All statistics via baseball-reference.com, unless otherwise noted
J.P. Crawford is someone that Phillies fans have been hearing about ever since he was drafted 16th overall in the 2013 draft. By 2015, he was one of the Phillies’ top prospects and seemed to be well on his way to a productive – if not spectacular – major league career. Now, the recently-turned-23-year-old is a bit of a question mark, but will be given the opportunity to consistently start for the big league club. When did expectations change for the young shortstop, and why? Or have they changed at all?
Before the 2016 season, Crawford was listed as Baseball America’s #6 overall prospect, and he seemed to be about a year away from making a mark in the big leagues. That 2016 season saw him split time between AA (Reading) and AAA (Lehigh Valley). The then-21-year-old played fairly well during his 36 games in Reading: he hit .265 with a highly-impressive .398 on-base percentage (OBP), and had 30 walks to only 21 strikeouts in 166 plate appearances (PAs). He only hit eight doubles and three HRs, but Crawford was never billed as a power guy; his greatest asset has always been his ability to get on base. In AAA, however, Crawford struggled a bit. Granted, he was only 21 years old at the time – 5.6 years below AAA league average for non-pitchers – but the superstar prospect did have some issues adjusting. In 87 games (385 PAs), Crawford hit .244, and registered a .328 OBP, to go along with 11 doubles, four HRs, and 30 RBIs. He also walked 42 times, while striking out 59 times. With a .318 slugging percentage, Crawford’s OPS sat at a measly .647 (it was .787 during his time in Reading over the 2016 season). Crawford’s struggles weren’t thought to be a roadblock to his potential success in the MLB, but they did temper the expectations of some, and he entered the 2017 season as Baseball America’s #12 overall prospect.
2017 was a year of two halves for Crawford. Playing again in AAA, he started out about as slow as possible. In 76 games pre-All-Star Break, Crawford hit a paltry .211, with a .328 OBP and .658 OPS (milb.com). Despite managing to get his OBP above .300 while hitting near .200, which is a difficult thing to do and showed that he still possessed great plate discipline, his awful play lead many to believe that he was lost, and wouldn’t see the majors for awhile. However, post-All-Star Break, Crawford caught fire, hitting .287, with a .385 OBP and .898 OPS in 51 games (milb.com). He also hit 11 doubles and nine HRs, compared to just nine doubles and six HRs in the 76 games before the All-Star Break (milb.com). His stellar play earned him a call-up to the big leagues in September, where he hit just .214, but had a .356 OBP in 87 PAs.
This all leads to the million dollar question: what can we expect from J.P. this season?
The Phillies traded defensive whiz and locker-room leader Freddy Galvis to the San Diego Padres in order to open up shortstop, Crawford’s natural position, for the rookie. I believe that Crawford will succeed in the area that Galvis has the biggest struggles with: getting on base. Crawford has shown throughout his entire career that he can get on base, even if he isn’t hitting well. The days of the Phillies employing a shortstop with a career .287 OBP are over.
With that said, I also believe that Crawford will struggle in areas that Galvis succeeds, namely fielding. Crawford has a career (minor leagues included) .957 fielding percentage, and committed a concerning 17 errors last season alone. For comparison, over the past two seasons, Galvis has a fielding percentage of .988 and has committed just 15 errors in total. The days of having an elite shortstop who makes highlight reel play after highlight reel play (while also literally making 99/100 plays) are over (for the time being, at least).
However, all is not lost. I don’t believe that Crawford will be a liability in the field; it’s just unfair to hold him to the incredibly high standard that Galvis has set. I really like Freddy, but there’s an overwhelming probability that Crawford will turn out to be more valuable over his career than Freddy, and trading the class-act that is Freddy Galvis was a necessary, albeit sad, move.
So, for the 2018 season, I don’t expect Crawford to be an immediate defensive whiz and above-average hitter, but I do see his elite OBP holding up, for the most part. I think something around a .240-.250 batting average, with a .340+ OBP over the course of a full major league season is very much in Crawford’s grasp, and that may just be the floor. I think he’ll make his share of errors – and I’m sure that there will be some painfully memorable ones – but I believe that he will ultimately figure it out and turn himself into an above-average defender… just maybe not this season. All things considered, I see Crawford getting enough done offensively to counterbalance his defensive miscues, and I think he’ll be a fun player to watch, especially in a lineup that, in theory, could do some damage. If he starts the season hitting well, I would love to see him in the two-hole (with Cesar Hernandez leading off (barring a trade), and Carlos Santana, Rhys Hoskins, and Odubel Herrera following, (in some order), but I would be none the worse for wear if he began the season in the seven-hole. Wherever he finds himself in the lineup, it is reasonable to expect Crawford to get on-base at an above-average clip, and post a near K/BB ratio below 2-1.
This is a big season for Crawford. Considering the highs and lows of the 2017 season, and thinking back to his (relative) struggles in 2016, Crawford really needs to go out and show that he deserves the role of the Phillies’ everyday shortstop for the next decade. This is probably not a do-well-or-else season for Crawford (as it likely is with 3B Maikel Franco), but it is important for him to show the Phillies that he can grab the role by the horns and be a productive member of the team for the foreseeable future, especially with Manny Machado, who wants to be a shortstop, looming as a 2018 free agent. It very well could come down to Crawford or Franco playing 3B in 2019, if the Phillies go after Machado. If Franco busts out this year and finally realizes his potential (he likely will not, but just for argument’s sake), the Phillies (who have signed Machado in this glorious hypothetical) will be forced to decide if Crawford or Franco is more valuable to them. If Crawford struggles mightily all year and Franco drastically improves, that decision will be more difficult than we may imagine.
Bottom line: Crawford will struggle at times this season, but should be able to hit around .250, with an OBP around .340, and provide a Cesar Hernandez-like amount of extra base hits. I think he’ll play more like the post-All-Star Break J.P. Crawford of 2017 than the pre-All-Star Break version of himself, but I do find it a bit concerning that he hasn’t lit the world on fire the past two seasons. We do have to remember, however, that he is still just 23 years old. We have been hearing about him for so long that it feels like he must be older, but he’s still one of the youngest players on the team. I propose that we give him time before making definitive proclamations and decisions, as I truly believe that he will be (at the very least) slightly above-average in 2018, and is in a good position to improve, perhaps drastically, over the next few seasons.
Image: Bryan Green (via Flickr)