Stronger Crawford looks to improve hitting

March 9th, 2021

PEORIA, Ariz. -- has the hardware to prove that he went from a below-average defender to the best of the best at shortstop. Now the 26-year-old wants his bat catch up to his glove.

After winning his first Gold Glove Award last season, Crawford entered Spring Training 10 pounds of muscle heavier after focusing more on weight training to add to his 6-foot-2, 199-pound frame. The objective was to inject more slug to his batted-ball profile, so that his 46.1 percent fly ball and line drive rate can yield more extra-base hits -- a critical factor given that he’s entering his second season as the Mariners' everyday leadoff man.

Crawford already showed signs that his bat was improving in 2020, when he hit .255/.336/.338 with increases from his career marks in batting average and on-base percentage -- both of which were around league-average for leadoff men. He also cut down his strikeout rate from 22.8 percent in his career to 16.8 percent last season, when he was worth 1.1 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs over 53 games.

But only 11 of Crawford's 52 hits went for extra bases, a 21.1 percent rate that he wants to increase. For context, 34.3 percent of all hits by leadoff batters in 2020 went for at least a double, and leadoff men slugged a collective .418. Crawford’s 1.8 percent barrel rate -- a Statcast metric that quantifies the very best contact -- was among the bottom 5 percentile of the league.

The Mariners don’t need Crawford to hit 20-plus homers; that’s not his game. But for a club trying to find more creative ways to score, starting with its leadoff man on base -- preferably in scoring position -- would be ideal.

“I knew how to get stronger in the weight room and I'm just really working on that part of my game, getting stronger to last the whole season in the Major Leagues,” Crawford said. “That way, balls that fly to the warning track that are doubles, they can turn into homers.”

Crawford showed impressive all-field ability last season, but he'd like for some of those singles to turn into extra-base hits.

Beyond physique, Crawford has made an adjustment to his swing that has helped him shorten up and make more optimum contact. He felt that his bat wrapped too much around his body on his follow-through, which to the untrained eye made him look like he was trying too hard to hit the ball too hard. It was a “long” swing, in his words.

“I'm already feeling quicker and getting to balls quicker than I have in recent years,” Crawford said. “So I'm really excited to get going, for sure.”

Part of what’s in play here, too, is self-conviction. Crawford came up as a highly touted prospect with the Phillies, and when he faced adversity over his first two big league seasons before joining Seattle in a 2018 trade, there were admittedly periods of self-doubt. That was also true with his glove, and Crawford has said many times that infield coach Perry Hill “saved my career.” But now, Crawford has more experience -- and more importantly, results.

“I think it wasn't a swing decision [improvement] -- I think it was just confidence-wise, going out there knowing that you're better or just as good as the pitcher,” Crawford said. “My first couple years, I had a kind of a mindset of you're still in shock of facing some of the guys that are on the mound. And now, the confidence back to where I know I can put together a good [at-bat] off this guy or do some damage. So, I think that confidence will play good this year.”

Projections are merely projections, but they do like Crawford to produce at a higher offensive level in 2021. Steamer, ZiPS and FanGraphs charts all have Crawford producing at least 2.2 WAR and slugging around .370 with 10-15 homers.

“The thing that excites me most about J.P. is that he doesn't come out of his approach. And that is the sign of developing maturity at the Major League level,” said general manager Jerry Dipoto. “We with the Mariners have always talked about the reliance on process over result. J.P.’s process in 2020 was outstanding, and the offensive results we feel like will eventually start catching up with his process -- he's still a very young guy -- just like it happened with his defense.”