You’ve got to feel for J.P. Crawford, at least a little.
The hardest thing to do in sports, it is said, is hit a baseball, which is going to be Crawford’s job for, if he’s lucky, the next 15 to 20 years. He’s going to do it while playing one of the most demanding defensive positions in the game, and he’s going to do it while carrying the weight of immense expectations.
One of the more interesting questions in prospect evaluation—specifically, prospect ranking—is whether to value ceiling or proximity. Who would you rather have, the surefire average regular or the dice roll at a superstar? Tyler Kolek or Aaron Nola? Andrew Miller or Clayton Kershaw?
The thing about Crawford is that he maintains his star potential without being particularly risky. He can hit, he can take a walk, he can run, he can play shortstop, he can throw. And he makes it look easy. He doesn’t have the kind of body that makes a move to third base or the outfield a matter of when, and there are no red flags other than how the sheer number of sixes on it make you wonder if he’s part of a Satanist conspiracy. He’s already hit at Double-A as a 20-year-old, and he should be in the majors, if not late this year, then early in 2017.
All of this sounds great—why should we feel for him, again?
Dealing with expectations is part of the game, but Crawford is stepping into a unique set of circumstances. Because his pedigree is so bulletproof, and because of the particular way in which he became a top prospect—not having any weaknesses—the expectations surrounding him will be outrageous, and any hiccup, even a reasonable one for a 21-year-old up-the-middle player, will be scrutinized intensely.
Crawford is also walking into a hostile media market at a particularly vulnerable time. Philadelphia has a reputation as a tough place to play, for reasons that are mostly the kind of exceptionalist nonsense every city tosses around about itself, but the state of sports in the city is particularly dire.
The Sixers are an object of national ridicule, the Flyers are on a multi-year rebuild for the first time in 20 years, the Eagles have committed the cardinal sin of failing and being different at the same time, and if you follow the Union, you’re now aware that the team’s first manager was fired thanks in part to a spanking incident.
These are desperate people reaching out into the darkness for any source of hope to hold on to, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which Crawford is vilified for merely being good and not great.
It’s easy to tell the difference, because of whose job Crawford is about to take. The comparison to Jimmy Rollins is almost too easy to make—Crawford’s bigger and should control the strike zone better, while Rollins is faster and hits for more power, but they’re both African-American five-tool shortstops from California who carry themselves with great confidence. Their superficial similarities are so obvious that their differences are overwhelmed.
And that’s a huge problem, because the mantle of being the next Jimmy Rollins is an impossible burden. Rollins was a complicated figure in Philadelphia, and he was never as highly touted a prospect as Crawford, but he turned out okay: 45.1 WARP in a Phillies uniform, 216 home runs, 453 stolen bases and a team-record 2,306 hits. Rollins was one of the first pieces of the 2008 Phillies to be in place. For 14 years, the Phillies just rolled out a team every April knowing that shortstop was taken care of.
Now, high as the expectations are for Crawford, who wants to take the over, right now, on a 45-win career for him?
Replacing an iconic player is an obsession, and that’s understandable because iconic players leave an emotional void when they go, and the logical outcome is to fill that emotional void with a young player who might only stand a small chance of filling that void adequately on the field.
The label of “Next Rollins” sets such a high bar for Crawford that it has to do more harm than good. It says that unless he takes home an MVP, and a World Series ring, and delivers moments that bring a city together, and does it with the panache of a player who set up a dynasty by calling his own shot, there will still be something missing. It’s another way to put players in boxes, to use them to satisfy nostalgia instead of creating something new.
But most of all, it says to Crawford, “Unless you make the Hall of Fame, you’re not good enough.”
Welcome to the majors, kid. I feel for you.
Thank you for reading
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