BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pirates have no reason to rush Will Craig. They currently have Josh Bell in the majors, showing signs of his offensive upside, while also showing improvements on defense. Bell is under team control through the 2022 season, although as a Scott Boras client, that would probably be the maximum amount of time that he would be in Pittsburgh. So there’s no need to rush Craig through the system with the first base position already locked up.
That said, over the last month, Craig has been hitting like a guy who belongs at a higher level. He got off to a slow start this season, hitting for a .737 OPS in April, then jumping to a .750 OPS in May. His strikeout rate also jumped in the process from 14% to 26%. But now he looks to be back on track, hitting for a .972 OPS with two homers in June, along with a 13.6% walk rate and a decent 21% strikeout rate. That was enough for him to be our Player of the Month for June. It wasn’t like Craig just magically got to this point either, as he had to correct some issues from earlier in the year.
“For the most part, early in the season the numbers weren’t where I wanted them to be,” Craig said. “I was still making pretty good contact with the ball. It just wasn’t falling. Basically just trying to make things as simple as possible in the box, not trying to do too much, limiting my movements. Trying to limit how much movement I’ve got in the box, and try to create more of a rhythm.”
Craig had a leg kick, which was creating the extra movement in the batter’s box. That wasn’t working for him, so he removed the leg kick to quiet his swing, getting things under control. He’s still been able to hit for power, with a .170 ISO in the pitcher friendly Florida State League during the month of June.
The power could come from his natural lift to his swing. A lot of focus this year has been on launch angles and creating leverage with a swing that has lift. This can get some hitters in trouble as they adjust their swing to do something new in an attempt to add power. In Craig’s case, he has that already built-in to his swing, which helps.
“I’ve always had kind of, not really an upper cut, but more of a little bit of a lift to my swing,” Craig said. “It’s just how I’ve always swung. I’ve never really tried to launch it. Of course now launch angle is getting big this year. I’ve never really worried about that. I just always tried to swing and make contact.”
Now that his timing is down, Craig’s contact ability and that leverage are able to do more damage. His manager in Bradenton, Gera Alvarez, has noticed the difference.
“We’re proud of Will. He’s come a long way,” Alvarez said. “Early on, he wasn’t having the results and the success that he wanted. I think now that he’s proving he can find the barrel, he’s finding the barrel, he’s hitting balls hard. He’s swinging at better pitches in the zone, and that is the difference. When you’ve got a good barrel, you’ve got good hand-eye coordination, and you put the ball in play, good things will happen. And that’s what he’s doing now. You watch him and you see everything he’s hitting is hard. When you hit the ball hard, good things happen.”
Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington has also noticed the difference and the progression from Craig.
“Will has continued to be a mature bat in the box,” Huntington said on Sunday when our Alan Saunders asked about Craig’s progress. “The impact is there. Much like Josh Bell, we want him to be a good hitter first. Command the zone, hit his pitches, do damage when he gets his pitch and not try to do too much damage. Simplify it and use the whole field. Will’s done that.”
The offense has been doing well lately, but maybe the more impressive thing from Craig has been his defense. He’s not a Gold Glover at all, still looking raw at the position at times. That makes sense, as he only played the position during his sophomore year in college, and during summer ball before his junior year. He’s now getting back to it after mostly playing third base. But the transition looks promising, and this definitely isn’t a Josh Bell situation. In fact, I’d say Craig is better than Bell right now, even with Bell’s improvements.
“The transition to first base has gone really well,” Huntington said. “At times, he reminds us that he’s a young first baseman, but at times, he reminds us that he has a bright future there.”
Craig really excels at making the long stretch, which has been the difference in a few close plays. I’ve seen a few cases where he’s stretched so far that he’s made a split. Twice in the last week I saw Ke’Bryan Hayes make a difficult play at third base with a fairly quick runner, and the only way the play was completed was from a long stretch by Craig to shorten the path of the ball from Hayes to first.
But Craig is also getting more comfortable at the position, and learning more about what he needs to do in situations in the game, with that in-game experience also being the biggest focus for Bell over the last few years.
“Once I got to instructs this past year, I worked more over there,” Craig said. “It wasn’t until Spring Training that it started feeling like a comfortable position. Not that it was uncomfortable, but it’s kind of different. Movements, and how we set up are a little different than how I was kind of doing. Probably the first month this season, I was still getting used to it. Now I think it’s pretty common where to go, and communication between me and whoever is playing second base has been good. So it’s doing pretty well.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Craig has been the use of defensive shifts. He was used to playing one spot the entire time in college, with maybe a small movement to his left or right. He’s now moving 2-3 steps to the right, depending on the hitter at the plate, which is a big adjustment when getting used to playing further off the bag.
First base appears to be the long-term position for Craig, as he said there has been no talk of him moving back to third base. He’s looking promising at the position, so the move doesn’t seem like a bad call.
The flip side to this is that first base requires more offense. If the last month was a sign of what Craig can do now that his swing is on track, then he should have no problems with the offensive approach going forward. The better test for him will be moving up to Altoona. I think that will happen at some point this summer, although Huntington preached patience when discussing the topic on Sunday.
“Given his first full season, we like to be patient with our guys,” Huntington said. “They’ll show us when we feel like they’re ready to move to the next level based on development, progression, their blueprint and what we’re working on with them.”
Right now, the Pirates have Edwin Espinal in Altoona, who also looks deserving of a promotion. He was just selected to the Eastern League All-Star game, and the Pirates could opt to keep him at the level until he plays in that game. Once Espinal moves up, I expect Craig to follow in the promotion chain, moving up to Altoona. At that point, we’ll get a better feel for his hitting abilities, and see whether he has the potential to be a future starting first baseman.