J.P. Crawford Is Choosier and Bruisier

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Have I got news for you. The J.P. Crawford you know and love is now 50% more powerful! After running an ISO of .099 over the last two seasons, the Mariners shortstop is at .150 in 2023. And that’s not all. With that power has come increased production: Crawford’s 133 wRC+ is not just the best of his career, it’s second among all shortstops, trailing only Corey Seager’s 179 wRC+. Let’s act now and figure out what Crawford is doing differently this season.

With Crawford, plate discipline is always a good place to start. Crawford has always run low chase rates, but this season, he’s down to 21.2%. That’s fifth-lowest among all qualified players, and it’s led to a 15.6% walk rate, fourth-highest. However, while Crawford is chasing less and walking more, he’s also striking out more. While his 19% strikeout rate is still better than the average player, it’s a jump of more than five percentage points from last season.

Crawford is running a career-best 37.3% hard-hit rate. That’s still well below average, but it’s a huge jump for someone who was in the fifth percentile in 2022. It may seem like Crawford has made the classic power-for-contact tradeoff, but that’s only true to an extent. Players who make that tradeoff usually whiff more because they’re being more aggressive at the plate. Crawford is hitting the ball harder and striking out more, but he’s actually been more passive than ever. His swing rate has dropped by almost exactly the same amount on pitches inside the zone and outside the zone.

I’m going to show you three heat maps. The one in the middle is Crawford’s slugging percentage on balls in play over the course of his career. It shows where he does damage. On the left is Crawford’s swing rate in 2022, and on the right is his swing rate in 2023:

This is as big a change as you’re going to see. Last year, Crawford would swing at pretty much anything over the heart of the plate. This year, he’s focused on a much smaller area, pitches in the absolute center of the zone, much closer to where he really does damage. Here’s what that looks like in terms of Baseball Savant’s swing/take decisions:

Swing/Take Run Value
Year Total Pitches Heart Shadow Chase Waste All
2022 2,583 -19 -20 21 12 -5
2023 2,089 -4 -10 22 8 16
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Crawford is chasing less, so the improvements in the shadow and chase zones shouldn’t surprise us much. The heart of the plate is where things get interesting. Let’s break those numbers into their constituent parts:

Swing/Take Run Value – Heart Only
Year Take Swing
2022 -11 -8
2023 -11 +8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In both 2022 and thus far in 2023, when Crawford took pitches over the heart of the plate, he was worth -11 runs. That’s makes sense, as all of those pitches end up as called strikes. When he has swung at pitches over the heart of the plate, he’s been 16 runs better than he was last year! His wOBA on those swings has gone from .312 to .400. Crawford is taking more strikes, which hurts a little, but he’s more than making up for it when he does swing.

Still, none of this explains why he’s making less contact. Here’s the thing I think is really fascinating. Take a look at Crawford’s whiff percentage broken down by pitch type:

J.P. Crawford’s Whiff Rate
Year Fastball Breaking Offspeed
2022 11.1 19.4 19.7
2023 10.1 28.5 32.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Note: Fastball includes cutters in this table and the ones that follow.

Crawford is gearing up to hit the fastball in a way he hasn’t been in previous seasons. He’s missing them a bit less often, and his wOBA against them has jumped from .315 to .394. Gearing up to hit the fastball can have a side effect: getting fooled more often on softer stuff. Crawford is whiffing a lot more against breaking balls and offspeed stuff. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s performing worse on softer stuff. Take a look at his actual results, once again using Baseball Savant’s run values:

J.P. Crawford’s Run Values
Year Fastball Breaking Offspeed
2022 -0.7 1.1 -0.7
2023 1.1 -0.3 1.4
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Crawford is indeed doing worse against breaking stuff, but he has completely turned himself around against both fastballs and offspeed stuff. How is he doing so well against changeups and splitters when he’s whiffing on them over 50% more often than he did last year? Furthermore, since he’s now much worse against breaking balls, why haven’t pitchers started throwing them way more often?

J.P. Crawford’s Average Exit Velocity
Year Fastball Breaking Offspeed
2022 85.2 83.8 83.9
2023 88.6 85.8 89.9
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The answer to the first question is that Crawford is offsetting all those extra whiffs by hitting the ball much harder, especially against offspeed stuff. His soft contact rate has dropped to a career low, and his 95th-percentile exit velocity increased from 105 mph to 106.2. As for the second question, breaking stuff often requires a hitter to chase in order to be effective, and Crawford doesn’t do that. If your plan is to get Crawford out by deluging him with soft stuff, you’re likely to end up behind in the count.

As I pulled all these numbers together, I was reminded of something Robert Orr wrote back in June for Baseball Prospectus. Orr detailed how Ronald Acuña Jr., previously a dead-pull hitter, had begun letting fastballs travel a little deeper and sending them the other way, which led to a convenient knock-on effect:

“What happens when Acuña thinks a fastball is coming and he’s wrong. If he starts on time for 96 and gets 96, then he laces a base hit into the gap. That’s good. If he starts on time for 96 and gets 87, though? That’s when he can catch the ball out in front of the plate, and that’s where homers are. That’s better.”

