The Future Is Unwritten: An Exhaustive JP Crawford Scouting Report
Today the Phillies signed this year’s first round draft pick, Lakewood High School (CA) shortstop JP Crawford, to his first professional baseball contract which included a $2.3 million signing bonus Yes, I’m writing up a report on JP Crawford almost two full weeks after he was drafted. Yes, every other Phillies media outlet has already done this ad naseum and all have probably forgotten about him by now. No, this is not like all the other ones.
If you’ve navigated your way through cyberspace to this point you probably already know quite a bit about JP Crawford and his skill set. You might even be aware of some of his current inadequacies. For the sake of making this post a comprehensive report on all the things we know about JP Crawford, let’s run through that stuff very quickly.
JP Crawford was the 2013 draft’s best shortstop prospect. He is the only player in the entire draft scouts confidently project to stay at the position. He has the athleticism, reactions, and range, to play in the middle of the diamond and arm strength and throwing accuracy to play on the left side of the infield. Improvements in footwork and route efficiency are expected to come with time. Crawford is about an average runner. His bat is not projected to be any sort of earth-shattering, middle of the order weapon but there are things to like about it. His hands are zippy and quick and the same natural athleticism and coordination that makes him a good shortstop should help him take to mechanical instruction and make necessary adjustments. That instruction is almost inevitable, as Crawford’s swing is a bit of a mess. His hands drift too far (both up and away) from his body, his lower half is quite noisy and his weight transfer can get out of whack, leaving too much weight on his front foot too early in his swing. That causes the potential energy you want to transfer into the ball at contact to go into the ground. As a result, the ball doesn’t go anywhere your arms, wrists and hands can’t take it on their own. Properly incorporating one’s lower half into one’s swing is like getting the mallet in Super Smash Bros. Things go farther.
At just 6’2” and a listed 175lbs, Crawford also has a lot of physical development to do if he’s going to be strong enough to handle various aspects of big league life (You know, like swinging a bat). In fact, that physical growth is, in my opinion, the biggest, most important aspect of his development. Everything else that needs to be fixed is purely of a technical nature, it can be studied, practiced, and honed in time. His body’s genetic makeup is something that has already been determined, he either has the ability to add muscle and strength or he does not.
How do we know if JP Crawford can avoid looking like a human mic stand for the rest of his career? That is what I’d like to examine in depth regarding Crawford in this post. It’s really not hard to look at a prospect and decide if he has room to add more weight and if you think he’d benefit from doing so. What’s hard is looking at a prospect and determining whether or not he actually will. I looked at photo after photo and video after video of Crawford trying to decipher this enigma and I could not. I had to ask for help on this one, and I got it.
The first person I reached out to was Joe Galm, a Penn State kinesiology graduate and personal trainer who happens to be my future brother-in-law. Joe has put on roughly 40 pounds of muscle since he was Crawford’s age and looks at human bodies at various stages of athletic and rehabilitative development up close all the time. The question I posed to him was simply, “If I’m looking at a scrawny, late teens male athlete, what physical attributes would indicate he has the physical capability to add muscle/good weight to his frame?”
Galm replied, “His access to steroids and his willingness to take them?”
His serious response, “Generally it’s the kids who have some lean muscle on their body, the ones who look like they already lift will put weight on more easily. Some kids look lanky but are actually carrying lean mass while others might appear the same but are soft-bodied despite being relatively thin. Also, those with thicker joints (wrists for example) tend to add size.”
In essence, not all thin bodies are the same. It is not enough to simply call someone “thin” or “wiry”, those are generalizations based on what we can see with our eyes, our scouting gaze halted by oversized, polyester button-down uniforms. If the MLB Draft featured anything remotely resembling the meat market that is the NFL Scouting Combine (“meat market” might seem to have a negative connotation there. As an evaluator, I love the poking and prodding that goes on at the combine. Viva.) maybe we could have an idea of what Crawford’s body was really like. But we don’t get to put him in a bod pod or see him with his shirt off. We, and scouts, have to explore other avenues.
I called Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus to discuss what scouts do to try to assess a player’s latent physical growth. Jason remarks, “A high butt. A high butt is an indicator that there will be growth in the lower half, the thighs. Vlad Guerrerro had a high butt. But the big one is the family. Teams will have whole familial breakdowns on guys. If you look at a guy’s father or if he has an older brother you can get an idea of what the kid might look like as he gets older. Scouts will be tactful and polite about it. They might casually ask a coach or someone, ‘Is his dad around? Are his parents here?’ and sneak a peek.”
Now we’re on to something. It didn’t take long to find out who JP Crawford’s father is. Larry Crawford played defensive back at Iowa State in the late 1970s, earning first team Big 8 honors as a senior. He went on to play in the Canadian Football League for nearly a decade. He was a four-time CFL All Star and won a Grey Cup with the BC Lions in 1985. Playing serious football for that long requires a sturdy frame. It requires muscle and strength, exactly the things Crawford must add.
That sort of genealogical connection certainly would enable a scout to feel better about Crawford’s bodily outlook. Still, I wanted to examine things a step further. It’s possible that Larry has always been big (not nose tackle, Ted Washington big, but big enough to play pro football) and genetic Plinko has bequeathed JP the body of his potentially skinny, dainty mother. After all, Crawford’s elder cousin, Carl, certainly wasn’t a shrimp while he was in high school. The only way I could think to do this was to call someone who had eyes on Larry Crawford at age 18, someone who could tell me if Larry was skinny and then added weight in his early twenties like we hop JP will.
I made a series of strange phone calls to try to get in touch with various people on the Iowa State coaching staff from the late 1970s. Finally, the Seattle Seahawks put me in touch with Pete Rodriguez who spent over forty years coaching football at the collegiate and professional level. He was the Defensive coordinator for the Cyclones when Larry Crawford arrived on campus. He remembered Crawford with impressive lucidity.
“Oh yeah, I remember Larry Crawford. We recruited him from a high school in Miami, if I remember correctly (he does). He was very, very athletic. When he first came to campus he was tall and gangly and he worked initially for us on special teams. You could tell right away he was going to be a good player. But yes, he was very thin at first. We really liked Larry. He was highly intelligent and personable. If his family is anything like Larry was at the age I bet his son is a wonderful young man.”
That word. Gangly. It was all I needed, but Coach Rodriguez and I ended up talking for half an hour about things that were useful for this piece and things that I just found fascinating.
“Do I think any athlete can add weight if he eats right and is on the right weight program? I don’t really know about that. I know that lots of places I went I immediately took over the weight programs. Back then teams wouldn’t have a coach just for strength and conditioning like today. It probably depends, person to person. Some guys can get close to maximizing their potential and others can’t. Some guys don’t have to do anything, like Bo Jackson. When I was in Los Angeles and Bo Jackson walked onto the practice field for the first time after baseball season it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He could just do things. I never once saw him pick up a weight.”
After everything we’ve examined over the last 1,500 words, I think it’s fair to say the following:
- The most important and unknown element of JP Crawford’s development is his ability to get bigger and stronger.
- When faced with that sort of conundrum, scouts will have a look at the parents of the prospect to deduce what might become of the body of the young man to whom they’re about to pay millions of dollars.
- In JP Crawford’s case, we know his father certainly possessed the obligatory physicality to play professional sports, and that his body was a lot like JP’s at the same age.
It’s hard not to be optimistic about this kid given his skillset and pedigree. We’ll start to worry about whether or not the changes most of us would like to see made to his swing are sticking sometime next year. All of it, the fundamental alterations and the physical growth, are going to take a lot of time. We may not see JP Crawford in full season ball until 2015. Until then I think it’s fair to crack a patient smile.