The flowing locks, talents of Brandon Crawford

Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Because the Giants can't win a game, I'm quitting the site for a while. Also, I'm expecting my second daughter on Monday. Mostly, though, I'm just superstitious. In the interim, I've assembled a bunch of great writers from all over the Internet to contribute some guest posts.

First up: Ian Miller. You might know him from Productive Outs, Baseball Prospectus, or the Twitter machine, but more than a few of you know him from this place, as he's been around from the very beginning.

Brandon Crawford gets a bad rap. Part of the problem is that he’s too handsome. I mean, look at the guy. The jawline. The hair. Those almond eyes. It’s like he’s peering into my soul, trying to find out what I want most in life so he can make my dreams a reality. (Luckily for Crawford, what I want most in life is to watch a talented shortstop play for my home team.)

But he also gets a bad rap for his on-field play. He’s an outstanding defensive shortstop with a strong arm; of this there is no doubt. But scouting report after scouting report refers to him as "all-glove/no-hit." But through the first two dozen games of the 2013 season, Crawford is looking to write a new storyline: a two-way guy who just happens to deliver excellent defense at a premium position.

College Career and the Difficult Transition to Pro Ball

Believe it or not, Crawford actually entered the 2008 draft as something of a power prospect. Through three full seasons as UCLA’s starting shortstop, he put up an impressive .319 AVG and a gaudy .499 SLG. Of course Crawford played his entire college career with pre-BBCOR aluminum bats and wasn’t necessarily facing elite pitching, but he could clearly hit. Many scouts considered him a first-round talent until a lackluster junior season left him available to San Francisco in the fourth round of the 2008 draft.

He kept hitting in short-season and rookie ball the year he was drafted, and he hit when he started 2009 in advanced-A San Jose. So it came as a surprise to just about everyone when he struggled mightily after being promoted to double-A Connecticut that same season. In more than 100 games with the Defenders that year, he posted a tepid .258/.294/.365 and seemingly never really recovered. (Long-time Giants fans know Norwich, CT as a place where promising minor-league hitters go to die, and one wonders how big a toll the Eastern League took on his production and confidence.) A second double-A stint in 2010, this time with new affiliate Richmond, yielded similar results, with Crawford also suffering a broken hand that season.

The Jump to the Show and the Subtle Bigotry of Low Expectations

Crawford did short stints in San Jose (A+) and Fresno (triple-A) in 2011 before necessity required that he join the big club in San Francisco. (Lest we forget, this is the organization that gave 32 starts to Brian Bocock in 2008.) Through 66 games in 2011 with the Giants, Crawford put up an anemic .204/.288/.296. (Hey, that’s substantially better than Bocock’s .143/.258/.156!) So it’s not hard to see where the "no-hit" rep took hold.

Thing is, Crawford can actually hit and, slowly but surely, he’s proving it at the big league level.

Those are his offensive numbers in the majors. After his grim 2011 offensive performance, Crawford had a far better 2012: he raised his AVG by 44 points and his OBP and SLG each improved by about 50 points. His True Average -- a measure of total offensive value scaled to batting average -- went up by 35 points and put him about middle of the pack for shortstops in the MLB.

2013: The Hits Keep on Comin’

And so far in 2013, the numbers have jumped up again, this time substantially. Of course all the usual small sample size disclaimers apply, but Crawford’s triple-slash is currently sitting at .298/.366./.560. If we set the minimum plate appearances to an arbitrary 50, Crawford’s TAv is the fourth-best among all shortstops -- sandwiched between Troy Tulowitzki and Jean Segura. Pretty decent company.

There’s the small matter of his BABIP -- it currently sits at .317, 10 points above his 2012 BABIP -- but there are reasons to think that the improvement is real and sustainable.

1. Players typically improve at least until they reach age 27, which is seen as the physical peak for the typical position player. (This is Crawford’s age-26 season.) Crawford is still learning how to hit at the big-league level, figuring out pitcher tendencies, and gaining confidence in his abilities. Last year I talked to Giants Assistant GM Bobby Evans about Crawford and Evans suggested this last factor -- confidence -- has played a big role in his recent successes.

"So much of this game is about confidence," Evans told me last year. "[In 2012], Bochy told Crawford that was going to stick with him, and that allowed him to play to win, and not play to stay." So was 2011 Brandon Crawford the aberration, and the 2012 version is the real thing?

"I think the real Brandon Crawford is even better," Evans said.

So far, Crawford is making Evans look smart (not that he needs any help in that area, the guy’s a freaking baseball genius). But so much of hitting is mental, and confidence can play a huge role in performance.

2. His plate approach this season has changed dramatically from his first two years in the league. Let’s take a look at some heat maps.

First, swing rate in each of his three years with San Francisco

2011

2012

2013

(These are from the catcher’s POV, and Crawford is a left-handed batter, so the far-right side is off the plate inside.)

What jumped out at me is his apparent inability to offer at the pitch in off the plate, which tempted him so much, especially last year. Last year, if you threw Crawford a pitch between the knees and the letters but off the plate in, the likelihood of him swinging at it was at least 50 percent. So far this year he’s offering far less often, and the results speak for themselves.

Now let’s look at the results of these swings.

True Average

2011

2012

2013

(You can ignore the purple ".260"s; those are the default when the system lacks sufficient data to generate a number.)

He may not be offering at the belt-high pitch inside anymore, but look at the belt-high pitch in the strike zone: yes these are small samples, but his TAv on the pitch on the outer third is .779. .779! That’s like Barry Bonds territory. A quick look at his spray charts didn’t suggest him going the other way with any regularity, although he does have one opposite-field home run at AT&T. (Maybe that explains the .779.) Given Crawford’s short, compact swing, I’m assuming he can turn on the outside pitch and at least send it back through the box.

There are some troubling cold spots in that chart -- most notably the "away" portion minus the belt-high pitch. Unless he shows he can cover the pitch on the outer third and lay off the one outside, Crawford should prepare to see his True Average drop precipitously. But in his career so far, he’s proven to a resilient kid with a tremendous work ethic, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t make the necessary adjustments.

Given Crawford’s elite defense, almost anything he contributes at the plate is a bonus. PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ proprietary projection system, predicted Crawford to deliver 1.5 WARP (our take on WAR, essentially); Crawford is already sitting at 1.4 WAR, one-sixth of the way into the season. He probably won’t maintain the .311 TAv, but neither is he likely to end up at the .237 that BP predicted for him.

Where will he end up? I don’t know; I kinda feel like the sky is the limit for Brandon Crawford. And I sure enjoy watching him play for the Giants.

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