Crawford is coming from the opposite end of the spectrum. He ran a 34.2% pull rate last year, compared to Acuña’s 44.5%. But this year, they’ve ended up in the same place: Crawford at 41% and Acuña at 40.5%. Here’s what the change looks like when you break it down by pitch type:

J.P. Crawford’s Pull Rate
Year Fastball Breaking Offspeed
2022 28.5 41.7 44.6
2023 31.8 53.2 72.7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Crawford is pulling the ball way more often, especially against non-fastballs. Those pulled balls haven’t turned into homers, because even this version of him is still way less powerful than Acuña, but he’s gone from the bottom end of the spectrum up toward the middle. Further, Crawford’s 39.2% groundball rate is the lowest it’s been since he became a regular starter. Meeting those balls out in front is helping him pull them in the air, making the most of his increased power.

Under normal circumstances, I might have ended this article here. We’re pushing 2,000 words, and I’ve typed the name Crawford so many times that I’ve lost the ability to comprehend its meaning. It’s just a string of letters to me, and that A-W-F-O section in the middle is really starting to freak me out. Who does that? The only word I can think of that contains an A-W-F-O stretch is ‘clawfoot,’ and I think we can all agree that that’s one of the creepiest words in the English language. However, there are two things I’d still like to address. The first is how Crawford came about this extra power. You might remember that he’s tried to improve his power output before. Before the 2021 season, he packed on 20 pounds of muscle in hopes of increasing his slugging. Unfortunately the Get Yoked, Go Smash method only raised his ISO by 20 points, while his hard-hit rate actually got worse.

This year, he’s increased his average exit velocity by 3.9 mph, the third-highest jump among qualified players. Some of this can be explained by choosing better pitches to hit and pulling the ball more often. Some of it can likely be explained by improved health, since Crawford played through back, pec, leg, and knee injuries last season. Lastly, Crawford trained at Driveline this offseason, after taking six weeks to recover from all of the injuries to all of his body parts.

While I was researching this article, I stumbled onto an episode of the Sea Level podcast that featured Maxx Garrett, the hitting trainer who worked with Crawford this winter. I’m normally reluctant to draw a straight line from a swing change to improved results. There are so many factors involved in hitting. Seemingly everybody comes into spring training in the best shape of their life and with a new swing. Some of those players are bound to improve, and while the hard work they put in during the offseason likely helped, giving all the credit to their new bat waggle is often a facile conclusion. However, Garrett gave host Ben Ranieri some pretty interesting details that dovetailed nicely with what I found in the numbers.

First, Garrett confirmed that the focus was on improving Crawford’s bat speed, as his plate discipline is already elite. Referring to his notes, he said that Crawford’s bat speed was measured at 65.6 mph at the beginning of training and 71.1 at the end. “We saw some movement things, especially with his setup, his load, kind of that load, stride, into landing, where he was in some unique positions that not many of our high-level hitters get into,” said Garrett. “And it was making it harder for him to produce as much force as he was capable of.”

Let’s go to the tape. On the left is a swing from 2022, and on the right is a swing from 2023:

I’ve pulled some stills below to illustrate the differences. Crawford starts off with his stance much more closed. He’s changed his bat angle, lowered his hands, and tucked both his hands and elbows closer to his body. Once he gets into his leg kick, he’s crouching slightly deeper, his front shoulder is angled downward, and his shoulders are rotated further away from the pitcher. If not for his hair, his entire name would be visible on the back of his jersey. The follow-through makes it easy to see how much harder Crawford is swinging, and how much higher he’s finishing. Keep in mind that Crawford crushes both of these pitches. They’re both middle-middle four-seamers that result in hard-hit balls to right-center. Crawford actually hits the ball on the left much harder, but look at how he finishes. He’s much more upright, much less athletic. The swing on the right is clearly more explosive:

Garrett also said that they focused on Crawford’s attack angle, helping him to hit the ball in the air more. This is the part that made me sit up and listen: Garrett described a drill that involved feeding Crawford fastballs from an extremely high attack angle and from off to the side, beyond the right base side of the rubber. “So basically, an extreme lefty release,” he said. “And that was forcing him to get his barrel out front, have it work up. His intent was to move fast, hit the ball higher, to the pull side. Really get his barrel out front, working up more into the ball.” To me, that sounds like a pretty good explanation for the way Crawford has been able to attack fastballs, punish offspeed stuff, and pull the ball in the air this season.

The last thing I need to mention is less fun. Crawford’s defense has been quite bad this year. A Gold Glover in 2020, Crawford’s 14 errors are tied for fifth-most in the league, and most defensive metrics rank him as one of the game’s worst fielders. That’s a real bummer, because if Crawford rated as even a league-average defender at short, he would be a top 20 player in all of baseball this season. It’s always good to take defensive metrics with a grain of salt, and any player experiencing such a big drop-off is a candidate to regress back to the mean the following season. Crawford has already turned himself into an All-Star caliber player this season. If he can hold on to some of his gains at the plate and get his defense back toward the middle of the pack, the future is even brighter.

All numbers are as of Wednesday morning.

Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

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7 months ago

This was a great piece. Thanks for doing it!