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Grounders are killing Brandon Crawford

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It’s not the shift’s fault either.

San Francisco Giants v Chicago Cubs Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

If you only watched Brandon Crawford over the last week, you might not realize that he’s having his worst year as a big leaguer. In Saturday night’s hilarious comeback against the A’s, Crawford went 2-for-4 with a solo homer. He hit a triple in Thursday’s 1-0 loss to the Cubs, and he reached base three times the night before. The Giants have been waiting to get hot like this and stay that way, but it hasn’t happened.

He had a 115 wRC+ in July, but that was the only month he’s been above average. On the year, he’s slashing .230/.302/.365 for a 75 wRC+. The lack of power is certainly disappointing. This would be his lowest slugging since 2013. The good news is that he’s striking out and walking at around the same rates, so the drop in OBP is mostly batted ball nonsense.

A .278 BABIP would be Crawford’s lowest in a full season, so he’s due for a few more hits to fall in. His hard-hit rates and average exit velocity are consistent with the last three years though his max of 106.7 is about 2 mph slower than any other Statcast year. Crawford’s xwOBA of .302 suggests that he’s only been slightly below average, not horrific.

Some of the poor results on Crawford’s batted balls are his doing. Luck is the residue of design and all that. Crawford is putting a few more balls on the ground. A groundball rate of 47.9 isn’t much higher than his career average but it would be his highest since 2013.

This could be explained by a few things. Perhaps Crawford is just slowing down. Hitters try to catch balls in front of the plate when their swing will be going into its upstroke, but maybe Crawford’s swinging later on pitches. He’s catching them when his bat is headed down. Though if that were the case we’d see him put more fastballs on the ground. Instead, we’re seeing the same amount of fastballs pounded in the dirt and more breaking balls and especially offspeed pitches getting topped.

Pitchers are throwing Crawford more changeups than they ever have. Of all secondary pitches, it’s the one he’ll see most often. It’s bad news for Crawford because he’s never been good at hitting changeups. If he isn’t whiffing at them, he’s generally putting them on the ground.

Teams are also shifting against Crawford more than they have before. Teams are shifting 15.1 percent of the time against him. The previous high was 10.2 percent. It would make sense that with a slight uptick in grounders and a big increase in shifting would hamper Crawford’s luck, but teams are actually doing him a favor when they shift him.

In all plate appearances without a shift, Crawford has a .283 wOBA. Against the shift, that goes up to .320. It’s not just that he’s happened to hit it over the shift either. Grounders have been more likely to get through when the defense gets cheeky.

According to Baseball Savant, Crawford’s batting average on grounders against any non-standard alignment is .250. When teams bring a third infielder to the right of second, it goes up to .370. Against a standard defensive alignment, Crawford is hitting .170 on grounders.

He’s still more likely to face a standard defensive alignment, so his poor luck on grounders is still hurting him. It also doesn’t help that his average exit velocity on grounders is just 82.8. With his speed declining, he’s less likely to beat out infield hits though that was never a big part of his game. Still, all these singles add up, and if Crawford were getting all the hits he’s due, his season might not look so bad.

Should we be concerned about Brandon Crawford going forward? I suppose that depends on what your expectations are. If you expect him to win another Silver Slugger, I have bad news for you. If you expect a wRC+ in the 90s with good defense, then you should be satisfied.