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Brandon Crawford just had the best month of his career

After a forgettable start to the season, Brandon Crawford is ripping the cover off the ball. What’s different?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants
The caption describes this as an RBI home run.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If it weren’t for Scooter Gennett playing out of his mind, Brandon Crawford would be a shoo in for the illustrious title of NL Player of the Month. At the very least, he has vastly improved his chances of becoming an all-star again despite a disastrous April. In the month of May, Crawford hit .412/.446/.618 with 4 home runs and 21 RBI. His wRC+ for the month was 192 and he put together a .454 wOBA. For a team that won just 11 games all month, he was worth 1.7 fWAR.

It was easily his best calendar month of his career. His five best months by OPS (at least 50 PA):

May 2018: 1.064

September/October 2014: .928

May 2015: .914

June 2014: .876

August 2016: .866

It wasn’t just better, it was almost 150 points better.

If you aren’t into arbitrarily demarcating sections of the season into months, it was also his hottest hot streak ever. Here’s his 15-game rolling wOBA since he came up in 2011.

He came close to matching this peak last year, and even then, his wOBA was nearly 50 points higher than it had been over any other period. What’s even weirder is that this is right on the back of one of his very worst stretches. In March and April, Crawford hit just .189/.237/.300 and struck out nearly 30% of the time.

It was a discouraging start for a player coming off a lost season, but his recent tear has stopped much of the hand-wringing, at least insofar as the offensive output from the shortstop is concerned. There’s still plenty to wring your hands about with this team.

It would be unreasonable to expect Crawford to be this good for the rest of the season, but perhaps his hot, hot May gives some indication that Crawford has turned a corner or changed his approach. An MVP season is too much to hope for, but a repeat of his 2015 Silver Slugger campaign is completely reasonable.

One reason to account for Crawford’s unprecedented success is that pitchers have been much worse against him.

Here’s a heat map for raw number of pitches throw to Crawford in April:

And again in May:

In May, Crawford saw more middle-middle pitches than nearly any other location. Of course all of his offensive numbers are going to rise when he’s getting more pitches to hit. It’s a little like Crawford turned the difficulty down, and now he’s one-shotting everything in his path.

It’s not all luck though. In April, Crawford hardly ever saw anything he could drive, and he was chasing pitches below the zone. It’s a positive feedback loop situation. If he doesn’t see pitches he can drive, he’s going to swing at more junk. If he swings at more junk, he’s not going to see as many pitches to drive.

In May though, Crawford broke out of the loop (or the loop was broken for him), and he became more selective about what pitches he swung at. In April, he swung at 33.5% of pitches out of the zone while only swinging at 75.5% of pitches in the zone.

In May, he swung at 29% of pitches outside the strike zone and 82% of pitches in the zone. The result has been that his K% cut nearly in half from 28.9% to 16.1%.

He’s swung at less junk and put the good pitches to hit in play. He’s benefitting from a .463 BABIP in May, but he isn’t just hitting squibs and doinks everywhere. He’s also hitting the ball much harder. His line drive rate doubled from 17% to 34%. He’s hitting fewer ground balls and he hasn’t popped any balls up.

Another reason that Crawford has been so hot is that he’s been good at beating the defensive alignments used against him.

According to Fangraphs, teams have also shifted more against Crawford than ever before. In May, Crawford had 50 plate appearances against the shift. The most he had ever had in a month was 23 in August of 2016 which was another one of his five greatest months. Against the shift, Crawford is hitting .365 and slugging .468 over his career.

Baseball Savant has only recorded 21 shifts against Crawford on the season. I don’t know where the discrepancy lies. Both define a shift as three infielders to one side of second base and perhaps Baseball Savant is a little more strict about that definition. Baseball Savant only recorded three shifts against Crawford all last season, so while it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many times teams have shifted against him, both agree that it’s been happening more this season.

The usual defensive shift against Crawford has the shortstop up the middle but still to the left of second. Crawford isn’t a dead pull hitter. He hits a plurality of his ground balls up the middle.

How very Giants to lead the majors in average and still score less than four runs a game.

This was the shift the Astros used against Crawford and it’s similar to the shift the Rockies utilized this past series and the Cubs used last weekend. Largely, the shifts haven’t done a lot to stop Brandon Crawford, and there are a couple reasons for this.

First, Crawford hit fewer groundballs relative to his career average, and a shift isn’t going to help when the ball gets hit over the infield. Second, Crawford had several hits on grounders just to the right of second. Perhaps teams haven’t been aggressive enough in their shifting. Perhaps teams have been too aggressive. Perhaps Crawford has just been lucky on grounders.

Brandon Crawford has been otherworldly, and it’s so, so Giants to waste a hot streak like this. Crawford will come back up to earth eventually. Pitchers will stop throwing him so many middle-middle fastballs. His BABIP will normalize. But if Crawford can maintain the discipline he showed in May, he can get back to where he left off after before 2017.