State of the Mariners’ middle infield: A close look at Dylan Moore, J.P. Crawford and Ty France
As we continue to wrap up the Mariners’ 2020 season, we now take a look at a trio of middle infielders: Dylan Moore, Ty France and J.P. Crawford, who leads us off.
Like 2020 was for Justus Sheffield, 2021 should be a “show me” season for J.P. Crawford. Although he has put in significant time in the big leagues over the past four years, he has yet to record a full 162-game season heading into his age 26 season, and while he made some strides in 2020, questions remain, particularly about his offense.
With a robust free agent shortstop class coming up after 2021, it’s time for Crawford to show what he is.
If you take a look at the numbers, you might think he already has. After a hot start in 2020 where he hit .293/.398/.360 (.758 OPS) in his first 20 games, the .233/.299/.326 (.624) he hit the rest of the way dropped his numbers to .255/.336/.336 (.674), all in the neighborhood of his career averages.
It is the power numbers that is of particular concern. Of the 34 shortstops in baseball with 500 plate appearances or more over the last two seasons, Crawford’s .359 slugging comes in dead last. His ability to get on base bumps him up to 28th in wRC+, but the Mariners have to be hoping for more. The good news is there is a belief across the board that there is more in there.
“I think J.P. has all the tools to be a very, very good hitter,” Mariners assistant hitting coach Jarret DeHart said in August. “I think his swing decisions are unbelievable. They always have been and that has always been the foundational piece for us, how well you control the zone. His chase rates are better than what they have been in his career and he has been above average his entire career. He’s really impressed me with his commitment to plans, his approach. I’m really excited to see how much better he can get.”
Crawford’s strikeout and whiff rates were among the top-15 percent in baseball. He has a good eye, he has a good plan. So where did it go wrong after the first month? Mike Blowers broke it down in a late-season Mariners postgame show on the radio.
“In early September, I noticed he was having some long at-bats and most of the time you look at that and you go, he’s making good decisions, he’s fighting off tough pitches,” he pointed out. “But I kept seeing it more and more so I started to really watch, and what I started seeing was pitches he was putting into play early in the season, he was fouling off. You have got to be able to handle those pitches in the middle of the plate early and fouling that pitch off just gives the opportunity for that pitcher to make a better quality pitch on the corners or elevate on you.
“I’m not sure why that was happening with him. If anything, maybe his swing got longer over the course of the summer and he will have to tighten that up, but the good news is we have seen what it can be and he knows that too.”
Blowers echoed what we have heard in the past from Mariners manager Scott Servais in that he believes Crawford can get stronger. In 2020, his exit velocity and barrel numbers were in the single-digit percentiles. It’s possible the swing getting long was fatigue, even in a short season. Regardless, adding strength should be an easier fix than most other troubles he could encounter at the plate.
“On the offensive side, there is still room for growth from him,” said Blowers. “I don’t know what the offensive ceiling is for him yet. I want to see him at a premium position, go out and play 155 games and see what that looks like compared to what he did last year.”
To his credit, Crawford continued to up his game defensively in 2020, finishing the season with a 4.9 defensive WAR, good for 11th overall in baseball and third among shortstops behind only Colorado’s Trevor Story and Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor. In fact, he was announced as one of the American League’s three finalists for the Gold Glove at the position on Thursday along with Houston’s Carlos Correa and Detroit’s Niko Goodrum.
“He’s had a fantastic year defensively,” said Blowers. “He needs to continue on that path and he will be an exceptional defensive player in this league for years.”
That’s what the Mariners are hoping. They clearly value the defense but would like to see more with the bat in 2021.
Perhaps Crawford will get on board with the Dylan Moore plan for improvement, as noted in this September post. Moore didn’t go to a hitting guru or performance center; he turned to a teammate to help solve the simple equation of success at the plate that he determined he could achieve. Strength + contact = damage.
Translation, in Moore’s case: a wRC+ that jumped from 88 to 139, an extra 103 points on his OPS and a strikeout rate that fell 5 percent. Throw in a team-leading 12 stolen bases and it was an eye-opening, breakout season for Moore.
The only question I had: In a short season, was what we saw real?
“He did everything he possibly could do,” said Blowers. “I don’t need to see any more. I’m excited to see what he is going to do over the course of the winter and what he looks like when he comes to spring training next year.”
So what was it that Blowers saw that told him this is now Dylan Moore? In a word, consistency.
