Fantasy baseball season is nearly here, so to kick-start your 2016 draft prep, SI.com’s fantasy baseball expert Michael Beller will give a snapshot of certain players who may not necessarily be a breakout, a sleeper or a bust (all of which we’ll preview in the upcoming weeks), but could still prove influential this season.
The player: Brandon Crawford, SS, San Francisco Giants
• The 2015 stats: 561 plate appearances, .256/.321/.462, 21 homers, 84 RBI, 33 doubles, 21.2% K%, 7% BB%, .205 ISO, 117 wRC+
• The three-year sample (162-game average): .251/.319/.405, 15 homers, 72 RBI, 29 doubles
• The SI rank: No. 137 overall, No. 7 SS
• The consensus rank (FantasyPros): No. 158 overall, No. 7 SS
• The skinny: What got into Brandon Crawford in 2015? For three full seasons, Crawford was an all-glove, little-hit shortstop—the sort of player who is plenty valuable in real life because of the plus defense he brings at a prime position, but is only on the radar in NL-only leagues. He hadn’t shown much growth, either, to suggest that he could jump a level offensively. It seemed Crawford was what he was, a strong defensive shortstop who would never make any fantasy-relevant noise with the bat.
That changed last year when Crawford enjoyed a power surge, belting 21 home runs, slugged .462, and amassed a .205 isolated slugging percentage. He had a better ISO than any shortstop not named Carlos Correa, and also bested Miguel Cabrera (.196), Andrew McCutchen (.196) and Justin Upton (.203). That’s quite the company for any shortstop, let alone one who entered 2015 with 26 home runs in 1,821 career plate appearances.
Appropriately valuing Crawford requires the fantasy owner to determine just how much of his power spike was for real and, therefore, repeatable this season. After posting a career HR/FB ratio of 5.9% in his first four seasons, Crawford leapt up to 16.2% last year. Some of that was simply a function of him hitting fewer fly balls as a share of balls in play. Crawford’s fly-ball rate in 2015 was just 33.5%, compared with 42% in the previous season. That doesn’t explain everything, however.
Crawford’s average fly ball flew 305.84 feet last season, which was good for ninth in the majors. Noted mashers like Josh Donaldson, J.D. Martinez and Miguel Sano all came up short of Crawford. In 2014, Crawford’s average fly ball distance was just 278.22 feet, nearly 10% shorter than what it was last season. That’s the sign of a player growing into more power.
It’s also important to note that Crawford’s power grew significantly from 2012 to ’13 before stagnating for a year. In his first full season in the majors, Crawford hit just four homers and posted a 3.9% HR/FB ratio. The following year, he hit nine bombs and his HR/FB ratio climbed to 7%. Those might not be world-beating numbers, but they now look like Crawford’s first step toward developing into an above-average power hitter for a shortstop.
Any time a player makes a statistical leap, we want to see if there was a mechanical change behind it. There just might be one in this instance.
Let’s go all the way back to May 2014. Here’s Crawford, drilling a homer off of Matt Belisle. We’re only concerned with his setup and swing, which is pretty standard. His hands are high, the bat is quiet, and his stance is slightly open to start, but closes with a small stride.
On August 31 of that season, Crawford was in the midst of a months-long slump. He hit .173/.300/.227 in July and .193/.277/.229 in August with a grand total of four extra-base hits in that span. Here’s what he looked like at the plate in his first at-bat of the game, a meek strikeout with Kyle Lohse on the mound.
You can see that while his hands have come down a bit in the intervening months, it’s still essentially the same stance and swing.
Here’s Crawford the very next day. The difference is obvious.
Crawford’s hands are in that some lowered position, but this time he taps the bat to his shoulder as Franklin Morales is about to break his hands, a timing mechanism to get him ready to start his swing. Crawford drove this for a line-drive RBI single, en route to a 3-for-4 day with a double and three RBI. He didn’t look back the rest of the season, going on to hit. 365/.388/.541 over the final month.
For the record, here’s Crawford later that September, crushing a home run off of Andrew Cashner.
And here is blasting an opposite-field homer off Tommy Hunter at Wrigley Field in August of 2015.
The change is substantive and likely helped Crawford discover more natural power last season. That should have the Giants excited about 2016.
Crawford owners can’t bet on another 21-homer season, and he remains a rate risk. Even while he was leading all shortstops with 84 RBI last season, he was working his way toward a .256 batting average and .321 OBP. Those numbers were right in line with his career averages, though the batting average represented a new high. Still, he’s likely no more than a .250/.320/.430 hitter.
The good news is that he plays at shortstop. There’s only one Carlos Correa, and it’s going to be hard for all non-Correas to match Troy Tulowitzki on a per-game basis. The fantasy community expects Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts to continue on the trajectory they set for themselves last season, and while those youngsters certainly have higher ceilings than Crawford, his floor isn’t much worse than theirs.
As has long been the case, the shortstop position takes an ugly turn before you even get to the back end of the starting class in a 12-team league. Ian Desmond was one of the worst regulars in the majors last season, slashing .233/.290/.384 in 641 plate appearances. His new teammate, Elvis Andrus, was marginally better, posting a 258/.309/.357 slash line with 25 steals that just aren’t worth it at the rate cost he brings. Jean Segura, who will be playing second base this season but remains shortstop eligible, was right in their neighborhood, hitting .257/.281/.336. Somehow this guy slots second in Arizona’s order right now.
Here’s the thing, though. All of those guys are being drafted as starting shortstops in 12-team leagues, and comfortably so. Remember, too, that the position just lost Jhonny Peralta, a safe-floor, low-ceiling option, for the first couple months of the season because of a thumb injury. The only shortstop I like in this range is Ketel Marte, but he is still largely unproven at the major league level. Crawford is the one shortstop outside the top 100 who has almost zero risk of failing to deliver on his draft-day price.
• The best-case scenario: Crawford finds a tiny bit more power and matches last year’s rates, resulting in a .260/.340/.470 season with 25 homers and 90 RBI.
• The worst-case scenario: Last year’s power surge fades, and Crawford leaves the yard just 12 to 14 times. His rates also regress to pre-2015 levels, and he falls just outside the starting class at shortstop.