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Brandon Crawford Is Back—And So Are the Giants

Hitting better than ever, he has helped turn San Francisco into a compelling contender with the best record in baseball.

Brandon Crawford made history just by showing up Tuesday night against the Rangers. The 34-year-old played in his 1,326th career game at shortstop, the most in Giants history. It’s a position he’s fielded as superbly as anyone else in the past decade, with two All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves in his trophy case—not bad for someone scouts once thought was destined to move to second or third base.

It should come as no surprise that the guy whose best memory of his big league debut was his first ground ball—not his go-ahead, seventh-inning grand slam—has been a mainstay at the position for so long. But two months into his 11th season, the typically glove-first Crawford has taken his offensive game to new heights. In doing so, he’s helped turn San Francisco, loaded with aging stars and reclamation projects, into the team with the best record in baseball entering Thursday.

Jun 8, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (35) is recognized as he takes the field for his 1,326th appearance at shortstop, setting a new record for the Giants, during the first inning against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field.

Brandon Crawford (35) is recognized as he takes the field for his 1,326th appearance at shortstop, setting a franchise record for the Giants, against the Rangers at Globe Life Field.

Through 53 games, Crawford is hitting .262/.354/.558 with 14 home runs in 198 plate appearances. His 147 wRC+ trails only Xander Bogaerts (149) among shortstops, and would rank as the seventh-best hitting season by a shortstop since 2010. That’s a remarkable turnaround for a guy who, coming into '21, had a career mark of just 93 and a previous career-high of 113, in '15.

So how has Crawford reinvented himself at this stage in what was already an accomplished career? With age comes wisdom, and Crawford has improved his plate discipline as he settles into his mid-30s. He’s laying off pitches outside the zone more often, with a chase rate of 29.8%—his lowest since 2014 and down from 35.6% last year.

That improved plate discipline hasn’t made much of an impact on his swings and misses, but it’s greatly improved the quality of contact whenever Crawford puts the ball in play. With better pitch selection, comes better contact. Crawford’s barrel rate of 17.1% is far and away the highest of his career and ranks ahead of guys like Matt Olson, Nelson Cruz and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Not only is Crawford hitting the ball harder, he’s become far less ground-ball-prone than he used to be. From 2018–20, Crawford’s 1.49 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio was the 38th-highest among 164 qualified hitters, placing him in the company of David Fletcher and Ender Inciarte. That number’s down to 0.87 this year, good for the lowest of his career. As a result, Crawford has 23 extra base hits, and his .297 isolated power is a career-best.

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Once an all-fields type of hitter, Crawford has abruptly become pull-happy over the past two seasons, with nearly 50% of batted balls going to the right side. That would seem to make him vulnerable to traditional shifts—and teams have shifted against him more frequently over the past few seasons—though it hasn’t had nearly the adverse effect on his results as one might expect.

Crawford faced a shift 23.9% of the time in 2018—then a career-high—and has since topped that mark in each subsequent season, reaching 43.0% this year. Despite a batted ball profile that would suggest trouble with such circumstances, Crawford has hit .311 against the shift during that span, never hitting worse than .289 in a single season.

Jun 5, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; San Francisco Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford (35) hits a double during the fifth inning against the Chicago Cubs at Oracle Park.

There aren’t many familiar faces still around from San Francisco’s Even-Years dynasty, but Crawford is one of the holdovers—along with 34-year-old Buster Posey and 33-year-old Brandon Belt—enjoying a renaissance year of sorts. Toss in veterans brought in from the outside in recent seasons like Evan Longoria, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani, and this Giants team has a ragtag way about them that makes for a compelling contender—particularly in a division with the nouveau riche Padres and defending champion Dodgers.

For Crawford’s future, his big year positions him nicely to enter the free-agent market this winter alongside an absolutely stacked shortstop group that includes Carlos Correa, Javier Báez, Trevor Story, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. Though he might have been considered safely below that top tier until very recently, he could vault himself into a much higher echelon whether he’s able to maintain something close to his current form at the plate. Crawford, who turns 35 in January, doesn't present the same long-term value as those younger stars, but teams could eye him as a viable fallback option, especially because he should come cheaper than the others.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Bay Area native and fan favorite will be changing jerseys next winter. Continued success for the team and production from Crawford could mean the band stays together beyond this season. After all, Travis Jackson—a Hall of Famer from the 1920s and '30s whose record Crawford just broke—spent his entire 15-year career with the Giants. If given the chance to sign elsewhere, it would surprise no one if Crawford opted to stick around with the team he grew up watching and put his new record even further out of reach.

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