What to make of J.P. Crawford's louder contact
Perhaps what we're seeing from JP Crawford is nothing more than a hot start before regression sets in. But what if he's unlocked something sustainable that could alter trajectory of his career?
For good reason, these words are uttered often during the beginning of any baseball season. After all, April’s hottest teams and best performers frequently become forgotten also-rans by the end of September.
Still, there are times when a player’s unexpected success merits reflection - even if it’s only week-three of the regular season. For me, doing so is worthwhile whenever an individual is delivering results following a concerted effort to enact change in the offseason.
J.P. Crawford is such a player.
Hittin’ the ball hard
To be clear, I’m not referring to the excellent .260 AVG/.393 OBP/.360 SLG slash-line of Seattle’s starting shortstop. Instead, what’s piqued my interest in Crawford’s 2023 season is an oft-mentioned topic by this newsletter - loud contact.
To date, Crawford’s 41% hard-hit rate is significantly higher than it’s been during any of his previous MLB seasons.
Crawford’s hard-hit rate. by season
2017 - 22.4%
2018 - 34.1%
2019 - 24.8%
2020 - 31.1%
2021 - 30.6%
2022 - 29.7%
2023 - 41%
MLB average hard-hit rate = 39.2%
As a refresher, hard-hit balls have an exit velocity of 95 mph-or-greater and typically lead to outstanding results for batters - not so much for pitchers. Currently, the league has a .493 AVG and .972 SLG on these well-struck balls.
Considering the league-wide productivity of hard-hit balls, an increase in loud contact would be great news for Crawford and the Mariners. And what might be spurring his success during the small sample known as the 2023 season?
Perhaps time spent with a well-regarded group in the local area.
In February, Daniel Kramer of MLB wrote an excellent piece detailing Crawford’s offseason efforts to improve at slugging. Two key components of his program were adding muscle and working with Driveline Baseball in Kent, Washington.
There are several on-line videos illustrating Crawford’s collaboration with the Driveline gang. This one was my favorite because I found it to be insightful, plus the ending made me chuckle.
“Shitty potato balls.”
“Know-nothing” would be the best way to describe my understanding of hitting. But even an uncoordinated nerd like me can understand how the swing mechanics discussed in the preceding video could lead to better results.
Perhaps Crawford’s Driveline experience affected another element of his offense - batted ball direction. There’s been a noticeable uptick in balls he’s hit up-the-middle and to the opposite field this year.
To date, a combined 69.2% of Crawford’s batted balls have fallen into the “Straight” and “Oppo” categories listed below. That’s almost identical to 2021 when he posted his best AVG/OBP/SLG as a Mariner.
Having said all that, I’m reluctant to suggest Driveline “fixed” Crawford. I don’t believe he was “broken” to begin with. Then again, the left-handed hitter did feel motivated to solicit data-driven assistance from the smart folks in Kent this winter.
Over this past weekend, I took to Twitter several times to note the increases in Crawford’s average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Naturally, the naysayers were quick to chime in with reasons why the California native’s recent rise in hard contact would be short-lived or simply doesn’t matter.
Let’s discuss the two most prevalent opinions shared by the Doom & Gloom Brigade.
He did the same thing last April
It’s true Crawford enjoyed a torrid start this time a year ago. In fact, his .360 AVG/.449 OBP/.573 SLG last April were significantly better than what he’s produced in 2023. But the 28-year-old wasn’t creating hard contact at the same rate he is this season.
Last April, Crawford had a 32.8% hard-hit rate - over eight points lower than what he’s produced this year. This helps explain the disparities between his actual and expected averages from a year ago and now.
Expected batting average (xBA) uses launch angle and exit velocity to estimate the probability of a batted ball becoming a hit. As with other expected stats, xBA removes defense from the picture.
In Crawford’s case, his xBA tells us he was overperforming last April. To be clear, a .307 xBA is really good. But it was noticeably worse than his actual AVG.
To this point, Crawford’s current xBA suggests he could be dealing with some “bad luck” in 2023. In time, these numbers should normalize. If he continues making loud contact, it’s reasonable to expect his AVG to go up. But if the Lakewood High School product’s hard-hit rate falls off a cliff, the risk of regression is real.
His hard-hit balls are grounder that led to outs
Yes, the majority of the loud contact made by the 16th overall pick of the 2013 draft has been on the ground. But who cares?
Sure, it’d benefit the Mariners if Crawford was producing more airborne loud contact. Then again, the league is currently hitting .377 on hard-hit ground balls. He has a .375 AVG.
This is a good development for Crawford, not something to easily dismiss.
In the end, the cynics could be right. It’s certainly plausible Crawford’s hard-hit rate eventually withers away and his slash-line plummets. But what if he’s tapped into unrealized potential thanks to offseason work in the gym and at Driveline?
Crawford having a slightly above-average hard-hit rate won’t stoke the imagination of fans the same way Jarred Kelenic murdering baseballs does. But a sustained, significant increase in hard contact by Crawford would be a game-changer for current and future Mariner lineups.
Yes, it’s early. So, taking a guarded approach with April numbers remains advisable. On the other hand, J.P. Crawford wielding a louder bat for an entire season is a possibility worth considering until the metrics tell us otherwise.
At least that’s how I see it.
My Oh My…
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