In a season of Giants bounce-backs, this turnaround might be starkest.
According to Statcast’s metrics, Brandon Crawford has gone from the 28th best shortstop in baseball to the 16th best defender — of any kind — in all of the majors.
It’s the type of eye-opening jump that would make anyone take notice, an infielder going from 32 to 33 years old and reclaiming the form that made him a three-time Gold Glove winner.
Perhaps anyone but Crawford.
“Not a whole lot,” Crawford said over Zoom on Wednesday, asked if he paid much attention to the outs-above-average advanced metric.
Crawford is not much a believer in advanced defensive stats, which are undeniably flawed as analysts try to measure what traditionally the eye test captures: How many balls a fielder gets to, how efficient that fielder is with the ones he gets to and how many he can convert into outs. Last year, Crawford was deemed to be worth negative-5 outs above average, meaning Statcast calculated he cost the Giants five outs in the season compared with an average shortstop, whose OOA would be zero.
So far this year, while measuring how far fielders go for balls, how long they take to reach them, and how far they are then positioned from the base runner, Crawford is considered the fourth best shortstop in baseball, with four outs above average. Crawford said he appreciates the recognition, even if he doesn’t buy it. He does not feel like a different shortstop than he was last year.
“First of all, I don’t know how they’re all calculated. And then, just from one year to the next, you can see such a big jump,” said a skeptical Crawford, batting seventh and playing short in Wednesday’s “road” game at Oracle Park against the Mariners. “… I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it.”
It has been impossible not to notice how sharp the Giants’ defense has grown since Crawford began playing every day. While the word was never used, he was viewed as being in a platoon until about Aug. 16, when he began hitting his way into the lineup against left-handers.
Mauricio Dubon became an everyday center fielder. Donovan Solano played less shortstop and more second and DH. Evan Longoria has been a top-flight third baseman again, worth three outs above average and coming in as the fourth best third baseman in baseball.
Those early-season problems of Wilmer Flores’ wayward throwing and inexperience around the infield disappeared. Through Aug. 4, the Giants led the majors in errors. Their 35 is still third worst, but their -3.9 defensive rating, per Fangraphs, ranks them a more respectable 21st. There has been so much focus on swing changes, Crawford’s included, but perhaps not as much attention on an infield defense that is led by Kai Correa.
“I’ve always put a lot of pride in my defense, obviously, and always taken that pretty seriously and gone about it in a way where I feel like I’m trying to work on something every day,” said Crawford, who has five errors on the year but none since Aug. 27. “I think that I’ve seen a lot of improvement just within the last couple of months with our defense all the way around — not just infield, but all over the field.
“I think a lot of that does have to do with some of the drills and early work and stuff that we did.”
Gabe Kapler made minor waves in the offseason, when he said Crawford “at times” has been an above-average defender and pointed at his pre-pitch routine that he wanted to sharpen. Both manager and shortstop said it’s an area that has improved this year, Crawford saying he could get “a little flat-footed” on occasion in the past.
Any onlooker can tell that Crawford has made an enormous difference with his glove this season. There is now a metric that backs that up.
“He’s been steady for us. He’s been kind of the general of the infield,” Kapler said. “When he’s been out there, I think, as a group and as a unit on the infield, he’s been a stabilizing force for us.”