The Seattle Mariners face a big decision on J.P. Crawford, a Gold Glove defender yet to consistently produce at the plate. Is Crawford the team’s long-term answer at shortstop? Or, does Seattle pursue a more accomplished replacement at a position teeming with elite-level hitters?
To be clear, Crawford isn’t a terrible hitter – far from it. As with his glove, there’s a lot to like about the 26-year-old from an offensive standpoint. The following illustrates areas where he excelled and the MLB average for each category.
Crawford demonstrated superb plate discipline. He didn’t strikeout too often and walked at a league-average rate. Moreover, his swing and contact rates inside and outside (chase) the strike zone were better than average – top-20 in some cases. These accomplishments led to an OBP 14 points above average, which is certainly valuable to a lineup.
Still, there’s been a longstanding concern regarding Crawford’s run production – a lack of power. A scouting report produced by MLB Pipeline discussed his light-hitting when he was at Class-AAA Lehigh Valley and a Top-100 prospect in 2017. Essentially, the California native’s batted balls have lacked the consistent explosiveness needed to regularly produce extra base hits. A great way to demonstrate this is with a modified form of my favorite advanced metric – xwOBA.
Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA) uses quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle) to determine what should’ve happened to batted balls. A key advantage to xwOBA is defense (good or bad) doesn’t influence it. This gives us a truer sense of how a hitter or pitcher is performing.
For this discussion, let’s consider Crawford’s xwOBA only on the balls when he made contact (xwOBACON). Doing so removes walks and strikeouts, which gives us a better idea on the potency of his batted balls. It turns out the Lakewood High School product’s .329 xwOBACON was well below league-average (.378) last year. In fact, he ranked 172nd of 184 hitters putting 100-plus balls in play (BIP). Crawford also placed low among his Seattle teammates with at least 50 BIP.
Mariner xwOBACON Leaders:
Evan White (.458)
Ty France (.437)
Dylan Moore (.433)
Kyle Lewis (.432)
José Marmolejos (.401)
Kyle Seager (.364)
Luis Torrens (.350)
Tim Lopes (.331)
J.P. Crawford (.329)
Shed Long Jr. (.297)
Dee Strange-Gordon (.262)
When we view Crawford’s slugging prowess through the lens of more familiar conventional stats and advanced metrics, we receive confirmation of what xwOBACON has already told us – the pop in his bat was subpar.
It wasn’t just in the home run department where Crawford trailed the league. His 4.7-percent extra-base hit percentage was well below the 7.0-percent MLB standard for 2020. Furthermore, the 16th overall pick of the 2013 draft recorded a .391 SLG in 2,645 minor-league plate appearances. In the majors, he owns a .359 SLG in 853 plate appearances.
It’s worth noting adjustments resulting in a supercharged bat would likely lead to Crawford missing on swings more often than he does now. But trading some contact for added pop would be worth it assuming the outcome was more production. Ideally, a nice blend of quality and quantity would be preferred. Easier said than done, obviously.
Ironically, another young Mariner experienced the exact opposite problem as Crawford did last year – Evan White. Seattle’s other 2020 Gold Glover struck balls extremely hard, but didn’t make contact often enough. Just for fun, I did a side-by-side comparison of the pair with each player’s glaring issues highlighted in red.
Obviously, Seattle fans hope both Crawford and White take the next step in their development during the upcoming season. Both are young and have the potential to help form the core of a contending roster. Still, time may be running out for Crawford to influence his destiny with the Mariners.
Next offseason, a relatively large class of premier shortstops are projected to hit the free agent market. Candidates potentially available to the Mariners and 29 other teams include Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story. All are All-Stars, several were Silver Slugger winners, two were MVP finalists. If Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto felt his young roster gelled in 2021 and was on the verge of something special, would he pursue any of these acclaimed shortstops next winter?
Perhaps, but it likely depends on how the Mariners view Crawford. Despite the absence of a power stroke, it’s understandable why Philadelphia drafted him so high and how his potential intrigued Dipoto. He’s hard-working, athletic, a great defender, and demonstrates excellent plate discipline. With more power, Seattle would have an all-star caliber player. A less expensive, younger option than the stars of next year’s free agent class.
That’s why the upcoming season will be pivotal in determining Crawford’s future with the Mariners. Sticking with him past 2021 means Dipoto bypasses a chance at signing Lindor, Correa, Seager, Story, or Báez to anchor the middle of his infield. To date, a compelling argument can’t be made for keeping Crawford rather than pursue one of these star shortstops.
Then again, there’s a full 162-game season approaching. It’ll give Crawford the opportunity to demonstrate he should be Seattle’s shortstop of the future. If he can thrive at the plate this year, Dipoto’s decision next offseason will be an easy one. Otherwise, the Mariners will continue searching for an adequate, long-term replacement for Álex Rodríguez two decades after he left the Emerald City.
My Oh My…
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