“Magic?” Crowe said before breaking into a laugh at Nationals Park this week. “No, no, no. I’ve had that. I had it in college. It’s just learning more about your body, about your pitches, and how everything connects. Guess that’s getting a bit older and smarter. I think that’s it.”
Crowe, 26, was traded to Pittsburgh in the Christmas Eve deal that sent first baseman Josh Bell to the Nationals. Pitching prospect Eddy Yean went with Crowe to the Pirates. But because Yean is only 19, Crowe is the one being tested by their last-place club. There have been ups and downs in his first full season. He has a 6.75 ERA in 36 innings, spiked by three rough outings between May 20 and June 1. Then he reset in the minors, working with former Nationals reliever Joel Hanrahan, and allowed two runs on two hits and a walk with eight strikeouts against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday.
In three starts for the Nationals in 2020, his average fastball velocity was 91.7. This season, it has ticked up to 94.1, with the pitch topping out at 96.6 (three times). He attributes some of that to “hill connection,” an organizational philosophy of keeping his heel flat on the mound through most his delivery. The Pirates also showed him data that suggested he throw fewer sinkers and put his four-seamer at the top of the zone. Before getting there, he had only thrown it the other way, hoping for groundballs and low strikes. He was convinced by the numbers and is seeing it through.
“If the data says it’s good and it’s going to work, I’m all about it,” Crowe said. “Then it’s just about getting into a rhythm and executing, of course. But if I have a set plan and it’s backed up by stats, all the stuff they have shown me, that makes me really confident.”
When Crowe’s phone rang on Christmas Eve, he figured that Mark Scialabba, the Nationals’ assistant general manager for player development, wasn’t just wishing him a happy holiday. Crowe explained Monday that, while playing for a regular contender, he always considered trade possibilities. The rumors picked up each July and winter. As one of the Nationals’ top prospects, it was easy to find his name in a Twitter search.
He was picked by the Nationals in the second round of the 2017 draft. He cracked into the majors with them. So he was a mix of bummed and energized heading to a new team. On one hand, he wanted to grow with the Nationals to reward their early faith in him. He spent last summer dealing with lower-back pain, unable to sit down between innings. He felt there was another gear to show.
On the other hand, though, he saw more opportunities with a young and rebuilding team in Pittsburgh. He made the Opening Day roster as a long reliever and has since moved to the rotation.
“There’s no ill will. It’s part of the business,” Crowe said of the trade. “And when they called me, they told me that they valued me and just got a really good player. Hopefully the Pirates wind up with the same thing, right? Up to me to make it that way.”
According to Crowe, video and data have shown that an emphasis on hill connection has helped raise his velocity. During starts in which his fastball has slipped to the low-90s, he noticed his back heel picked up more often, leading to an earlier drag of his right foot. That was his delivery at the University of South Carolina and with the Nationals. But by contrast, his higher-velocity starts — the ones with 95 and 96 mph on the radar gun — have included better hill connection.
He believes that allows him to push off a bit harder. The Pirates preached it to him from the beginning of spring training in February. Crowe has also reshaped his pitch mix, shaving the usage of his sinker from 22 percent in 2020 to 10 percent in 2021. He is tossing more change-ups, up five percentage points, and leaning on high four-seamers.
Hanrahan, the pitching coach for the Pirates’ Class AAA affiliate, recently told Crowe that his windup was too quick when he threw his slider. It was a small fix that made a big difference, and Crowe leaped right on board.
“Sometimes fresh eyes, a fresh environment, they see things other people didn’t,” Crowe said. “It can also clear your own head, too. I was young with the Nationals and still figuring it out. That hasn’t changed, but I definitely feel closer to putting it all together.”