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Checking in with Brandon Crawford's two-strike approach

Brandon Crawford told us he would be better with two strikes. So far, he's been right.

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Baseball players like to explain why they're certain to improve. They learned a new pitch, or they're in the best shape of their lives, or they got LASIK. It's all so simple. Do X and Y improves. That's how the world works, right?

So it's easy to be skeptical when you see a headline like this:

Crawford borrows Posey's two-strike approach

That's cool. I borrowed R.A. Dickey's knuckleball grip, too, and as soon as I get the rest of the pitching thing down (including the part where I'm terrified of baseballs being hit back up the middle), I'll be on my way. I mean, Crawford can borrow whatever he wants from Posey -- swings, approaches, hair products, a cup of sugar -- but that was never going to make him as good as Posey.

That headline was from the middle of April, when being skeptical of Brandon Crawford was a cottage industry. It wasn't just a post-hoc explanation, though. Crawford also explained before the season even started how he was borrowing from Marco Scutaro:

Crawford hit just .184 with two strikes compared to Scutaro's .259. So he makes a point of watching the veteran second baseman's approach every time he's up at bat.

"He doesn't change, it seems like," Crawford said. "He might protect a little bit more, but he's the best I've ever seen at just fouling pitches off. If there's one specific thing I'd like to work on this year, it'd be that — wasting good pitches and fouling them off with two strikes like Marco does."

A little from Posey, a little from Scutaro. Sounds like a good plan. And here's what he's done with his new approach:

After 0-2 44 14 1 16 .333 .364 .524 .887
After 1-2 63 19 3 22 .317 .349 .467 .816
After 2-2 42 9 5 14 .243 .333 .297 .631
Two Strikes 110 26 6 41 .252 .300 .350 .650
Pitcher Ahead 84 25 0 24 .301 .310 .422 .731

Sample-size issues abound, of course. But he's light years ahead of where he was last year, which is what he was trying to tell us in the first place. He said things were going to be different because of his two-strike approach, and things are different with his two-strike approach.

For comparison, here's the league average in those situations:

After 0-2 7027 1103 179 3133 .164 .193 .242 .434
After 1-2 9912 1634 503 4036 .176 .226 .271 .497
After 2-2 7878 1335 867 2766 .193 .286 .303 .590
Two Strikes 17595 2809 1261 7058 .175 .241 .264 .505
Pitcher Ahead 11533 2203 0 3968 .196 .205 .287 .492

Crawford is way above the league average when he gets behind in the count. Here's a two-strike swing from last weekend:


And here's one from last year. They both look like solid approaches to me, which is a point that's too obvious to be useful. Of course he's going to look good when he gets hits and bad when he makes outs -- this will be true in 2011, 2012, 2013, or 3013. Going back to look at the two-strike hits of Brandon Crawford is a great way to look at Crawford doing good things, but it isn't going to explain why he's so much better at everything this year.

There aren't a lot of answers in his charts or his discipline ratios, either. He's still swinging at around the same number of pitches inside the strike zone, though he's swinging at fewer out of the strike zone. He's also making less contact with pitches out of the zone, which is good considering that weak contact is a bad outcome for a player who can hit relatively well behind in the count.

If I had to guess, I'd say the likelihood of Crawford keeping the two-strike success up are slim. I would have given up a toe for Crawford to be even an average hitter, but I'm guessing that he'll start making more outs after falling behind in the count, just like an average hitter. Everything's probably going to regress toward the mean, which will turn Super Crawford into Pretty-Okay Crawford.

But maybe Crawford knew what he was talking about when he made the hitting equivalent of a "Best shape of my life" claim. It's worth keeping an eye on for the rest of the next couple years, but give him some credit: He wasn't shy about announcing that he had a plan to fix his two-strike approach, and so far he's looking pretty smart.