Giants Reward Brandon Crawford’s Unusual Path

You can make a strong argument that Brandon Crawford isn’t the best shortstop in baseball. If you’re a track-record kind of guy, the default might still remain Troy Tulowitzki. And there’s just so much young talent around. Carlos Correa came up and showed he can do almost anything. Francisco Lindor came up and arguably outplayed Carlos Correa. Xander Bogaerts is coming off an awful high average, and I haven’t yet said a word about Corey Seager. Or Addison Russell. Not to mention I’m a huge fan of Jung-ho Kang. There are enough possibilities out there that you might choose “field” over “Crawford.” I won’t judge you.

But to argue against Crawford, in a way, is to acknowledge he’s at least in the conversation. And he is, if he isn’t the front-runner. Just as you can argue Crawford isn’t the best, you can argue he is, what with Tulowitzki’s apparent decline. Then you have to take a step back and realize you’re talking about Brandon Crawford. Crawford wasn’t supposed to develop into the player he’s become, and the course of that development gave the Giants the confidence to sign Crawford to a six-year extension worth $75 million. It’s not a stunning agreement now, given what we know, but years back, we didn’t know we’d know this.

Crawford had two more years of arbitration eligibility, so the extension buys out those years, plus another four years of would-be free agency. Details:

There’s also said to be a full no-trade clause. At $15 million, the free-agent years feel like potential bargains. That just isn’t that much money anymore, as ballplayer salaries go, though it’s worth remembering Crawford turns 29 in January. He arrived later than a lot of shortstops, and he established himself later than a lot of shortstops. So this extension goes relatively deep into his 30s. By the end, Crawford will be worse, but his starting point is surprisingly high.

In case any of you need the Crawford summary, he’s always had his defense. He just won his first Gold Glove award, but that was only a little up to him, and UZR has always been on his side. DRS has liked Crawford, the fans have liked Crawford and other observers have liked Crawford. Defense used to be what kept Crawford in the lineup. What’s been astonishing is his offensive improvement. His rookie-year wRC+ was 68. His most recent wRC+ wasn’t quite double that, but it was close enough not to be a gross exaggeration. Crawford has hit better each season, improving his wRC+ at least 10 points each year. You don’t often see players on that path, particularly players who are supposed to be glove-first.

What’s been behind it is power: Crawford hit 21 homers, after having hit three as a rookie and four as a sophomore. At 6-foot-2, Crawford’s had a frame to hit the ball a long way. But after he came up as he did, it would’ve been fair to question his ceiling. This is where Crawford’s course has been historically abnormal. I messed around on the Baseball-Reference Play Index, and I found 585 players who batted at least 500 times between the ages of 24 and 25 who posted an ISO no greater than .100. Crawford fits in here — his age-24 and age-25 seasons were his first two in the majors.

Out of those players, just nine have had seasons in which they batted 500 times with an ISO of at least .200. Of course, some of them are still playing, so the sample could grow. Still, the point won’t change. Just four of them have had seasons in their 20s in which they batted 500 times with an ISO of at least .200. Crawford just joined that group. The previous members were Kirby Puckett, Damion Easley and Brian Roberts.

I don’t mean to suggest Crawford is Puckett, or that he’s Easley or Roberts. Every player has his own path and his own skills. History won’t tell us what Crawford specifically is going to do. What history tells us is that, generally, when a player comes up and doesn’t hit for power, the player will continue not hitting for power. Many players increase their power output over time, but few go to such an extreme as Crawford.

Crawford has worked on his swing and his recognition. His most recent performance level reflects his commitment to becoming the best player he can be. He is at once a symbol of the San Francisco Giants’ player development and an exceptional sort, the sort of player a team is happy to invest in long-term because the internal motor is so visible. The Giants figure Crawford won’t decline because of lack of effort. Even with a step back, he’s a strong defensive shortstop who can hold his own at the plate. And if Crawford sustains his power improvement, he could be worth twice what he’ll be paid.

To show a bit of what Crawford just did, I’ve pulled from Baseball Savant. On the left are pitches Crawford hit out through the end of 2014. On the right are pitches Crawford hit out in 2015:

crawford1

Before, Crawford sort of had selective power, with some opportunistic swings on pitches in the inner half. In the most recent season, Crawford took to punishing pitches over the plate, even away. He didn’t just have to yank the ball. As another sign, through 2014, Crawford hit only one home run to the opposite field. Last season, he hit five. His swing resembled that of a slugger, with the bat speed to match. And maybe this is the best place to see where Crawford leaped forward. Slugging percentage on fly balls:

  • 2011: .421
  • 2012: .424
  • 2013: .416
  • 2014: .535
  • 2015: 1.016

Simplified, it’s very easy to understand. Crawford made his fly balls longer. It was a deliberate process, and it’s not that hard to buy into as part of his game going forward. No longer is Crawford the hitter he was; the question is just where he’s going to settle. If he keeps all his power, the Giants are going to love this contract to death. If he keeps a lot of it, it’ll still be team-friendly. With an offensive step backward, Crawford would still be good enough. There’s a lot here to be excited about. There’s already been a lot here to be excited about.

We hoped you liked reading Giants Reward Brandon Crawford’s Unusual Path by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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drewcorb
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drewcorb

“Crawford made his fly balls longer.”

Slugging percentage suggests this, but the statement can be verified by looking at the fly ball distance for each of those years. Crawford’s fly ball distance hovered around ~270 feet for 2011-2014 then shot up to 306 feet in 2015. I was really surprised by that dramatic improvement.

On another note, is there a place that we can look at fly ball distance for a single player over the course of his career? The only place I know to get that data is Baseball Heat Maps but as far as I know you can only look at yearly leaderboards. So you can get the data but it’s not as convenient in cases where you are concerned with the development of a single player rather than the performance of the entire MLB in one season.