SEATTLE – When a baseball is thrown against a stucco wall with an above-average amount of velocity, it produces a dull thud that will echo off the surrounding outdoor structures and permeate throughout the building like a distant artillery report or construction work.
Before COVID-19 interrupted and changed life, when baseball was in the midst of its regular spring training, which was actually only 8½ months and not 8½ years ago, those thuds could be heard on a near-daily basis at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Arizona. They produced a disjointed beat that eventually became rhythmic to those in the area.
Who was responsible for this cacophony in the early morning and late afternoon?
On many days, you would find either J.P. Crawford or Evan White alone in the concrete area between the field and the clubhouse, firing a baseball against the wall, getting in proper fielding position to field the bouncing baseball on its return, and perfecting that footwork of fielding it cleanly and positioning their feet to make an accurate throw. Throw, thud, field, get in position and repeat – over and over – till it became muscle memory.
It’s appears to be a repetitive, mind-numbing drill created for Little Leaguers to learn the fundamentals, not big leaguers.
But it’s also how Gold Gloves are won.
Those hours of practice paid off Tuesday, as Crawford and White earned baseball’s highest defensive honor, being selected for the American League Gold Glove at their respective positions – shortstop and first base.
The announcement of their awards came early in ESPN’s drawn-out program.
They are the first Mariners to win the award since Kyle Seager won the Gold Glove at third base in 2014. And based on their talent and commitment to their defense, this won’t be the only time either player takes home the award. They join Ken Griffey Jr. as the only Mariners age 25 or under to win a Gold Glove.
“We will be better defensively this year,” manager Scott Servais declared emphatically at the team’s pre-spring training luncheon in January.
A big reason for that confidence was the expectation of having a full season of the much-improved Crawford at shortstop and White at first base.
“These guys are going to win multiple Gold Glove awards,” Servais said in spring training.
At the infield’s most prestigious position, Crawford beat out Houston’s Carlos Correa and Detroit’s Niko Goodrum. He becomes just the second Mariners shortstop to win a Gold Glove award, joining Omar Vizquel in 1993.
Crawford, 25, finished the 2020 season ranked second in the American League in defensive runs saved with six. Correa led the AL with eight defensive runs saved. Crawford lead AL shortstops with 62 out-of-zone plays, and his 4.9 defensive runs above average was second to Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor. He had a 2.5 ultimate zone rating (UZR), which also ranked second to Lindor (5.8).
He also ranked in the following categories among American League shortstops: assists (2nd, 145), putouts (3rd, 73), outs above average (3rd, four) and runs prevented (T-3rd, three). He is the Mariners’ best defensive shortstop since Brendan Ryan.
His success was a product of hours upon hours spent with infield coach Perry Hill, starting in January 2019.
When the Mariners acquired Crawford as part of their 2019 rebuild plan, they knew that, despite his physical gifts, he was flawed fundamentally. They brought in Hill to correct footwork issues that led to inconsistent results on routine ground balls and throws to first base. The process started two months before the 2019 spring training and continued through this season, even as Hill was limited to remote coaching duties because of the pandemic.
White, 24, beat out reigning Gold Glove winner Matt Olson of the A’s and Yuli Gurriel of the Astros. He is the first rookie first baseman to win the award since its creation in 1957. He’s the second Mariners rookie to win the award, joining Ichiro, who won a Gold Glove in 2001.
White is the 11th rookie to win a Gold Glove since its inception, joining Nolan Arenado of the Rockies (3B, 2013), Ichiro (OF, 2001), Charles Johnson of the Marlins (C, 1995), Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar Jr. (C, 1990), Boston’s Fred Lynn (OF, 1975) and Carlton Fisk (C, 1972) , Johnny Bench of the Reds (C, 1968), Tommie Agee of the White Sox (OF, 1966), Ken Hubbs of the Cubs (2B, 1962) and Frank Malzone of the Red Sox (3B, 1957).
White joins John Olerud as the only other Mariners first baseman to win a Gold Glove. Olerud won three with Seattle in 2000, 2002 and 2003.
He led American League first basemen in defensive runs saved (DRS) with seven, ranking ahead of Olson, the White Sox’s José Abreu and Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, who all had five.
White also led AL first basemen with seven “scoops” – a metric that measures outs saved from wayward throws – ahead of Santana (six). He led AL first basemen with 11 out-of-zone plays, ranking ahead of Olson (10) and Gurriel (10).
According to FanGraphs, his 2.2 UZR was second best among AL first basemen, trailing only Olson (2.5). All three finalists had .998 fielding percentages that were decided by percentage points. They all committed just one error. White ended the season with 49 consecutive games without an error, successfully converting each of his 363 total chances (333 putouts, 30 assists) over that span. According to Baseball Savant, he tied for the most runs prevented (two) among AL first basemen with Abreu and Olson, while ranking tied for second in outs above average with two, one behind Olson.
White’s defensive exploits became almost legendary before he reached the big leagues. It started while he was a first baseman at the University of Kentucky, where multiple amateur scouts said he could have been an elite defensive third baseman and solid shortstop if he threw right-handed. He was such a good runner and so instinctive that some teams projected him as an outfielder.
But the Mariners never considered him for any position other than first base, where he’s evoked comparisons to top fielding first basemen like John Olerud, J.T. Snow, Mark Grace and Keith Hernandez. He won a minor league Gold Glove award in 2018, but a MLB Gold Glove award has a little more prestige.
The selection process for finalists this season was slightly different due to the 60-game season.
From Rawlings: “Due to the compressed 2020 season, the Award qualifications have been amended to rely solely on the SABR Defensive Index, which draws on and aggregates two types of existing defensive metrics: those derived from batted ball location-based data and those collected from play-by-play accounts. SDI utilizes MLBAM’s Statcast, Sports Information Solutions data, and STATS, LLC data as well as traditional statistics with advanced analysis. For 2020 Award consideration, pitchers must have pitched at least 50 innings, catchers must have played in at least 29 games and infielders/outfielders must have completed at least 265 defensive innings. Each player qualifies at the position he has played at most (SDI is only for play at qualified position).”
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