San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is having a solid 2013 season, hitting .288/.351/.424 thus far with five homers, 21 walks, and 46 strikeouts in 243 at-bats. His wRC+ of 115 ranks fifth among National League shortstops; combine the hitting with his defense and you get a 2.0 fWAR through June 19th. Crawford's path to success wasn't a completely smooth one, making him a good topic for a Prospect Retrospective.
Brandon Crawford was a three-year regular at UCLA, hitting .318/.378/.500 as a freshman, .335/.405/.504 as a sophomore, and .302/.394/.491 as a junior in 2008. The numbers looked solid on the surface and he had a reputation as an excellent defender, but he lasted until the fourth round of the draft that spring due to worries about his bat. Scouts didn't like his hitting mechanics and wondered if his plate discipline would hold up against better pitching. They also noted he had problems hitting with wooden bats in summer leagues, struggling against breaking balls especially.
Crawford signed late and got into just five pro games in the summer of '08. I gave him a Grade C entering 2009, noting that his defense should be impressive but that serious questions existed about his hitting.
He got off to a hot start in '09, hitting .371/.445/.600 in 25 games for San Jose in the High-A California League. This earned him a promotion to Double-A Connecticut. Results there were decidedly not as good: he hit .258/.294/.365 with four homers, 20 walks, and 100 strikeouts in 392 at-bats. Plate discipline was an obvious problem, and scouting reports indicated that he couldn't handle advanced breaking pitches. There were continued quibbles about his swing mechanics.
On the positive side, his slick glovework continued to draw good reviews. I gave him another Grade C in the 2010 book, again noting the positive defense but worrying that sub-par hitting could confine him to utility work.
Returning to Double-A to open 2010, he showed a little progress, hitting .241/.337/.375 for Richmond, though his season was shortened to just 79 games by a broken hand. The batting average and SLG remained disappointing, but he boosted his walk rate, and reports indicated that he took well to a revamped swing, cutting out a leg kick he'd used in the past.
When I saw him in person that year, he looked better than I expected, showing a sharper batting eye at least and a better swing than I'd seen in college. I gave him a Grade C+ entering 2011, writing that while a good batting average "should not be expected," he'd made improvements with his approach. I wrote that while I wasn't "incredibly optimistic," that I did like him better than in the past.
Crawford ended up spending much of 2011 with the Giants, hitting .204/.288/.296 in 196 at-bats and exceeding rookie qualifications. That wasn't a very good batting line, but given that he'd almost completely skipped Triple-A and was still figuring out what he was doing offensively, it wasn't unexpected. As you know, he took over as the regular shortstop in 2012, hitting .248/.304/.349, then has continued to improve with his .288/.351/.424 mark thus far in '13.
This is a good example of why teams will take chances on toolsy-but-raw hitters, especially ones with defensive ability. Still, the sort of improvement Crawford has made is actually rather unusual: completely revamping a hitter's swing and hitting approach isn't easy and often fails, especially for a guy coming out of college with established habits. In this case, Crawford's glovework kept him in the picture and in the lineup long enough for him to work out his hitting issues.
At age 26, further improvement is still possible, but even at his current level of production, he's a very valuable asset. He's come along way since posting a 20/100 BB/K ratio in Double-A.