouts.
During that slow stretch, manager Scott Servais was optimistic, saying:
“I actually like the way he’s been swinging the bat. He’s just been hasn’t been getting a lot of hits. I think he’s barreled up quite a few balls and his at-bats have been pretty good. He’s not getting the results he’s looking for right now, that happens over the course of a season. Offensively, I really don’t have any issues. He gives us a good at-bat (at the) top of the lineup.”
But that’s not to say there aren’t flaws. Servais hates to see Crawford roll over on fastballs away for weak ground balls to the right side.
“I do think there’s a lot more growth in J.P. on the offensive side,” he said. “There are some things that I know he wants to get better at and has been talking with our hitting coaches. He is maybe the most competitive guy we have in the batter’s box. And I say that, it’s not the prettiest all the time, but he makes really good swing decisions. And when he stays committed to using the whole field and not trying to pull the ball through the shift — good things happen.”
Crawford tinkered with his swing throughout the season, particularly with his feet. In spring training, he started with feet a little closer together, standing more upright and using a higher leg kick and a longer stride. During the shutdown, he widened his stance with more knee bend and less dramatic of a stride.
The results sort of remained the same. In 2019, he posted a .226/.313/.371 slash line in 396 plate appearances with a 10.9 percent walk rate and a 21.0 percent rate. In 2020, he had a .255/.336/.338 line in 232 plate appearances with a 9.9 percent walk rate and 16.8 percent strikeout rate. The increases to the batting average and on-base percentage are valid. The drop in slugging percentage is an issue. A look at data shows that his expected batting average (XBA), a measure that shows the likelihood of a batted ball will become a hit based on exit velocity and launch angle and even sprint speed on batted balls, was just one point higher at .256 than his actual batting average of .255. His expected slugging (XSLG) of .360 ranked 26th.
But his average exit speed of 85.8 mph on balls in play was rated 30th among MLB shortstops while his hard hit ball percentage of 31.1 ranked 28th. By comparison, Corey Seager’s average exit velocity was 93.2 mph and with a 55.9 hard hit percentage with a .330 expected batting average and a .653 expected slugging percentage. Seager is just a year older than Crawford.
It’s probably unfair to think that Crawford is going to profile like Seager in terms of power. But right now he profiles as a below average offensive player.
Offseason focus: Crawford isn’t going to sit back and stop working because he won a Gold Glove. His understanding of his responsibilities as a shortstop as the leader of the infield defense has been ingrained and reinforced with his success.
So he’ll continue to embrace the work with Hill. He bought a home in the Phoenix area and trains most days at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria.
“I’ve been working out in the weight room for probably the last two weeks,” he said 10 days ago. “I just started hitting again last week. The grinding has started early this year. There’s a lot of work to be done. I just want to make a big improvement in that area and make that step for next year.”
Looking at the numbers, it’s pretty simple. He needs to find a way to hit the ball hard with more consistency and frequency. And the Mariners have implored him that he can do that without having to pull the ball to right field.
Can he do that? Two veteran pro scouts have some doubts …
One said that given his set-up that he will have difficulties adjusting to pitches with velocity, particularly up in the zone. He also mentioned that while Crawford has gotten good at laying off pitches in his cold zones, it’s noticeable that his success vs. fastballs early in counts hasn’t been ideal. The lack of strength is an issue in the batter’s box, but not in the field.”
Said the other NL Scout: “He was going to be somewhat streaky given the steeper swing path and bigger moves he makes to generate momentum into his path. His glove will carry him as an everyday value. He’s kind of doing what was expected.”
But Crawford believes it’s fixable and it starts with building overall strength. He’s got a lithe frame that isn’t easy to pack on size. And the Mariners don’t necessarily want him to bulk up and lose flexibility, athleticism, speed or range on defense. He can increase strength without putting on 30 pounds. They’d like to see him add 10-15 pounds while also maintaining more urgency to lift and keep it on during the season.
“It’s just getting bigger, maintaining what I did from last year and just having a plan,” he said. “It’s just getting consistent in the box and putting up numbers and playing Gold Glove defense throughout a season and win. I can’t forget about winning. We want to win.”
A look ahead to 2021: So let’s go back to the essence of the unanswered question above: Have the Mariners found their shortstop to help this rebuild reach its goal of a postseason berth, an American League West title and anything beyond that?
Based on the defense and the overly-optimistic potential of Crawford as a hitter, the easy answer would be — yes.
But it’s a little more complicated considering the class of shortstops that will be free agents after the 2021 season. As of now, Seager, Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javy Baez and Trevor Story will all reach free agency after the upcoming season. With minimal payroll commitments in the future, the Mariners could make a run at one of them, looking for an offensive upgrade.
Or do they still with Crawford, believing that his drive to be considered among the group of top shortstop will allow him to grow into more than a plus-defensive shortstop and a streaky hitter?
The 2020 season was supposed to provide more clarity for Crawford’s status. For the first time in his career, he was going to be the everyday shortstop from opening day till the end of the season, regardless of performance. The Mariners wanted to see how he would withstand playing 150 games after showing signs of fatigue during August and September in 2019. They were also hoping for 600 plate appearances for Crawford to really assess him as a hitter. Instead, they got to see him for 52 games.
This 2021 season will be seminal for Crawford in showing something more than incremental increases at the plate. They aren’t asking him to be Seager. But they also don’t want him to be Ryan either.
As much as run prevention is valued in the organization, the Mariners need something more from Crawford than Gold Glove defense. They need the production at the plate to reach and move above replacement level. He’s been below it the past two seasons.