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In Praise of Brandon Crawford

The first picture that showed up in my photo tool. Yep, that's about right.
The first picture that showed up in my photo tool. Yep, that's about right.

Brandon Crawford is the 17th-best shortstop in baseball according to Baseball Reference's calculation of wins above replacement -- that fancy WAR you hear the kids talk about these days. According to rWAR, Crawford is worth exactly two wins above a replacement shortstop. The definition of "replacement shortstop" is a little fuzzy, but before the season, I figured it would be defined by Brandon Crawford.

There are other WAR. There's the FanGraphs' calculation, but it's not that much different, pegging Crawford as a 1.5-win shortstop. There's WARP, homebrew WARs that haven't been approved by the FDA, and there's the talk-radio WAR, which is useful when you want to explain how adding Adrian Gonzalez makes the Dodgers a 100-win team. There's also the one I came up with -- Grant's Wins Above Replacement, or gWAR -- but that's mostly used to measure things like fake blood and prosthetic limbs, so it's not germane to this discussion.

For now, I'll stick with Baseball Reference's version because it's easier to run reports with. And not only is Brandon Crawford a two-win shortstop who might be having a better season than Jimmy Rollins, Jhonny Peralta, Rafael Furcal, and all other sorts of shortstops I would have preferred to Crawford before the season, but he's just .9 wins away from the highest total of any shortstop. Pick a shortstop. Ian Desmond? He's at 2.9 rWAR. Jose Reyes? That's 2.3 rWAR, just a tick over Crawford. You can take a gander yourself.

This is of note now because the official platform of McCovey Chronicles in the offseason was a two-parter: 1) Carlos Beltran Carlos Beltran Carlos Beltran, and 2) get somebody -- anybody -- to play shortstop over Brandon Crawford. If you think this is a mea culpa post, well, it is. It's probably also worth noting that Carlos Beltran has been just as bad as Hunter Pence in the second half of the season. Worse, even.

Crawford's non-Bocockian offense isn't really that much of a surprise:

ZiPS projection

My projection

2012 actual

That line looks better when you factor in that AT&T Park has played like it's subject to the gravity of Jupiter, but it's still pretty close to expectations. It's not good, But it's not untenable. It's not that bad.

Crawford's value comes from, wait for it, his defense. You need to be a magic shortstop to have value when you're hitting like Crawford. Everything thinks they can find a magic shortstop like Brendan Ryan, but there just aren't that many out there. That's why they're magic. There's a fine line between a good defender and an elite defender at short. Everyone thinks they have the latter when they have the former, and that's how things get messy.

Crawford has good range. Early season muffery notwithstanding, he has good hands. He has a strong, accurate arm. And he's endlessly creative when turning a double play. I don't remember what it was like to watch a young Royce Clayton, but I remember the supposed golden gods of yore, like (late 30s) Omar Vizquel, Rey Sanchez, and Neifi Perez. I think Crawford takes them. He's that good.

This is a fine enough place to stop and wrap up, but there's a twist, see. The Giants didn't just get lucky. They didn't cross their fingers and close their eyes and wish really, really hard for Crawford to be good when they committed to him in the offseason. They had data we didn't. Because while I'm limited to rWAR up there -- based on Defensive Runs Scored, which can be quite flawed -- that's not what the Giants are messing around with. Don't forget FIELDf/x:

The FIELDf/x technology, first implemented at AT&T Park in San Francisco last season, uses three additional cameras to track each fielder’s every move.

It can show that the reason a fly ball dropped five feet in front of the left fielder is because the fielder did not move until 1.5 seconds after the ball was hit. Unless you are at the ballpark and are carefully watching that player’s every move, you would not be able to notice this subtle but crucial fielding deficiency.

We're so used to PITCHf/x now. It's changed the way we look at pitchers -- from specific games to season-long trends. And we're used to HITf/x when it comes to tracking when players swing out of the strike zone. Like, say, that one guy on the Giants. You know the one.

But we can't see FIELDf/x. That data goes to the Giants. Last season, the Giants recorded 31 games of data relevant to Crawford's ability as a shortstop. And maybe, just maybe, that data allowed them to say "Yeah, he should be okay. Average, even. Let's focus elsewhere."

Or they could have said, "BOY, I HOPE THIS WORKS OUT" while ignoring the FIELDf/x reports because those dinks in analytics sent them over as .xlsx files, which they know Sabean can't open. Maybe. Don't know.

I'll error on the side of the first scenario. They probably had a good idea that Crawford could be this good, whereas I sure didn't. He's not an All-Star. And when he goes through BABIP funks like last year, he's a drag on the team. But he's been a good, cheap player for a team that really needed some good, cheap players for their offseason strategy to work. He's one of the reasons the Giants are five games up in the middle of September. I figured any success the Giants had this season would be in spite of him. Whoops.