By Wendy Thurm
SAN FRANCISCO -- The home clubhouse at AT&T Park last Friday night was relaxed and giddy as the National League West-leading San Francisco Giants prepared to start a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins. Pablo Sandoval was handing out superhero t-shirts he ordered for himself and his teammates. Reliever Jeremy Affeldt was breaking in a new knee brace with a camouflage design and joking around with bullpen mate Javier Lopez. The music was pumping. The laughs were flowing.
In the pre-game chaos, shortstop Brandon Crawford was the calm in the storm. The same is true on the field.
"Everyone talks about Troy Tulowitzki being the best shortstop in the game," Affeldt quipped. "And I guess he is mashing at the plate. But Brandon Crawford is right up there, especially with the glove. He takes a hit away from someone every game. I'm just glad he's on our team."
Crawford's always been known for his defense, but this year he's assumed the mantle of the team's infield quarterback, with regular first baseman Brandon Belt out for six-to-eight weeks with a broken thumb and Brandon Hicks -- a non-roster invitee -- filling in most games for injured second baseman Marco Scutaro. I asked Crawford what it feels like to be the veteran of the infield, with a newcomer at second and a carousel of players filling in for Belt at first. "It's weird," he said with a wry smile. "I just go out there every day and play to the best of my ability."
It's a bit more complicated than that.
Crawford is a tremendously gifted athlete, a standout in high school football -- as quarterback, of course -- and baseball. He gave up football at UCLA, where he was MVP of the baseball team in 2006 and 2007. Giants manager Bruce Bochy calls him "acrobatic," which is fitting since he married Jalynne Dantzscher, a former UCLA gymnast. Jalynne told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2012 that she and her sisters -- also accomplished gymnasts -- joke that Crawford should throw in a gymnastics trick when turning a double play.
The Giants selected Crawford in the fourth round of the 2008 amateur draft and he made his big-league debut for the club less than three years later. He arrived in San Francisco with a reputation for circus-like plays at short and a nickname, "the Professor." All were on display in this Richmond, Va., news segment about Crawford when he was playing with the Double-A Flying Squirrels.
It was a dream come true for a kid who grew up in the Bay Area rooting for the Giants. Crawford's father brought him to a Giants playoff game in 1987 at Candlestick Park when he was just nine months old. He's been bleeding orange and black ever since.
Now in his third season as the Giants everyday shortstop, Crawford brings a quiet but intense focus to his game. He's so intense, in fact, that he rarely shows any emotion on the field, even after making a spectacular play. But don't confuse intensity with a lack of self awareness and good humor. When FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote in March about Crawford's best plays from 2013 -- and pointed out that Crawford remains stoic no matter his defensive wizardry -- Crawford responded with perfection on Twitter:
No longer does Crawford just rely on his athleticism and instincts. He watches every Giants pitcher carefully, learns their tendencies and plans accordingly. I asked Crawford how he prepared to play behind Tim Hudson, who is new to the Giants this season. "I've watched Hudson for a long time. I knew what kind of pitcher he was," Crawford said. "He has a good sinker and off-speed stuff, which righties tend to pull. I know he's good on location, so I can trust him to put the pitch where he wants it to go, and I cheat to the pull side."
Affeldt was effusive in his praise for Crawford's pre-game preparation and in-game adjustments. "Crawford plans so much better now than when he first came up. Instead of just reacting, he checks with me, to know which way to lean on his first step," Affeldt said. "His ability to know where he has to be, the kind of play he needs to make on a ball -- those are key. Early in his career, he made the spectacular plays because instincts took over but on in-between hops, he'd think too much, and make an error. Not any more."
Crawford's double-play partner, Hicks, echoed Affeldt's view. "Crawford's reads off the bat are terrific. He always puts himself in good position to field the ball well on a short hop -- the one every infielder wants."
And don't forget his feet, Affeldt added. "Flan and I were talking about it recently," Affeldt said, referring to Giants third base coach Tim Flannery. "If you watch Crawford's first step back on either a fly ball or an in-between hop, he has that ability to drop step. He's one of the quickest in the game with his feet. His ability to get the balls that [left fielder Michael] Morse can't get to are key. If those drops in as a bloop, it'll kill you. A bloop and a blast -- that's how you lose games."
Here's just a sampling of Crawford's growing highlight reel for 2014:
And then there's his much-improved hitting. No, he's not going to approach Tulowitzki's numbers, but Crawford is producing at the plate in ways he didn't in his first two-and-a-half seasons. After getting on base twice in Wednesday's victory over the Cubs, Crawford's slash line is .247/.318/.441, good for a 110 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus, a statistic that measures how many runs the player produces when compared to league average). Crawford's 110 wRC+ means he's created 10 percent more runs than the average batter in the National League.
Crawford bats from the left side, and was often befuddled by left-handed pitching. He posted a measly .275 wOBA (weighted on-base average) against lefties in 2012; that dropped to a .242 wOBA in 2013. Before this season, he'd hit only four home runs off lefties for his career, in 290 at-bats. This year, he has three home runs off left handers in just 52 at-bats, plus four doubles and three triples.
His newfound success against lefties is no accident. With manager Bruce Bochy alluding to the possibility of a platoon at shortstop, Crawford worked throughout spring training to get better against southpaws. "Our batting practice pitcher Chad Chop threw to me a lot, mixing it up. I learned to keep my front hip and front shoulder closed and trust my hands," Crawford said. Indeed, that's exactly what spring hitting instructor Barry Bonds had focused on with Crawford, and Barry Bonds knows a thing or two about hitting for power from the left side.
If you look at the advanced defensive metrics available on FanGraphs, they don't bear out Crawford's early season success with the glove, but that's not unusual. Defensive metrics tend to be quirky in small sample sizes. If Crawford continues to play shortstop and hit the ball as he has through the Giants first 52 games, don't be surprised to see Crawford near the top of the shortstop rankings by the end of the season.
His manager is already convinced. "We saw it in 2012 and against last year. Crawford has a gift. He's made some game-changing plays," Bochy said. "In the field and at the plate, he's the player we thought he'd be."
And they still call him the Professor, as they should:
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Wendy Thurm is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Bay Area Sports Guy. She has also written for ESPN.com, SBNation, The Score, and the Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.