After hitting only four home runs all of last year, San Francisco Giants' shortstop Brandon Crawford blasted his third home run of the young season on Thursday. He is now hitting a robust .352 to open 2013.
Crawford's hot start is not a small sample size fluke. Instead, there are legitimate reasons to believe that one of the game's top defenders has now turned a corner with the bat.
Though the title of the article makes it clear that Crawford's improved offense is sustainable, that doesn't mean he's going to continue hitting .352 this season. He's hitting .381 on balls in play thus far, and that part of his start is almost certainly not going to last.
The top five leaders in batting average on balls in play (BABIP) last year—Dexter Fowler, Mike Trout, Torii Hunter, Andrew McCutchen and Austin Jackson—all have much more speed than Crawford, who is just an average runner. Speed gives those hitters the ability to leg out infield hits to boost their averages on contact.
However, there are other reasons to be optimistic about Crawford's scorching start.
Even after Crawford's excellent performance this spring, there didn't seem to be much reason for optimism regarding his offense. He hit only .250 in two years at Double-A—the toughest level in the minor leagues. He then hit just .235 in his first two seasons in the big leagues. A solid spring training does not erase four years of weak hitting.
Yet Crawford's improvement actually began in the second half of last season, not this spring. After hitting .240/.287/.335 in the first half of last season, Crawford hit .260/.327/.370 after the All-Star break.
Crawford improved his performance by cutting down on the strikeouts and increasing his walk rate. He walked only 14 times in the first half against 56 strikeouts in 254 at-bats. In the second half, he walked 19 times against 39 strikeouts in 181 at-bats.
According to Dave Cameron—who is a fantastic sabermetric writer for FanGraphs—plate discipline statistics are the most important numbers to consider over a small sample. Plate discipline refers to a hitter's ability to avoid chasing pitches out of the strike zone.
In 2012, Crawford swung at pitches out of the strike zone 33 percent of the time according to FanGraphs. So far this season, he's chased only 27 percent of the time.
Crawford's increased avoidance of pitches out of the strike zone has allowed him to increase his walk rate by three percent over last year and reduce his strikeout rate by more than five percent.
Beyond the increase in walks and decrease in strikeouts, staying in the zone has allowed Crawford to start driving the ball more. He's racked up seven extra-base hits and slugged .593 in 62 plate appearances this season after slugging just .349 last year.
Any professional baseball player can look great over a 16-game sample. Crawford is certainly going to cool off some as the season progresses.
However, there are legitimate statistical reasons to be optimistic about his offense. Plate discipline numbers are the most meaningful over a small sample size. Crawford has shown significant improvement in his ability to stay within the strike zone dating back to the All-Star break last season. Thus, he's clearly a much improved hitter.
Beyond all the numbers, Crawford's swing has always passed the eye test. He's a good athlete with a pretty looking swing and some pop in his bat.
The problem with his offense was never his swing path, it was his pitch selection. If you compared Crawford to his teammate Brandon Belt just by watching a few at-bats, you would probably conclude that Crawford was the better hitter. Belt has put up better numbers than Crawford up to this point in their careers, but Crawford's hitting mechanics are much more sound.
Now that Crawford has improved his plate discipline, he's a different hitter. Instead of being an automatic out, he's become a legitimate threat with the bat in his hands. As long Crawford keeps staying within the strike zone, he's going to continue to be dangerous at the plate.
One of the most gifted defenders in baseball has gradually learned how to hit. It's a surprising development given his previous results.
However, baseball players—like all people—are not static. They are constantly evolving and changing. Some are improving, some are declining and some are performing at their previously established levels.
Early in 2013, Brandon Crawford is continuing to improve offensively. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, his hot start looks poised to continue.
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