Former Pittsburgh Pirates 1st round pick Will Craig’s bat has not developed as hoped, but maybe he could tap into his roots as a pitcher, and become a two-way player.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Will Craig in the 1st round of the 2016 draft, he was expected to be a solid middle-of-the-order bat who could provide on base skills, and a good amount of power. So far, that just hasn’t happened, at least not all at once. In the first two years of his pro career Craig showed strong plate discipline walking 12.6% of the time, and posting an on-base percentage of .412 and .373 with Low-A West Virginia and High-A Bradenton. But he also combined for just eight home runs and a slugging percentage below .400 in both seasons.
Then, in 2018, Craig seemed to find his power stroke, hitting 20 home runs, 30 doubles, having a .200 ISO, and finishing with a solid .443 slugging percentage. However, his plate discipline had taken a hard hit. He walked just 7.7% of the time, while striking out 128 times. That was good for a .33 BB/K ratio, which in comparison, fell well short of the MLB league average. Between 2016 and 2017, Craig struck out a combined 143 times. Overall, his OBP dropped by nearly 100 points to .321. But, 2019 would go on to put his future with the Pirates in serious jeopardy.
In 556 plate appearances at Triple-A, Craig hit for a weak .249/.326/.435 line. Sure, he hit 23 home runs, but his ISO dropped below the .200 mark to .186 and his slugging dropped by eight points. Despite carrying a league average batting average on balls in play, his overall results were far below the average player. His OPS ranked 113th out of 146 qualified batters, while his wRC+ of 92 ranked 107th.
Despite being considered a power prospect, his slugging percentage was 109th in the league, his ISO ranked 80th, and his home run total ranked 39th. Craig was also just so-so in clutch situations. He hit just .257/.357/.421 with runners in scoring position.
Defensively, he’s not Josh Bell or Colin Moran bad, but he isn’t going wow anybody. Craig has definitely improved overtime, as FanGraphs gives his overall fielding a 40 grade with a 40 future. While MLB Pipeline gives him an overall grade of 50. Back in 2016, MLB.com graded his glove at just 40. Sure, he did make only one error at first base, but that isn’t a good indication of how good or bad of a fielder he actually is. Most of the time, it’s the good fielders who rack up a handful of errors because they’re the ones who make the trickier plays more often. For example, 2018 Matt Chapman had 20 errors, and .955 fielding percentage while Moran only made 10 errors and carried a .962 fielding percentage. In 2019, Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, Javier Baez, Rafael Devers, and Eugenio Suarez all made more errors than Moran did.
However, he still has a great arm. So much so the Pirates experimented with him in right field at the end of 2019, a position that usually requires a player with good arm strength. FanGraphs gives his throwing and arm a 60 grade, while MLB Pipeline grades it out as a 55. It kind of seems like a waste to put a player with such a good arm at first base, but he just isn’t fast enough (30 speed grade by FanGraphs) to stick in the outfield regularly for the long-term, and was moved off of third base early in his career because of his lack of range and quick reflexes.
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So that got me thinking, if his bat doesn’t play at first base, the outfield and hot corner aren’t options, and he still has a strong, accurate arm, what if the Pirates experimented with him as a pitcher?
It might sound crazy, but let me explain. When the Pirates drafted Craig out of Wake Forest University, the slugger had spent a good amount of time as a pitcher. Although he didn’t provide the greatest of results, posting a career 4.94 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, and 1.69 K/BB ratio, he seemed to improve in his final year before being drafted. In 28 innings pitched in 2016, Craig carried a 3.54 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, and a 2.87 FIP. Not overly impressive, but still very solid.
I think you could make a very apt comparison of Craig to former slugging prospect Matt Davidson. Davidson was a former top prospect, whose plate discipline started to lag behind, but would still rack up 20 home runs/20 doubles. A defensively limited slugger, Davidson was pretty much a boom-or-bust type hitter in the big leagues, more so in his rookie year than in 2018.
In his first full season in 2017, Davidson hit just .220/.260/.452, but with 26 home runs and 16 doubles. He struck out 165 times to combat 19 walks. Davidson’s following season saw his plate discipline increase, but his power decrease. Any of this sound familiar? In 496 plate appearances, the slugger hit .228/.319/.419 with 20 home runs and 23 doubles. However, this time, he struck out less as his strikeout rate dropped from 37.2% to 33.3% and walked more as his walk rate rose from 4.3% to 10.5%. In these two seasons, Davidson provided average to below average defense at third base and first base, but mainly served as a designated hitter.
But Davidson did something that was fairly unexpected, he pitched really well when he was thrown into blowout games. Sure, it’s only a 3 inning sample size, and he hand’t pitched since high school, but he only gave up one hit, one walk, and struck out two batters. However, he showed off some impressive stuff. He was able to get his fastball into the 92 MPH range with some movement, while combining that with a low-70’s 12-6 curveball that tricked even Giancarlo Stanton, and solid high-70’s slider.
His small showing as a decent pitcher led to some believing he could be a solid middle relief pitcher, while also still being a semi-productive batter. While his future teams haven’t dove into his pitching potential more. If teams went on to try to develop Davidson’s pitching prowess, he probably wouldn’t have served as a high-leverage pitcher, but one you could throw in and get a solid inning out of every few days, which wouldn’t be too hard to imagine Craig doing. Overall, Davidson is very comparable to Craig. A former power corner infielder prospect who’s recently not been doing so hot, but has some previous experience pitching during their years in school. Craig and Davidson also share a common arm/throwing grade of 55 when they were prospects.
This is something I’ve been hoping the Pirates would do with some player. Two way players are the next evolution in baseball, and the Pirates should be more willing to experiment with different positions right now.
Previously, it was rumored that Steven Brault could see some time in the outfield, but those rumors have since dissipated. They also had a former outfielder who switched to the mound in Elvis Escobar, but he has since been released. Plus this might be Craig’s last chance at proving he can provide value at the big league level. Craig is already 25, and players of his skill set do not age well and are a dime a dozen currently.
In 2019, of the 129 batters who had at least 20 home runs (just note that 135 batters qualified for the batting title), only 12 of them had an OPS lower than .750, and only one had an OPS below .700. A decent amount of them are also slow, and defensively challenged corner infielders/outfielders. A player who hits 20 home runs and puts up a slash line of .250/.320/.440 isn’t valuable when there are 50 other players who can do that. However, if Craig can tap into some of that pitching potential he showed in college, he could easily make himself a recognizable name in the Pirates roster.
I’m not saying that he’ll be the next Mark Melancon, or Kent Tekulve, but if he were to pitch a full season as a middle relief pitcher, he could post a solid 4.00 ERA/FIP. Plus having a relief pitcher who can throw 30 innings a season while also hitting 20 home runs and 20 doubles while playing an average first base is 10 times more valuable, and rare (at least right now) than an average defensive first baseman who can hit 20 home runs and 20 doubles.