“When he would have a game where maybe something was out of whack or not going particularly well, he would find a way in that third or fourth at-bat to do something, to find a way to get a hit and move on to the next day when he would typically come back with a couple of hits or a home run or something along those lines. Those are progressions that you have to have if you are going to be a consistent every day player at the major league level.”
Moore had just one hitless streak of more than two games this season, a four-game stretch that came in August against the Rangers and Astros. Despite not being able to come up with a hit, he tallied three walks and stole two bases in his “struggle.” He finished the season leading the club with a 1.7 bWAR and was second behind Kyle Lewis in offensive fWAR.
“To me, he has a certain skill set and I thought he pretty much did something on a daily basis to help the club out,” said Blowers. “He put a lot of work in and it paid off. He was getting a second chance to build off of what he did last year and he then took a job.”
Took a job from Shed Long, whose offense the Mariners also liked at the time of his acquisition. Given the second base position in 2020, Long struggled. It’s likely the shin that required surgery at the end of the season impacted his performance, but his stumbles at the plate opened the door that Moore very well might have kicked down anyway.
What I found intriguing about Moore was he seemed to follow the paths of Austin Nola and Tom Murphy – career minor leaguers who were deemed to be backups, perhaps up-and-down players, but instead made relatively quick impacts at the big league level and established themselves as everyday players.
These weren’t typical rookies. They came with years of experience, experience that – as the draft is shortened and the minor leagues shrink – young players in the future will most likely not get. That experience can add up to so much – playing the game the right way, making adjustments, being invested in your total game and not just your hit tool or the strengths that you arrived in pro ball with.
“I think it can be invaluable,” said Blowers. “When we start hearing about the top prospects and ‘let’s hurry up and get them here,’ I think you have to take your time with this because those experiences and those at-bats are invaluable, and for Dylan I think it certainly helped him. The reason why more than anything is you get to know yourself pretty well and you can make adjustments, and he knew he had to make a couple of changes because that’s what it requires here. Good for him.”
Yes, France is most likely is bound for third base in the the long term if he continues to hit, but he should see time at second in 2021, so for now we can call him a middle infielder.
France also had a good dose of the minors, accumulating 2,299 plate appearances in five seasons in the Padres organization after being drafted out of San Diego State in the 34th round of the 2015 draft. Like Moore, he has moved around the diamond, with Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto believing his most natural position is third. He is a “find a place to play him” bat, and I am convinced his drivers license reads “Ty France He Can Hit” because the latter three words always follow the name in conversation with anyone in baseball.
While with the Padres, France had been a highly coveted player by Dipoto to the extent of which the deal that sent Austin Nola to San Diego probably wouldn’t have gotten done had he not been included.
“The bat really plays. It’s a major league bat, as we saw,” said Dipoto recently. “He’s a run producer who can reside in the middle of a lineup and he does a lot of really interesting things. Just a low-anxiety, good hitter.”
France appears to have made the adjustment to the big leagues, hitting .305/.368/.468 (.836) in 2020, numbers which top his five-year minor league average of .294/.389/.470 (.859). He has always had a good eye and good contact skills but determined that wasn’t enough to get him to the bigs, so he turned his focus to power in his second year at Double-A.
“We played at ‘The Wolff’ in San Antonio, a pitchers park,” France said. “First year it got in my head, you can’t hit home runs there and I gave up on it, didn’t try to hit them. The next year it was, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and hit home runs regardless.’ If they are not home runs there, they are going to be doubles or home runs at other places. I worked on that and hit 22 home runs that year. From there on I used that as my identity.”
It appears France didn’t sacrifice anything to get the power as the following year in Triple-A he hit .399 with a 1.247 OPS in 348 plate appearances. Same eye, same swing, same contact, just a different approach.
“My approach is try to hit the ball over the hitter’s eye every single time I am at the plate, and that gives me some room for error,” he said. “I try and use all fields. For me when I am going well I am driving the ball gap to gap and doubles and homers are playing.”
So far it has played in the majors with France showing he can handle most big league pitching, hitting .342 against fastballs and .310 against breaking pitches in 2020. The offspeed pitches have proved to be more of a challenge but he hasn’t seen a ton of them as of yet.
Like Moore, you could be tempted to put France into the “is it real” category, but his performance now reflects what he did in his final years in the minor leagues. He will get every opportunity in 2021 – with most coming at DH I would expect – to prove that this is who he is at the plate.