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The Shortstop

Brandon Crawford’s 2021 season was a thing of beauty.

Division Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants - Game Five Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The reason I love baseball is the middle infield. I love how it’s just out there, this open terrain undefined by any foul line. It is an airy place, unforgiving at times, and the people who pad around that ground feel a little more rough, a little more eccentric than the rest of the infielders. Their wildness is not of the pitcher—a self-centered and egotistical craziness—but of a different quality. They are quiet, exact, precise and yet prone to flair and beauty and brief violence. As a shortstop, you do not need the ball, but when it is hit in your direction, you are hungry for it. And once you swallow it into your glove and spit it out towards first, you immediately want another one and you want it hot and sizzling and ten steps to your left.

I love baseball for this play: a shortstop ranging up the middle, pocketing a hop, and in one balletic and charged skip-scoop-spin-swoop the ball has gone from glove to hand to airborne again, arcing at deliberate speed across the infield, landing in the first baseman’s glove right before the runner strides past the bag.

I have fantasized about this play and I have performed a poor man’s version of this play a couple of times throughout my little league and beer-league softball career and I have witnessed this play in real life. It will always give me a thrill to watch it unfold, and when my thoughts wander mid-day at work or just before sleep, I often find myself watching that ground ball bound towards the hole beyond second, with Brandon Crawford gliding into frame...head down...glove outstretched...

I grew up watching Ozzie Smith VHS highlight videos with my older brother. We spent countless hours throwing a tennis ball against a garage door—pretending to snare a grounder up the middle to secure the final out of the World Series, rather than imagining a walk-off home run. We slept with our mitts under our pillows and I still play with the glove I got in sixth grade, re-laced and patched and spit in and comfortable only to my hand.

2021 stats: 138 games, 24 HR, 90 RBI, .298/.373/.522, OPS+ 141, 1.3 dWAR

I’ve been thinking a lot about how a batter can change their approach at the plate. There are countless things to tinker with in the attempt to swing a bat and hit a baseball. We have seen Brandon Crawford do this recently to great effect. He’s opened up his stance and shaved off excess movement to improve consistency in getting the barrel to the ball. A batter’s swing is a signature, but it’s also mechanical and can be taken apart like an engine and built back up with replacement parts.

A swing, in performing the act of hitting a ball, is streamlined. The batter will always be standing still and the ball will always end up in a relatively small area when it is time to hit it. Excess movements will often derail a direct path to the ball. Flair inhibits precision.

But with fielding a ground ball? I think in this instance, defense prowess feels more organic than ever. It is about improvisation and style—this is flair paired with precision. This is a natural gift and one that Brandon Crawford has coming out of his ears. It is so innate, so set deep inside of his bones, that when people ask how he made a certain play he can only shrug, smirk, brush his hair back because he doesn’t know.

No one can truly practice plays like these because they are one-in-a-million. They can’t be replicated during drills, but Crawford absolutely expects to make that play when the opportunity arises. He often does so because he’s practiced adjacent to such anomalies. He practices awkward feeds and off-balance throws because he knows the next ground ball he sees in a game could be a ground ball he’s never seen before, requiring his legs and torso and arm to contort and twist in a totally new way to corral it and secure the out.

Brandon Crawford had this ability from day one in the big leagues back in 2011. His swing has changed, but the way he patrols the middle infield hasn’t. And I think that idea is a good way to talk about Crawford’s 2021 season: a combination of veteran confidence and a will to learn.

As a 34 year old, facing the best pitching in his life, Crawford put up career numbers at the plate: setting personal bests in home runs, RBIs, stolen bases (11!), as well as batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and OPS+.

He led the Major League leading 107-win San Francisco Giants with a 6.1 WAR (also the highest of his career) and competed for the top spot in basically every offensive category. He bagged his fourth career Gold Glove, earned All-Star honors and was nominated for 2021’s All-MLB team. He will not win the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, but he will receive plenty of votes for it, certainly eclipsing his 12th place finish in 2016.

I think what is most impressive about this season is that again, it happened when Crawford was 34 years old. He could’ve fallen back on his skills, allowing his defense to carry him through this season, maybe not as a starter but a lefty platoon for someone like Thairo Estrada, before his contract in San Francisco expires and the front office thanks him for the good times before showing him the door.

It may have been a little unsightly to witness as a Giant fan: grimacing through impotent at-bats, cheering when he set the franchise record for most games played at shortstop while fondly recalling highlights from the previous decade, applauding again when he is pulled in the 6th for someone with more pop at the plate.

That was essentially “the plan” for Brandon Crawford at the start of this season

Then he (and Posey and Belt for that matter) decided to change that. The result is a career-defining year and one that has earned him two more seasons as the shortstop for his hometown team. I was always happy when he was just that: the shortstop, but it’s definitely a lot more fun when he hits too.