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Can Brandon Crawford’s vanished offense be attributed solely to launch angle?

A surface glance at the data suggests he just needs to get the ball in the air more.

San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Jaleel White will always be known for Steve Urkel, Grant Brisbee will always be known for vaguely resembling Mike Fontenot, and Brandon Crawford will forever be remembered for his defense. That will never change, and yet for seven seasons, the Giants were spoiled by league average offense (99 OPS+ from 2012-2018), too.

This year, Brandon Crawford is tied as the second-worst hitter in baseball. His .249 wOBA is right there with Jackie Bradley Jr., and both trail the Marlins Starlin Castro by .005 points. His 54 OPS+ is the worst of the regulars, which is really saying something, because the Giants’ lineup is littered with bad hitters.

The advanced data also shows him as being one of the slowest position players in baseball, with a 24.8 feet per second sprint speed that’s in the bottom 14% of the league. He has just one Defensive Run Saved in 415 innings this year and he has been in a steady decline since 2016, when he tied his 2015 high of +20 DRS. His defense might not be elite anymore, but he’s still mostly valuable in that category.

And yet, this same advanced data that doesn’t shower him with praise still kinda shines a light through the darkness that is his 2019 hitting line of .200/.275/.288 (.563) in 189 PA.

His career exit velocity average according to Statcast is 88.1 mph. Since 2016, he’s averaged 88.3, 87.4, and 87.3 mph. His 89.7 mph in 2015 really skews the sample, but just going off the last three years, he’s clearly in the 87 range. Well, his 2019 average exit velocity is 87.5 mph. He has a hard hit rate (balls hit with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) of 32.5%, which is off his career average of 35.6% and less than last year’s 33.1%, but also not terrible.

Crawford’s 9% walk rate is above his career norm of 8.1% and he’s already a third of the way (6) to the total number of barreled balls he had all of last season (15). A reminder of what a barreled ball is, per Statcast:

To be Barreled, a batted ball requires an exit velocity of at least 98 mph. At that speed, balls struck with a launch angle between 26-30 degrees always garner Barreled classification.

Ah, launch angle. That’s the rub. Launch angle simply means the angle at which the ball leaves the bat after contact. Players have been working hard to eliminate ground balls altogether. That’s at least part of the reason why we’ve seen so many home runs — the juiced ball being a more significant factor — but it’s also probably half the reason why we’ve seen the strikeout rates jump league-wide — the other half being that most pitchers are throwing 94 mph+ regularly and nearly as many breaking balls as fastballs.

Brandon Crawford’s career average launch angle is 10.6 degrees. If you want to know if that’s good, here’s a quick line from this 2016 article by Dayn Perry:

What’s the ideal launch angle?

This raises the matter of what the ideal launch angle is from the batsman’s standpoint. As it turns out, balls that leave the bat at a vertical angle of between 10 and 30 degrees lead to best offensive results. Hit it from 10 to 25 degrees at the proper exit velocity, and you’ve likely ripped a line drive. Find the 25-30 degree band (again, at proper exit speed), and you’re in home run territory.

So, Crawford’s Statcast career average is at least right there in the “good” range of launch angle. For comparison’s sake, Buster Posey’s career average launch angle is 10.7 degrees, Pablo Sandoval’s is 10.3, and Cody Bellinger’s is 16.

This year, the average launch angle for a batted ball off the bat of Brandon Crawford is 8.4 degrees.

He’s hitting the ball on the ground more than ever before, and the results are showing up everywhere. An .088 Isolated Power is well below his .140 career average. The .258 batting average on balls in play makes sense if he’s not hitting the ball in the air very much, as reflected by a 45.9% ground ball percentage.

The percentages can be a bit misleading, though, because they’re based on only the actual contact. Brandon Crawford is striking out more than ever before (25.4%), so although that 27% line drive rate of his looks good and the 41.5% hard hit rate also looks good and above his career average, they’re both based on smaller samplings.

But when Brandon Crawford can get the ball in the air, good things happen. Here’s a spray chart of just his line drives / fly balls:

Yes, move in the fences, but also, that’s a pretty solid balance of sprayed contact. But again, that stat line on the year is dire. A closer inspection suggests that maybe, juuuuust maybe, Crawford needs to reconsider what’s worked for him in the past. Here’s the average launch angle of Crawford’s contact by hitting zone:

That means right down the middle, the ball’s just coming four degrees off the bat. Middle-in and up-and-in, also just 3-4 degrees. Crawford hits best when he’s pulling the ball, but his swing looks to be able to pull pitches below the belt and that’s about it.

If you’re wondering if this looks good with all those reds in there, let’s just compare it to Belt’s (the coloring is based on volume of sample, btw):

I’m not sure if a swing adjustment is in Brandon Crawford’s future or if an offseason swing adjustment is what’s led to his dismal start, but since the end of the All-Star break last season (108 games), he’s hitting .196/.268/.285 (.553 OPS) in 411 plate appearances. That’s not a formula for longevity or individual success.