Let’s Evaluate Brandon Crawford’s Pitching Debut

John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to admit it, but I’m a bit of a grump these days. Specifically, I’m a grump about position players pitching. Every time Jay Jaffe chronicles the spread of the tactic, I get annoyed right alongside him. When some disinterested backup infielder lobs the ball in at 40 mph, I cringe. I was a fan of the rules that limited when teams can send hitters to the mound; in fact, I remember being disappointed that the rules weren’t more stringent when they first came out.

With that said, I have to take it all back now. I’m in on position players pitching – as long as we’re specifically talking about Brandon Crawford. He took the mound to close out a 13-3 Giants victory yesterday and did so in a way that position players simply don’t anymore: He tried as hard as he could.

There have already been multiple excellent breakdowns of how Crawford had always wanted to pitch and how he got the opportunity. I can’t match that kind of coverage – but I can take a different angle. He looked borderline acceptable out there, something you can’t often say of hitters taking the mound. How acceptable? Let’s do a pitch breakdown.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a good defensive shortstop can throw hard, but Crawford topped out at 90 mph and even had distinctive four-seam shape. In terms of comparisons to actual pitchers, it looked a lot like Zack Greinke’s four-seamer:

Fastball Characteristics, Selected RHP
Pitcher Pitches Velo (mph) VMov (in) HMov (in)
Zack Greinke 235 89.5 16.6 -2.6
Brandon Crawford 4 88.2 16.4 -4.9

Here it is in action:

That looks pretty real. I will point out, though, that Crawford also threw five other pitches that Statcast had trouble classifying, but that are probably best described as “slow fastballs.” Some of these were four-seamers in the low 80s, a reasonable variation for someone trying to pitch for the first time. One was a 72-mph prayer thrown after five consecutive balls to start his outing. As it turns out, pitching for the first time since high school can create some inconsistency:

I consulted our pitching models to get a sense for how good this pitch was. The answer: bad. PitchingBot, which grades on a 20-80 scale, gave the fastball a 24 stuff grade. Stuff+ gave it a 77, where 100 is average and higher is better. I don’t think pitchers are going to start duplicating the Crawford fastball anytime soon.

Naturally, Crawford complemented his fastball with a hard changeup. There are more shades of Greinke here; his changeup averaged 86 mph, about the same as his fastball. This wasn’t a classification issue, though: his five changeups had a clearly distinct movement profile. He killed the lift on the pitch surprisingly well; it dropped about 10 inches more than his fastball (excluding that one 72-mph laugher) and had an additional six inches or so of arm-side fade. This looks strikingly like something a pitcher might throw:

Reasonable observers might quibble with Crawford’s ability to locate his changeup. He threw five of them and only hit the strike zone once. But – and I can’t believe I’m saying this – his misses were in reasonable locations, and the pitch really did have a ton of movement. Blake Sabol even played along by trying to frame one into the zone:

No doubt about it: Crawford’s changeup is his best pitch. He earned a swinging strike against a hitter with a 154 wRC+ (and a 31.6% strikeout rate, to be fair). Our pitching models… well, one agreed with me. PitchingBot gave the changeup a 40 stuff grade, which is about the same as the grades the models give changeups thrown by Alex Cobb, Sean Manaea, Jakob Junis, and Anthony DeSclafani. Stuff+ didn’t buy it, giving the pitch a 66, worse than his four-seamer.

In this specific instance, I think there’s only one conclusion: Stuff+ is wrong and Crawford’s changeup is great. That pitch shape could actually play in the majors; it looks similar to changeups thrown by Cal Quantrill, Dane Dunning, and Miles Mikolas. It’s notoriously hard to define what makes a changeup good or bad, but c’mon, let’s give Crawford the benefit of the doubt here. That looks like a good pitch.

Oh, you thought Crawford was going to stick to two pitches? Crawford wasn’t just trying hard with velocity; he brought a breaking pitch or two in his bag of tricks. Like his changeup, Crawford had trouble locating his curveball, but it was pretty clearly a curveball:

He even had a classic pitcher mannerism ready, holding his follow through like he thought he’d thrown a strike. When he got the pitch over the plate, it induced weak groundball contact:

Side note: Want to know how excited the Giants defenders were that Crawford was pitching? Watch J.D. Davis’ double play attempt there — in a 10-run game — and you’ll have your answer.

Regretfully, I have to admit that Crawford’s curveball isn’t quite ready for the big leagues. PitchingBot gave it a 24 for stuff. Stuff+ gave it a 71. Actual pitchers with curves that slow induce more drop on the pitch; if you’re not throwing a breaking ball hard, you have to get a ton of movement to make up for it. If Crawford were doing this as his day job, his pitching coach would tell him to ditch the breaker and focus on his fastball and changeup.

You might think that a lone slider was simply a misclassified curveball. You’d be wrong. Crawford’s slider had a completely different shape:

Breaking Ball Shape, Brandon Crawford
Pitch Velo (mph) VMov (in) HMov (in)
Curveball 74.2 -7.9 13.5
Slider 81.3 4.1 5.6

It’s somewhere between a gyro slider and a sweeper, but clearly a distinct pitch from that curveball. Touching the low 80s with movement is no laughing matter. It’s also the best pitch in major league baseball history when it comes to outs per pitch thrown, minimum one pitch thrown:

Was he aiming there? It seems doubtful. Is that the pitch he was trying to throw? Who knows! That doesn’t make me enjoy it any less, though. When’s the last time you saw a position player with a four-pitch mix?

Depending on which model you favor, that might be Crawford’s best pitch. Or his worst pitch. PitchingBot gave it a flat 20 on the 20-80 scale, while Stuff+ gave it a solid 104. A reasonable takeaway is that it’s hard to model stuff with only a single pitch. An unreasonable takeaway: Crawford’s slider defies categorization and retires major league hitters 100% of the time he throws it.

Should Crawford be a pitcher? I mean, no. There aren’t a lot of major league roster spots out there for pitchers who top out in the 80s and have below-average breaking pitches. But is he surprisingly playable on the mound? Undoubtedly. His changeup looks like a bona fide major league pitch to me. I’m willing to reconsider my stance on position players pitching – so long as everyone who comes in looks as good as Crawford out there.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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10 months ago

Thank you for this. I too really dislike position players pitching, but was delighted to read/see this.