Written by: Mac Squibb (@SquibberStats)
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In true Jerry Dipoto fashion, the 2018-19 offseason has been a whirlwind for the Mariners. Faces of the franchise Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura and James Paxton have all been dealt away to east coast teams and even some of the inbound players have since found a second destination. All of the moves, as expected, have been heavily criticized as, on the surface, it appeared that yet another MLB franchise was headed toward tanking. However, signings like Yusei Kikuchi and trades for Domingo Santana have brought hope to the Seattle faithful that Dipoto is just “reimagining” the team as he promised. Newly acquired top prospects Justus Sheffield, Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn should also add to fans excitement about the future, but it’s J.P. Crawford that shouldn’t be overlooked.
On a recent podcast (19:55) Dipoto discussed an activity he had each member of the Mariners front office partake in this offseason. Each employee was given a blank 25-man roster to fill in and told that no moves were off limits so long as the trades and free agent signings made sense. What an overwhelming majority of the resulting rosters had in common was J.P. Crawford as their shortstop of the future.
Crawford, along with Carlos Santana, who has since been traded to Cleveland, ultimately became members of the Mariners in a deal that was headlined by Jean Segura being sent to the Philadelphia Phillies. Segura, a 28-year-old shortstop coming off a 3.8 WAR season, is under contract for four more years with a club option for a fifth. Many viewed the return for Segura’s valuable contract as “light” and leaving much to be desired. While Santana is a potential rebound player and ultimately netted the Mariners a competitive balance pick, it is Crawford’s perceived value that seems to be underwhelming skeptics the most. The once top prospect, known for his defensive prowess and exceptional plate discipline, hasn’t been able to match the high expectations set for him since his debut in 2017. In 72 games across two seasons, Crawford has hit .214/.333/.358 with a 91 wRC+ while accumulating just 0.8 WAR. That’s not exactly the performance one would be looking for from a team’s potential starting shortstop of the future. Despite that, it appears that Dipoto and the Mariners front office saw something in Crawford’s underlying numbers that provided enough promise to justify the trade.
During the 2017 season, Crawford made some notable adjustments to his batted ball profile that should warrant optimism. After struggling during his initial call up to Triple-A in 2016, Crawford increased his line drive rate and overall production while decreasing his ground ball percentage. The higher line drive rate, along with his above average Pull% of 48.1%, likely lead to the dramatic increase in estimated fly ball distance that he had in 2017. (Credit Minor Graphs)
Unfortunately, Crawford’s follow up season was marred by injuries which prevented him from consistently displaying the improvements he had made. In 2018, Crawford appeared with the Phillies in three separate stints: 21 games in March/April ended by a forearm strain, 13 games in June ended by a broken left hand, and 15 games to end the season. Despite the limited playing time, Crawford did carry over some of the batted ball improvements he had previously made in Triple-A.
Unlike the minor leagues where data is limited, we have access to Statcast for MLB players which is useful for analyzing the small nuances that make up a player’s profile. Al Melchior at Fangraphs recently examined several Statcast metrics and their correlations with power measures such as HR/FB, ISO, and Hard%. The results showed a strong correlation exists between the given power measures and several Statcast metrics including exit velocity on fly balls and line drives. Conceptually, it makes sense: if a player consistently hits the ball hard in the air, they’re more likely to end up with a double, triple or home run and thus perform better with power measures. Melchior’s article also shows that a player’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives has a strong correlation from season-to-season. In 2018, Crawford’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 92.9 mph which ranked him 13th among shortstops (minimum 75 batted balls). However, during his June and September stints, Crawford’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives increased to 96.2 mph which would have placed him second among shortstops behind only Javy Baez’ 96.7 mph. Crawford has never been known for his power (his highest slugging percentage in the minors was .414), but the increased fly ball distance in ‘17 and improved exit velocity in ‘18 point to emerging power production.
Crawford also refined his plate discipline in 2018 which was his calling card throughout the minors. Over the course of his MiLB career, Crawford has had a BB% of 13.1% and a K% of 14.9%, both of which are exceptional. For reference, in 2018 there were only five players with a BB% north of 13% and K% less than 15% (minimum 100 plate appearances).
That’s some pretty elite company to be in. In his two MLB seasons, Crawford has nearly matched his BB% at 12.9% but has had a combined K% of 26.8%.
Dave Cherman at Pitcher List published research this past May that can help contextualize Crawford’s BB% and K% based on his plate discipline. The conclusion of the article presents the “Big Three” or the three metrics worth looking at when analyzing a player’s plate discipline numbers. The results point to Crawford’s BB% being sustainable and also show that his K% should have been closer to what it was in the minors. The first two metrics, Swinging Strike% (SwStr%) and Contact%, are strongly correlated to K%, r^2 = .59 and r^2 = .76 respectively. The third metric, O-Swing%, had a moderately strong correlation, r^2 = .5, to BB% and was the best among those analyzed in the article. Based on Cherman’s work, Crawford’s SwStr% and Contact% will on average yield a K% closer to 18.8% and 22% respectively which are similar to his 2019 Depth Charts projection of 21.6%.
While Crawford’s season long numbers are decent, his SwStr% and Contact% noticeably improved during his later stints in the majors. If his late season improvements carry over to 2019, his K% will likely be lower than his projections and closer to his MiLB average.
Unlike SwStr% and Contact%, Crawford’s O-Swing% doesn’t need to show improvement as he already performs at an elite level. Among players with at least 100 plate appearances in 2018, Crawford ranked 13th in baseball with an O-Swing% of 19.8%, which slots him in between Mookie Betts (19.8%) and Alex Bregman (20.0%). Again, some pretty elite company.
The one aspect of Crawford’s offensive game that is severely lacking is his production against left-handed pitching. It’s not unusual for young left-handed hitters to struggle against left-handed pitching; even Rookie of the Year Shohei Ohtani posted a moderate 84 wRC+ vs. lefties. However, this is a severe weak spot that Crawford needs to address if he wants to play every day. The only positive here is that just 28% of all plate appearances came against left-handed pitching last season.
It’s worth noting that the Mariners recently signed shortstop Tim Beckham to a one-year contract. It’s possible that he is a potential right-handed platoon partner or an insurance policy in case Crawford falters. A more likely explanation is that the Mariners are looking to manipulate Crawford’s service time to get an extra year of team control. If Crawford accumulates less than 152 days of service time in 2019, he will be controllable for an extra year so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him start the season in the minors.
Ultimately, there is a lot of potential here. With Crawford’s combination of above average defense, elite plate discipline and improving power, it’s understandable why Dipoto and the Mariners front office viewed him as their shortstop of the future.
Follow P365 contributor Mac Squibb on Twitter! @SquibberStats
Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365
Featured image courtesy of photographer Bill Streicher and USA Today.