Sometimes, a little comment can send you down a wormhole. Brandon Crawford is a glovely young man, and we talked about platoon splits — he doesn’t remember having trouble with lefties in the minors — and a few other topics, but it was one thing he said about his defense that popped.
I asked him what he did specifically that made him good at defense — last year, Crawford was the fifth-best defensive shortstop by UZR/150. The first part of the response was something you might have heard before: “I get good reads on balls, that’s the main reason I get to balls that maybe other guys won’t get to. I pay attention to hitters and how they are hitting balls, and which pitches are coming, every pitch,” he said. But it was the next sentence that turned on a light bulb.
“I’ve had the same pitchers, pretty much, since I’ve been in the big leagues.”
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Familiarity breeds comfort. If the shortstop knows the pitches that are coming intimately, he knows which way to cheat. He knows which pitches will break bats, and which could be scorched up the middle. To hear Crawford say it: “I know whether or not they are going to hit their spot with their pitches, who likes certain pitches, who will stay away.”
Ask Baseball Info Solutions about Crawford’s defense, and they like his lateral range — that aspect accounts for almost all of his 15 runs saved the last two seasons. By their metric, he was only ninth-best at shortstop from 2011-2012, with 16 plays above average. But, BIS admits that he’s had the most success behind the pitchers he’s seen the most — Matt Cain (+6), Barry Zito (+4), and Madison Bumgarner (+3). And once you unpack pitcher/fielder combos, you get more nuggets. This from Scott Spratt at BIS:
The best pitcher-fielder combinations from 2011-2012 all have better than a 10 Plus/Minus. Crawford-Cain come in seventh on that list. However, when you consider that Cain has a career ground ball percentage of 37.2%, I think that looks more impressive. The pitcher-fielder combinations in front of Crawford-Cain include pitchers Ricky Romero (54.4% GB%), Matt Harrison (46.7% GB%), Wandy Rodriguez (45.0% GB%), Zach Britton (54.9%), Rick Porcello (52.2% GB%), and Ervin Santana (38.8% GB%, but ~43.0% the last two seasons). I think in that context, it looks like Crawford may well be elite in terms of range behind his most familiar pitchers, but because of their fly ball tendencies, it is not as visible as with some others.
We’ve stayed with Crawford here, for the most part, and with Defensive Runs Saved, from BIS. But let’s put together a simple table charting the best defensive shortstops (2011-2012), sorted by different metrics, with a bonus at the end — the teams that had the most qualified starters stay with the team over that time period.
|Top SS DRS||TOP SS UZR/150||Team (QSoP)|
|Brendan Ryan||Brendan Ryan||Giants (4)|
|Clint Barmes||Jhonny Peralta||Rays (4)|
|J.J. Hardy||Clint Barmes||Reds (4)|
|Alexei Ramirez||J.J. Hardy||Tigers (4)|
|Yunel Escobar||Alexei Ramirez||Angels (3)|
|Elvis Andrus||Brandon Crawford||Cardinals (3)|
|Brandon Crawford||Elvis Andrus||Mariners (3)|
|Alcides Escobar||Jimmy Rollins||Phillies (3)|
|Alex Gonzalez||Troy Tulowitzki||Rangers (3)|
|Troy Tulowitzki||Yunel Escobar||White Sox (3)|
By no means is the correlation research-finding strong. J.J. Hardy has seen pitchers come and go and is a fine defensive shortstop. Clint Barmes doesn’t care if he’s never seen the pitcher before. Alcides Escobar just goes and gets it. Troy Tulowitzki waits two months before he learns the pitcher’s name, probably.
Then again, every other shortstop on this list has been behind a rotation in the top ten when it comes to steadiness. And Erick Aybar was 11th on both lists. And if you look at the names that sort of seem like non-sequiturs — Jhonny Peralta and Jimmy Rollins, I’m looking in your direction — they’ve been behind the same group of guys for a couple of years now.
Defense is an “extremely important part” of Crawford’s game, and something that he takes “the most pride in as a baseball player.” When Crawford came up to the bigs, he “came up to play defense.” It seems like he came up in the right place to develop a sense of familiarity with his starters. And that familiarity continues to give him a jump on the ball.
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