baseball

There’s reason to be optimistic for JP Crawford in 2023

A man on the run, leaving behind his old home and trying to build a new one, is suddenly thrust into a new leadership position. After both early success and early struggles, the man helps to create a new culture of excellence on the way to victory. Given the title of this article, you probably think I’m talking about Mariners shortstop JP Crawford, but I’m actually talking about a different John Paul: John Paul Jones.

Though separated by over 300 years, the two share more in common than their names. Both escaped a place where they were undervalued and shunned. Jones escaped his job as a British merchant captain (after killing a mutineer) to the thirteen colonies on the eve of revolution, while Crawford was traded from Philadelphia, where he only played 72 games across two years, to Seattle just before the Mariners clawed their way to relevance. It should be noted that Philadelphia is also where Jones got his start, since he received his Lieutenant’s commission there for the fledgling Continental Navy.

One of the many, many narratives surrounding game 162 of the 2021 season was JP taking on the role of captain after Kyle Seager’s departure.

And while his 2022 season could be seen as a step back for him, and was overshadowed by Julio’s ROY campaign and Ty’s All-Star season, there’s reason to be optimistic for 2023.

For one, his plate discipline has been getting better year after year. His Savant page has his BB%, Whiff%, K%, and Chase rate bubbles all in the red. This means that even though his BA was 30 points worse in 2022 compared to 2021, his OBP actually went up by a point. Actually, Crawford had the joint 4th-highest OBP of any shortstop in MLB last year, just behind Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, and Trea Turner, and tied with Francisco Lindor. Good company to be in.

So what happened? What changed in J.P’s approach? Well, he identified a flaw in his game: he just didn’t hit the ball very well. Crawfords xBACON, expected batting average on contact, has always been one of the worst in the league. Here is his 2021 xBACON with some other stuff thrown in.

Oh hi, jean
Baseball Savant

It’s not very good. JP just doesn’t hit the ball very well. He is, however, very good at seeing it. That In Zone Contact% of almost 90? That was good for 18th in all of baseball in 2021. He’s very good at seeing the ball and knowing where it’s going to go. So what’s a steely-eyed baseball man with a noodle bat to do?

Early in the revolution, the other JP was given command of a small sloop, the Vengeance. Jones quickly set to work drilling its crew into excellence. Unlike the British, the Americans couldn’t afford to waste powder or shot in training, but Jones knew it didn’t matter. Vengeance was so small and underarmed that a direct battle would be suicide. Once when pursued by a British frigate with four times his firepower and faster despite it, Jones outfoxed the opposing captain by coming about, flying nearly straight into the wind and right past the frigate’s nose. Caught unprepared, the British ship turned too far to chase, and was left facing the eye of the wind, dead in the water. Jones slipped by.

The solution to Crawford’s problem was equally simple: swing less, walk more. In 2022, JP put 60 fewer balls in play than he did in 2022, while his In Zone Contact % slightly improved. He just didn’t swing as much. And you know what? It actually helped his game. His xWOBA, which historically has been in the dumpster, was actually threatening to be league average last year, in the 49th percentile. JP’s high OBP, propped up by his gimlet eye, helped him to turn the lineup over and get the more powerful hitters back up with him on base. And he did that while being a vocal leader on the field and playing the fourth-most innings of any shortstop in the AL (seventh most in baseball)…maybe too many innings, given a look at his defensive numbers, the lowest marks of his time in Seattle by a significant margin.

Defensive metrics don’t love him, but the eye test is off the charts. I mean, could a guy with a -11 OAA (?!?!?!?!) make this kind of play?

His form is certainly unconventional (I don’t think this is in Perry Hill’s 5 F’s), but it’s very fun to watch. Crawford is an argument for the overhauling of fielding stats. Watching him all year, he felt excellent, but those metrics hate him. Maybe they just can’t appreciate how cool this man is.

Jones was also an unconventional sailor, using clever tactics to beat the superior British ships. In a particularly well-handled battle, Jones took advantage of a strong breeze to lie leeward of a British ship twice his size. Ships of sail were top heavy, and the wind would cause them to tip, or heel, over. Jones used this to angle his guns upwards into the British sails, while the British ship’s guns were pointed into the water. Jones was able to disable and capture the ship with impunity. Rather like Crawford throwing out Jeff McNeil.

I don’t wish to make this comparison one-to-one, however. Some readers will remember a previous article I wrote here about John Paul Jones, and they will no doubt remember that the “Father of the American Navy” was kind of an asshole. His men hated him and frequently mutineed him. Once, in the middle of a pitched battle, two warrant officers tried to surrender the ship, and Jones responded by chucking his pistols at their heads, knocking the two unconscious.

JP Crawford, on the other hand, oozes cool and commands respect. Before the 2022 season, Jerry Dipoto described him as “a heart and soul guy for us. He’s so much the personality of our team and he’s got such a cool way about him.” Between JP and Eugenio, the Mariners’ vibes are most excellent.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t wait to see them set sail again.

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