Asked before Game 1 of the World Series last week to compare this Giants team to the one that swept his Detroit Tigers in the Series two years ago, former Tigers manager Jim Leyland singled out the contributions from one position in particular.
“I think their shortstop is a great player,” said Leyland, now a special assistant in Detroit’s front office. “I think he’s a hell of a player.
“He’s in the right spot at the right time, all the time. Gets big hits. I don’t know what his average is, but I don’t care.”
That last observation may have been the most telling part of Leyland’s critique. For much of his big-league career, Brandon Crawford has worn the label of a light-hitting defensive specialist. A big reason: His batting average, which in Crawford’s three full seasons has read .248, .248, .246.
Crawford acknowledges that view. And, in the same calm, unaffected manner with which he makes some of the tougher plays you’ll see from a shortstop, he scoffs at it.
“I think I’m a lot better hitter this year,” Crawford said. “I don’t think average necessarily tells how good a guy’s year was offensively. I definitely contributed a lot more this year than just for average.”
Crawford said this after Game 5 against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, in which he drove in three of the Giants’ runs in their 5-0 win. It was the second time this postseason Crawford has had a big offensive night backing a shutout by left-hander Madison Bumgarner. In the wild-card game in Pittsburgh, Crawford’s grand slam gave Bumgarner all the support he needed.
The shortstop didn’t have quite as dramatic a single swing Sunday. Instead, his three RBIs came in three separate at-bats – a groundout and two singles, all after Crawford had fallen behind two strikes. They were the kind of at-bats – not flashy, but effective – that Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens lauded after the team’s light workout at Kauffman Stadium on Monday.
In the second inning, Crawford came up with runners on second and third and got enough of a James Shields changeup to hit a grounder to second baseman Omar Infante, bringing home the Giants’ first run.
“He knew he wasn’t going to get a fastball, and he anticipated the off-speed pitch,” Meulens said. “With the infield back, that’s all he needed to do, really, was hit a ground ball.
“And then the second time up, that was like a Pablo-esque swing. That ball was going to bounce probably, and he scooped it off the ground.”
That swing resulted in a fourth-inning single that scored Pablo Sandoval from second base when Royals center fielder Jarrod Dyson had trouble handling the bounce. Crawford drove in his final run in the eighth, fighting off a two-strike curveball from Kansas City’s stingy setup man, Wade Davis.
“Davis left it up a little bit, and he was able to drop it in front of (Alex) Gordon in left,” Meulens said. “So just great execution by not over-swinging, anticipating something soft. Just putting the ball in play – that’s all that was.”
That approach, particularly with runners in scoring position, helped Crawford drive in 69 runs this season despite spending most of it batting in the No. 8 spot in the order. The number is a point of pride for Crawford, who is also quick to point out he set career highs this season in triples (10), home runs (10) and on-base percentage (.324).
But the average still dogs him. Overall, in fact, Crawford may just be a player whose impact is at odds with stats.
While teammates and coaches expound upon his defense, Crawford seldom is mentioned among the top defensive shortstops in baseball. The analytics website FanGraphs, for example, ranked him 10th among major-league shortstops this season in Ultimate Zone Rating – which calculates how many runs a player saved with his defense. Crawford’s 21 errors during the season were second-most among shortstops.
Second baseman Joe Panik doesn’t buy either as a true indicator of Crawford’s impact. Panik pointed out that Crawford “gets to a lot of balls that not a lot of shortstops get; sometimes that’ll create extra errors and off-throws.”
More broadly, Panik said: “He’s the captain of the infield. He takes control out there, covers so much ground; he really does make it easy for the rest of us.”