Betting on Brandon Crawford

On Tuesday, Brandon Crawford was inked to a six-year, $75 million dollar extension by the Giants complete with a full no-trade clause. The 28-year old shortstop just enjoyed a breakout season that saw him hit 21 HR and knock in 84 runs, both highs at the position. The offense was added to an already-stellar defensive reputation at arguably the game’s most important position.

In fact, defense alone earned his playing time early on. Crawford, a fourth-round pick from 2008, debuted in 2011 after the hopes of one final kick from Miguel Tejada fell through for the Giants. He was called up in late-May as a 24-year old after Tejada managed a paltry .522 OPS through the team’s first 50 games. The 37-year old had also shifted over to third base by the start of May, leaving shortstop to 31-year old journeyman Mike Fontenot.

Crawford was never a big-time prospect coming up. He barely made San Francisco’s Top 10 from Marc Hulet prior to his debut, but the lack of hype was because of his bat. His defense was always seen as big league-capable. Hulet suggested he could become an Adam Everett-type or maybe even a J.J. Hardy clone with less power if his bat improved. In his debut, he looked a lot like the former with a 68 wRC+ in 66 games. Everett was a career 65 wRC+ (albeit with excellent, best-in-the-league level defense).

With the shortstop job fully in hand, Crawford started improving his offense while continuing to justify his spot with the glove. In his four years a full-timer Crawford is tied with Zack Cozart for the second-most defensive runs saved as a shortstop at 42. Andrelton Simmons has hilariously lapped them with 113 DRS in that same time period since the start of 2012 through last season. Crawford has upped his OPS every year in the majors, too.

He set the bar low with a .584 OPS in 2011, but he has slowly worked himself into a league average or better bat which pairs with the defense to yield an All-Star quality player – an honor he did receive in 2015 along with the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger. His first foray into fantasy relevance came last year with a production jump against lefties. Like most left-handed batters, Crawford floundered against his same-handed counterparts early on. He had a .569 OPS in 319 PA against southpaws through 2013.

In 2014, it jumped to .869 in 178 PA. The biggest difference was against pitches in the middle of the zone and up. From 2011-13, he had a .656 OPS in 224 PA against lefties on pitches middle and up. So if you break the strikezone up into 9 boxes and envision it like a keypad, these are the 1-3 and 4-6 keys plus anything out of the zone above the 1-3 keys. In 2014, he had a 1.101 OPS in 111 PA in those zones. Handling fastballs spurred the run.

Crawford v. Southpaws
v. LHP PA AVG OBP SLG K% BB%
2011-13 131 0.306 0.346 0.438 16% 5%
2014 68 0.483 0.507 0.733 6% 6%

This is just against fastballs from lefties in the zones outlined in the previous paragraph, but the truth is he handled fastballs regardless of where they were in the zone during the 2014 run. His .404 BABIP against lefties on the whole definitely helped, too. There is good luck involved in a rate that high, but he was also taking advantage of lefties attacking him the same way that worked in 2011-13 even as it was no longer working in 2014.

He regressed against lefties this past season with a .716 OPS as lefties finally adjusted. Not only did he see fewer fastballs, but lefties stopped giving him so much in that middle-and-up zone he feasted on during 2014.

Crawford v. Southpaws
v. LHP Hard Soft Breaking Upper Middle Lower
2014 57% 43% 36% 24% 32% 44%
2015 52% 48% 41% 24% 25% 51%

He offset the drop versus lefties by surging against righties. Coming into 2015, he had a .666 OPS against right-handers in 1313 PA and then had a career-best .808 OPS in 409 PA against them this past season. Once again it was the fastball that drove the success.

He had a .703 OPS with 12 HR against righty heat through 2014 (653 PA). In 2015 alone, he matched the 12 HR with a .944 OPS in 203 PA. There is no discernible difference in approach here by either the pitchers or Crawford himself, he just performed better. Prior to 2015, he had one opposite field homer against righties. In 2015 alone, he had five.

Not every change in performance is going to have an aspect or two that explains the change perfectly. Sometimes players just get better with time. In Crawford’s case, he has developed power over the last two seasons and turned himself into an above average bat, especially for his position. Now we are left trying to figure out what’s next. He has increased his OPS every year, but the method behind it has been inconsistent, first tackling lefties and then finally handling righties for once.

The safe bet is to regress sharply and run away. His 16% HR/FB rate some given that it was double his career mark, but I subscribe to the Ron Shandler theory that “once you display a skill, you own it”. I don’t necessarily think Crawford is the 2015 iteration from here on out, but I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Steamer, either, with a .242/.310/.381 and just 12 HR.

I think he is more of a .250/.320/.420 line with a homer count in the mid-teens. He likely won’t match the 84 RBI again, either, but even a slide down to 70 still keeps him among the best at the position. In each of the last three seasons, only four shortstops have had 70+ RBI. Crawford was just one shy in 2014.

His defense alone keeps him in the lineup but the fact that he can hit lefties (even the .716 OPS this past season was well above the .668 lefty v. lefty league average) makes him platoon-proof, too. Only his 2013 effort against lefties was truly unplayable (.546 OPS) and that was severely hampered by a .245 BABIP (which if you’ll remember over-corrected with a .404 in ’14).

He’s obviously going to cost a lot more than he did last year, but I don’t see his 2015 season being one that will be heavily taxed in the 2016 draft market. He went 96th in a draft I did earlier this month. I think he’ll be on the outside of the Top 100 by next spring even with the relative scarcity of shortstop (though it’s not as barren as recent seasons). Crawford fits a player type that I think is a value in today’s fantasy market: the defense-first player at a premium position who gets enough reps to figure out the hitting as a big leaguer.

Carlos Gomez is a great example of this. Yadier Molina is another who comes to mind quickly. I think Salvador Perez is another. I realize his wRC+ has dropped yearly, but the early high ones were partial seasons. He hasn’t been that different in his three full seasons from a wRC+ standpoint, meanwhile his power continues to improve and I still think he has another level or two to uncover. Now if we could just get Ned Yost to stop playing every damn game. Lorenzo Cain kind of fits this mold. Andrelton Simmons and Gregory Polanco are two guys I see in this mold going forward, too.

For more on Crawford, check out Jeff Sullivan’s piece on the front page, too.

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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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dl80
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dl80

This seems like a really good job by the Giants (and it gives Crawford security for the rest of his life).

It seems like Crawford’s floor is basically a 2-win player because of his great defense. So even if he gave back all the offensive gains (unlikely), he’d be worth somewhere around $15 million per year if he were a free agent (maybe less if we think defense isn’t paid the same way).

2 years of arbitration might easily go 6/9 (or more), so that’s like $4/60. $15 mil per year for an elite defense guy in his 31, 32, 33, 34 year old seasons seems about right. There’s a little risk to the Giants if his defense AND offense falls off precipitously after age 31. But as long as EITHER his offense OR his defense holds up, he should easily be worth the $15 million per.

And the Giants get some protection against outrageous arb award next year and sky-high contract demands if his offense keeps gaining.