How Brandon Crawford’s New Swing Turned Things Around

Brandon Crawford’s career has always centered around his elite defense; he’s won three Gold Gloves and has been one of the best defenders in baseball over the last decade. But behind the accolades for his glove was a quietly improving offensive player. He upped his wRC+ each season in his first five and earned down-ballot MVP votes in 2016 on the back of 5.2 WAR and career-best defensive metrics. Heading into his age-30 season in ’17, our positional power rankings pegged him as one of the best shortstops in baseball and projected him for 3.5 WAR.

Instead, Crawford started a sharp decline, putting up just 4.4 WAR over the next three years. By the time 2020 rolled around, his career was a half-sunk dinghy; coming off of a near–replacement-level season, he was expected to lose playing time. And his downturn couldn’t have come at a worse time, with free agency coming after the 2021 season and the Giants under new boss Farhan Zaidi beginning to transition away from the aging veterans who made up a big chunk of San Francisco’s roster. But facing the end, Crawford posted a 111 wRC+ and a career-high .209 ISO last season, then built on that improvement this year with a 141 wRC+ and 2.1 WAR — the latter the best figure than he’s put up since ’17.

The following chart shows a closer look at his late-career resurgence.

Crawford Through the Years
Era wRC+ ISO EV WAR per 600 PA
2015-2016 (Peak) 109 0.179 89.5 4.8
2017-2019 (Decline) 84 0.138 87.6 1.5
2020-2021 (Current) 126 0.241 89.4 4.7

In order to get a better idea of what changes Crawford made that has led to his impressive start to his 2021 season, I need to note some broader changes to the Giants as a whole. His resurgence was not isolated; the Giants have seen a massive offensive improvement among many players after struggling to score runs for years. You can attribute some of that to the Giants overhauling things under Gabe Kapler, who hired a large and inexperienced coaching staff when he was named manager for the 2020 season. The hitting portion of that staff consists of three men who had combined for one year of big league coaching experience prior to 2020. Donnie Ecker, who came over from the Reds, is a tech and data guy; Justin Viele focuses on mechanics and swing path; and Dustin Lind is an expert in kinesiology with a physical therapy background. It’s hard to find any conversation about one of the resurgent Giants that doesn’t praise one of those three hitting coaches. Crawford is no exception, as he began working with the trio to overhaul his stance and swing even before reporting to spring training last year.

Let’s hit the video room to see what that new swing looks like.

Two big changes should jump out to you: hand placement and a more open stance. In 2019, Crawford was quite upright, almost leaning backward, before starting his swing. Now he seems to be in a more meaningful hitting position from the start. His stance is built with more purpose, with his front leg open, possibly as a way to provide better balance with a more hunched upper body and extended arms, and his hands are far from his body with a much quieter setup overall.

Crawford’s hands are very still now, which seems like it would give him a more consistent and repeatable way to get his bat head to the ball. Watch the original GIF again and try to focus on just the barrel of the bat. You’ll notice a more deliberate path to the ball, likely a result of the hands having a more purposeful and quiet starting spot.

Let’s check things out from the side.

I love this view for seeing a hitter’s bat path. One thing I notice is the bat head dropping more quickly in the new swing, which allows Crawford to swing up through the pitch plane. Check out this snapshot of his bat head at the moment his front heel hits the ground.

He’s already starting to drop the head, and his hands are more vertically aligned, too, as opposed to his 2019 swing, where his hands weren’t ready as quickly to attack the ball.

Now look at Crawford’s bat head position a little bit later when his back knee starts to turn inward.

Notice how the bat head is already more level in his new swing. I think this all goes back to his initial hand placement: There is no wasted movement, and everything is designed to get his barrel in the zone with a slight uppercut.

You can see that change in his results, too. Before 2020, Crawford had seen a big downturn in his power and was hitting the ball on the ground too often. Check out his barrel% and groundball% over the years, and the big change in 2020 and ’21.

Quality Batted Balls
GB% Barrel%
2015 47.7 8.2
2016 42.6 4
2017 46.2 5.1
2018 43.7 3.4
2019 48.2 4.4
2020 41.7 9.4
2021 40 15

In 2019, Crawford ranked in the bottom quintile of qualified hitters in barrel rate; in ’21, he’s 11th overall in the majors, ahead of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Jesse Winker, among many others.

Aside from the swing adjustments, these improvements are built on a change in hitting philosophy that the new hitting coaches have been preaching. The Athletic’s Andrew Baggerly sums it up as this:

“The hitting philosophy was simple: only swing when you believe you can do damage, and regardless of count, take your best swing as often as possible.”

Even though last year saw improvements to his overall numbers, it wasn’t until this season that the new approach manifested in Crawford’s plate discipline stats.

Plate Discipline
O-Swing% Swing% SwStr%
2015 34.6 52.4 13.6
2016 30.8 51.4 12.9
2017 31.1 51.3 13.1
2018 32.6 52.1 13.5
2019 32 51.3 13.1
2020 35.6 54.5 15.4
2021 30.4 49.9 15.3

Though you can see some of that mentality pop up in last season’s numbers, after more time with the coaches and experience with the mechanics, the philosophy and swing are now in better lock-step. Crawford is swinging and chasing less often, while the higher swinging-strike rate suggests he’s swinging to do damage.

His patience is not simply about getting into hitter’s counts, but about taking advantage of those counts with more purposeful swings. Crawford has a .606 wOBA in those counts, which ranks fifth in baseball and well above the league average of .421. Having a more purposeful approach means hunting fastballs, something you see more of when ahead in the count, even if fastballs are becoming less of a sure thing in those situations. Crawford has always been a fastball hitter, holding a .356 career wOBA on heaters, but he’s taking his love for them to new heights this year; his .462 wOBA against them far outstrips the league average of .341.

This time last year, Crawford was losing his grasp on an everyday role at an age when you don’t usually get it back. It’s only been about 400 plate appearances since then, but his turnaround has been quick and meaningful. This season, he’s walking at a career-high rate and on pace for 35 homers when he’s never hit more than 21 before. Armed with a new setup, a refined bat path, and a philosophy of punishing the pitches he’s looking for, he is having a career year, and with the Giants fighting for a playoff spot in the toughest division in baseball, it couldn’t come at a better time.

Luke Hooper is a designer and writer at FanGraphs. He lives in Portland, Oregon, longing for a major league team to materialize.

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2 years ago

The swing changes seem subtle. The approach change seem major.

2 years ago
Reply to  eph1970

Prior to this season I thought his “better” numbers were entirely a function of the moon ball. Of all the guys who would look better with a less juiced ball, Crawford was probably last on the list followed closely by Ozzie Albies. Whoops!