JOE FANN

Fann: Mariners’ Gonzales, Crawford deserve big credit for their solid starts

Apr 26, 2023, 11:35 AM

Seattle Mariners...

Marco Gonzales of the Seattle Mariners reacts after a strikeout on April 19, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Sometimes being wrong is the absolute best. I wrote a story just prior to opening day that included three points of optimism and three points of concern for the Seattle Mariners heading into the season. The latter included doubts regarding Jarred Kelenic, Marco Gonzales and the offensive production from the middle infield.

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Kelenic is likely going to be named American League Player of the Month for his torrid April. Seattle’s budding superstar ranks first in the AL in OPS (1.121), first in wRC+ (210), first in SLG (.729), first in wOBA (.467), second in homers (seven) and third an batting average (.342). His breakout appears to be very real and sustainable given his simplified swing and vastly improved control of the strike zone.

But while I didn’t know for sure whether Kelenic’s hot spring would carry over into the regular season, I was still somewhat bullish on the former top prospect and relieved the Mariners didn’t sell low on him in an offseason trade. If Kelenic was going to flourish, I wanted it to happen in Seattle. If he was going to continue to flounder and never develop into a dependable starting outfielder, I wanted it to happen in Seattle. So be it.

The other two I was far more skeptical of: Gonzales and J.P. Crawford. Some of that distrust was warranted given their respective 2022 seasons, but I didn’t really leave room for a significant turnaround for the better. Both are well on their way to proving me wrong.

Let’s start with Gonzales, who posted a meager 0.1 fWAR in 32 starts last year. Chris Flexen was the far better pitcher with a 0.7 fWAR in just 22 starts. I questioned whether Seattle picked the right guy to be the No. 5 starter in the rotation and whether the bottom might fall out for Gonzales if any additional regression took place. His first start against Cleveland, one where he allowed four runs through five innings, only heightened those concerns.

But Gonzales has been sensational over his last three starts and at the very least has earned more leash and patience from myself and the rest of his critics. Over those three outings he has allowed a combined four earned runs over 11 2/3 innings. Gonzales’ outing on Tuesday (five innings and one earned run) came pitching a day early with Logan Gilbert needing an extra day of rest due to muscle spasms.

Gonzales ranks in the 85th percentile in hard-hit percentage, 88th percentile in barrel percentage and 95th percentile in chase rate. His early numbers have shown drastic year-over-year improvements in those categories.

• Hard hit percentage: 35.0% in 2022 vs. 28.6% in 2023

• Barrel percentage: 7.2% vs. 3.2%

• Chase rate: 32.8% vs. 37.6%

Gonzales has even seen his strikeout percentage jump from 13.2% last season to 19.5% through four starts in 2023. He has room to endure some regression and still be one of the game’s best No. 5 starters. His bounceback has an added clutch factor with Robbie Ray currently on the injured list.

Crawford is rebounding from a subpar 2022 season in similar fashion. Part of my frustration with Crawford unfairly stemmed from my belief that Seattle needed to add more pop in the middle of the infield during the offseason. That organizational critique remains, but I still don’t give Crawford enough credit.

His defense has returned to form thus far and his offense has far exceeded replacement level. Crawford owns a 121 wRC+ through 83 plate appearances while exhibiting elite strike zone discipline.

He ranks in the 98th percentile in walk percentage and has already taken 16 free passes. Crawford also ranks in the 90th percentile in whiff percentage and the 91st percentile in chase rate. What’s even more surprising to me is that he ranks in the 81st percentile in average exit velocity and 59th percentile in hard-hit percentage. That has made him an exceptional table setter for Seattle’s top of the order that is due for a breakout.

Crawford has already registered an fWAR of 0.6 through 23 games. That’s a 162-game pace of 4.23, which would more than double his fWAR of 2.0 in 2022.

The caveat of “it’s early” goes both ways when discussing things that have been good or bad thus far, but there’s no denying that Gonzales and Crawford have been instrumental in helping Seattle keep its head above water through an 11-12 start.

A lot of that production has been a genuine surprise to me, and I’ll happily take my “L” while giving the credit they so rightfully deserve.

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