Cactus League: M’s v. Padres, and JP Crawford vs. Willy Adames

marc w · March 5, 2020 at 11:45 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Yusei Kikuchi vs. Dinelson Lamet, 12:10pm – Live radio at

It’s derby day in Peoria, as the two resident teams sharing a complex face off. Yusei Kikuchi looks to build on a very strong spring, while the Padres Dinelson Lamet gets to face a…uh…limited Mariners line-up. The Padres righty was great in limited duty last season, as he was coming back from TJ surgery that held him out all of 2018. When healthy, he’s tough thanks to a fastball that averages 96 MPH and one of the better sliders from a starting pitcher. Lamet got whiffs on *half* of the swings against that slider last year. It’s his primary pitch, which he throws nearly half the time, and it got induced more swings than either of his fastballs (a four-seam and a rather poorly differentiated sinker). He also works in a rare change-up; it’s rare enough that I wouldn’t mention it except for the fact that it averages 91-93 MPH, making me think of prime-era Felix’s deadly, firm, change. Lamet has struck out just over 30% of the batters he’s faced in the big leagues, and over 33% last year. The Padres had a slightly below average rotation last year, but healthy campaigns from Lamet and Chris Paddack would make them a good bet to improve on that in 2020. Pitching could really be a strength for the club with a bullpen headed by Kirby Yates that now also boasts ex-Mariner Emilio Pagan. That’d be nice, as their offense could scuffle, as they need CF Trent Grisham to hit in his first full MLB season, they need a bounce-back from Eric Hosmer at 1B, and need to hope Franchy Cordero and friends can provide *anything* from the RF position.

But I don’t want to talk about a Cactus League game featuring very few M’s starters. Instead, I want to continue the series that began with the last post about Justus Sheffield. Today, I’d like to focus on M’s SS JP Crawford. It’s not Crawford’s fault that he’s become a starting SS right when the position is as talented and deep as I’ve ever seen it. Crawford could be a perfectly good MLB-quality shortstop and still be the worst in the division, and one of the worst in the league. He was better than Elvis Andrus in 2019, but that was about it. The problem is essentially all in his bat, where he’s been a remarkably streaky hitter in his short time in the bigs between Philadelphia and Seattle. At times, he’s shown solid-enough pop, and at times he’s shown above-average bat-to-ball ability, but it’s been harder to align those two. Looking at his Statcast metrics for 2019, he deserved every bit of his poor slash line. His average exit velocity was 84 MPH, one of the lower figures in the league. Worse, his hardest-hit balls had a fairly low angle – he hit some line drives quite hard, but comparatively few fly balls at 95 MPH or better. He hit the ball a bit like the Twins’ Luis Arraez, but Arraez struck out in less than 8% of of his PAs, a far cry from Crawford’s 21%. If he hits the ball with Arraez-level authority, he needs Arraez-level contact. If he strikes out anywhere near 21-23%, as he’s projected to do, he’s got to hit the ball a lot harder. What kind of hitter does Crawford want to be?

He answered that rhetorical question by bulking up in the off-season and coming to camp with more strength. That’s good, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past few years, it’s just how mutable a batter’s quality of contact can be. One of the few hitters who hit the ball softer than Crawford in 2019 was Ketel Marte. Er, the version of Ketel Marte that played for the Mariners. That changed markedly in Arizona, and Marte averaged about 90 MPH on the balls he put in play last year, up from 88.5 MPH in 2018. Another guy who dramatically altered his exit velocity is the Twins’ other surprising middle IF, Jorge Polanco. As recently as 2018, Polanco’s average exit velo was 83.9 MPH, just *below* Crawford’s 2019. But last year, Polanco saw that figure rise to 87 – not great, but much better than 84. And more importantly, when he hit the ball really hard (over 95 MPH), he elevated it – he averaged 18 degrees on hard-hit balls, up from 9.5 in 2018, and well above Crawford’s 7 degrees last year. Tim Anderson of the White Sox is another similar story, improving his exit velocity from sub-Crawford to well-above-Crawford last year.

Crawford can change his batted-ball authority and loft fairly easily. Hell, he’s done it before. In 2018, he showed more pop and more loft on hard-hit balls in his shortened year with the Phillies. Unfortunately, it came at a cost of a career-worst K%, though of course it’s hard to take much from anything in his 2018 given his paucity of plate appearances. Adding some contact to improved strength would be huge for the M’s, who don’t really have another starting-caliber-SS in the system until you get to Noelvi Marte, who played in the DSL last year. Crawford can add value with his defense and discerning eye at the plate, but if the M’s rebuild is doing what it’s supposed to, Crawford will be a lot more than that. If Crawford’s going to be something more like a middle-of-the-league SS and not rank somewhere in the 20-25th best SS in the league, he’ll need to raise his ISO and/or lower his K%.

No one’s expecting him to produce in the Lindor/Correa/Semien tier, but if he’s slumming it with Andrus and Jose Iglesias, then the M’s have a problem. So who’s projected to be in the same general neighborhood as Crawford? I’d suggest the Rays’ Willy Adames. Adames is a few months younger than Crawford, and really is just keeping the SS seat warm until #1 prospect-in-baseball Wander Franco’s ready. He hit 20 bombs last year, but his ISO isn’t really that different from Crawford’s. He strikes out more often than the M’s SS, too, so he’s not an up-and-coming uberprospect, but a perfectly fine SS with near-average batting lines and a-bit-above-average defense. They have similar career OBPs, but they’ve come by them differently. Crawford uses his eye to run elite walk rates. Adames hits the ball harder (he is in many ways a more similar hitter to Shed Long) and has produced high BABIPs. Neither guy is a world-beater, not at a position that now features 21-year-olds like Fernando Tatis, Jr. and Bo Bichette, pushing the graybeards like Carlos Correa (25) and Gleyber Torres (23). But if Crawford makes some strides, he could pass Adames and become a real middle tier SS, allowing Seattle not to worry about the SS position for a few years and dedicating their FA spending elsewhere. If he doesn’t, though, the M’s may be in a bind. A team doesn’t need a big-hitting SS to win, but the M’s are behind their rivals all over the diamond. If the rebuild is going to work, they need to close those holes with players currently on the team. Crawford’s talented enough to be a part of the solution, but he’s going to have to improve fairly dramatically at the plate to do so.

Crawford’s projection aren’t as all-over-the-map as Sheffield’s. ZiPS and PECOTA see Crawford bobbing along his 2019 level of batting, improving his 2019 wRC+ of 86 only to 87 (ZiPS) or doing more of the same at 86 (PECOTA). Steamer’s relatively optimistic, at 91. That’s in line with where they see Adames, with Steamer again the optimist at 99, and PECOTA/ZiPS coming in around 90. It’s close, but Adames has the slight edge in past performance and projection. It wouldn’t be a big shock to see Crawford beat Adames here, but if the M’s are going to do anything in 2021, he really needs to.


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