Drayer: What makes Mariners Gold Glove winners White, Crawford special? M’s IF coach explains
At 5 p.m. Tuesday, Mariners infield coach Perry Hill’s eyes will be on the television screen. Not on a news channel, but on ESPN as the Rawlings Gold Glove Awards will be presented.
Two players that have been in Hill’s charge – shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Evan White – are finalists for the award that is given annually to the players in each league that are determined to be the best defender at each position. (Update Nov. 3, 5:18 p.m.: Both Crawford and White won the awards.)
“It’s really gratifying for all of our players to get some recognition for the hard work they put in,” Hill said this week from his home in Michigan, “because a lot of people don’t see what happens at 2, 2:30 when nobody is at the ballpark, no cameras, no publicity, and these guys are out on the field trying to perfect their craft.
“All of our players have been like that but I am extremely pleased for J.P. and Evan. Both of them have worked extremely hard and I’m ecstatic they are getting the national recognition they deserve.”
White and Crawford have taken different paths to the recognition. White arrived at the big league level with the label of future Gold Glove Award winner already attached after taking the MiLB Gold Glove in 2018, while Crawford continued his defensive development in the big leagues, specifically after coming over from the Phillies in the Jean Segura trade. That work began a month after the December 2018 trade when he was asked to travel to the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., to put in some work with Hill.
When Hill set eyes on Crawford, he saw a player that could make the plays, but he wasn’t quite sure how or why he was doing what he was doing. As far as actual fixes, there was one that needed to be made: a tweak with his footwork that made his throws more efficient.
“Once we figured that out he just kind of took off. His eyes lit up,” said Hill.
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) August 16, 2020
When he reported for spring training a few weeks later, he had the mechanics down. Everything he and Hill had worked on was second nature.
“I knew that I had a smart student,” said Hill. “I knew that I had a great work ethic student and now it was my job just not to mess him up. Just bump him ahead a little bit more and now I think you see the finished product. He’s a really good player.”
The book on Crawford coming into 2020 was that he was a shortstop who could make the extraordinary plays but sometimes had lapses with the more routine plays, or “plays in the box” as Hill prefers to call them.
“I don’t think anything is routine,” he said. “When somebody hits you a ground ball that is going 100 mph, that’s not a normal thing. You have to know what you are doing. When I talk about making a play in the box, those are balls that you can get to comfortably and you can execute the Mariners’ plan of success of fielding.”
While they don’t get attention until they are missed, Hill points out that the plays in the box are critical not just in the moment but for what is to come as plays made help keep the Mariners’ starters in games longer and put less stress on the bullpen. In 2020, Hill saw Crawford make great progress in this department.
“JP’s best play this year?” asked Hill. “He consistently made every play in the box. That’s what we want. The plays that he made last year out in short left field? The play that we called ‘the throw,’ those balls hit outside the box, you’re an athlete. Do what you do. My only rule is don’t try to throw it in the air. Try to bounce it, one-hop it so you give your first baseman the chance to catch the ball. Those plays are a bonus.
“Those plays that are in the box? They are very important. These have to be outs. Twenty-seven outs. These have to be outs. I say it over and over and over. We preach this as an organization from the Dominican up to the big leagues. Those are the plays that need to be outs for the reasons I stated earlier.”
In White’s case, there are specific plays that come to mind as personal favorites. There are the popups down the right field line and into dugouts that most will never get to. You know all that hitter’s exit velocity that has been brought to the forefront this year? Hill marvels at how White has been able snag at least a dozen of those.
— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) February 23, 2020
“He catches some balls that are smoked,” he said. “Remember when there is a runner on base, he’s less than 90 feet away from that left-handed hitter. He’s made some plays that are unbelievable on balls that are smoked.”
Hill sees the defensive value that White brings go well beyond the expected and even the highlight plays. It goes back to those 27 outs they must get each night of which he sees White contribute to more than what can be seen by most.
“A guy like Evan gives you so much confidence that maybe you take chances you wouldn’t normally take,” he pointed out. “You’re not afraid to attempt to make those plays because you know he’s over there and at the very least he’s going to knock it down or block it and probably 99 percent of the time he can catch it. I know as coaches and infielders we always appreciate a first baseman like that.”
The athleticism and footwork he has seen from White leads Hill to believe that had he not been left-handed, White could have played in the middle infield. He’s happy to have both the athleticism and left-handed glove at first base, however. White has the ability to play off the bag a bit with a runner on and that has helped close the 4-hole gap between first and second base. By his eyes there were at least eight balls that otherwise would have gotten through for a hit this season that were turned into outs.
“That’s a distinct advantage,” said Hill. “With Evan, you’re able to experiment with things.”
Quite a debut for White, earning a Gold Glove nomination in his rookie year. And Crawford, at just 25, is coming into his own as a defender, one that manager Scott Servais believes that he can lean on as a leader in the infield. Young core players setting the bar high early on defense. Win or lose the Gold Glove awards, Hill believes they along with the rest of the Mariners’ infielders will continue to take steps forward.
“There’s always room for growth,” he said. “One of the things I have learned since I have been over here, the Mariners always talk about growth mindset. Some of us, me included, get stuck in the same thing all of the time, but I have learned so much being in this organization for two years. I’ve learned how to grow and experiment with things and try things I normally probably wouldn’t have and we are all the better for it.
“In simple terms, experience is the best teacher. The more you play the better you get.”