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Tools made good: the case of Brandon Crawford

Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is a great example of a player with athleticism and sound tools who gradually built the skills necessary for those tools to translate into production.

Brandon Crawford
Brandon Crawford
Thearon W. Henderson

As a major league player, San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford has developed in an unusually progressive way. If you want to focus just on his offense, his wRC+ has gone from 68 in his rookie season, to 81 as a sophomore, 92 in 2013, up to 102 in 2014. Putting defense in the mix, his overall value (as measured by fWAR) has risen in parallel with the hitting, from 0.4 to 1.8 to 2.3 to 2.7 this year.

He's emerged as a steady regular for the Giants, but his development as a prospect wasn't quite as smooth as the liner progression of his major league career may lead you to believe.

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 keep in mind the offensive context of the NCAA before the adoption of the less-potent metal bats.

Crawford lasted until the fourth round of the 2008 draft 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. His athleticism and defense were well-regarded, but doubts about the offense really hurt his stock.

The report filed entering 2009:

Crawford was drafted in the fourth round last year, out of UCLA. He was considered a first-round talent at one point, but his junior season was very disappointing. He had significant problems with contact, and scouts criticized his batting stance, ability to hit with wood, and overall offensive approach. At his best, he shows good pop for a middle infielder, but it remains to be seen when/how this will manifest in pro ball. Crawford does have a fine glove at shortstop, with a strong arm and very good range, so the Giants will be patient with him, giving him plenty of time to prove whether he can hit or not. Grade C.

The straight Grade C may have been a little harsh, but given the questions anything higher than a C+ would be pushing it.

Crawford 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 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, scouting reports indicated that he couldn't handle advanced breaking pitches, and his swing was still being critiqued as off-balance and erratic.

On the positive side, his slick glovework continued to draw good reviews. Entering 2010:

He got off to a great start last year in the California League, but was less effective after being promoted to the Double-A Eastern League, undone by poor strike zone judgment. He’ll show occasional power, but scouts say he lunges at too many unhittable pitches, getting himself out more often than not. The story is different on defense: he has very good range, a strong throwing arm, and is reliable, as young shortstops go. His glove is good enough for him to be a regular major league shortstop, if he hits sufficiently. I’m not wild about the bat, and if he can’t get the zone under control he’ll likely wind up as a utility infielder. Grade C.

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 was less prone to chase stuff out of the zone. He also cut out an exaggerated leg kick he'd used in the past.

He showed a sharper batting eye at least and a better swing than he'd demonstrated in college and his first two pro seasons, earning a Grade C+ entering 2011:

A broken hand cost Brandon Crawford half of the 2010 season. When he did play, he continued to show his patented brand of excellent defense (range, hands, arm strength all quite impressive) with spotty hitting. He has some pop in his bat, and did a better job working counts last year, but plate discipline and contact will likely always be issues for him. Don’t expect a good batting average. At worst he will be a good backup infielder due to his glove, but there is still some chance that he’ll hit enough to get into a regular job. I’m not incredibly optimistic, but I like him a little more than I did a year ago. Grade C+.

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.

He then followed up with the steady progression noted earlier: .248/.304/.349 in 2012, .243/.311/.363 in 2013, and .246/.324/.389 in 2014 with a career-best 10 homers.

Note that while the raw slash lines haven't changed much, the offensive context in which he's playing has changed quickly. Hitting throughout the game has slipped, and what was a mediocre raw slash line two years ago is actually above average nowadays. Crawford's defense remains strong, and it was enough to keep him in the lineup while the bat developed.

He's a great example of a player with athleticism and sound tools who gradually built the skills necessary for those tools to translate into production.

Brandon Crawford

Brandon Crawford, photo by Ed Szczepanski, USA Today