Giants' Brandon Crawford evolving into more than a 'defense-first' shortstop

SAN FRANCISCO – Having read that Brandon Crawford majored in psychological sciences at UCLA, I assumed such heady studies were beneficial in a game that seeks first to take the mind, knowing the body will follow.

Crawford, the 26-year-old shortstop for the San Francisco Giants, exudes the placid complexity of a young life in NorCal, of reaching manhood in SoCal, of a supreme California-ness that camouflages what a Giants coach called one of the higher baseball IQ's on a roster of men who'd won two of the past three World Series.

But what I really wanted to know is whether a background in psychological sciences was best served in the batter's box or in raising a child. His first, daughter Braylyn Ann, was born in December.

Crawford grinned sympathetically.

"I've seen that out there," he said. "It wasn't psychological sciences, it was physiological science, like what our trainers do. And I only did that for a little while."

And then?


Like I said, such intellectual studies would be invaluable in a game that seeks to bury those who ignore the past, knowing full well they'd one day be doomed to repeat it.

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But then Crawford is flexible like that. In his short time in the big leagues, he's already been labeled a defense-first (and only) shortstop, then a shortstop who wouldn't hit left-handed pitching, and now a shortstop whose bat is coming in all circumstances. Like a wayward piece of biographical data that clings to an Internet page for long enough that it becomes semi-reality, so we tend to box and wrap young ballplayers into areas that fit their statistics, dismiss the vagaries of growth and adaptability over 800 plate appearances, and assume what we know is what there is to know.

Well, sometimes it's true and sometimes it's not, and how we react to contrary evidence might best be left to the professors of Crawford's fictional major/non-major.

And sometimes it's true and not true over the same five weeks, which generally fouls up everything.

From opening day to April 24, what the kids like to call a small sample size, Crawford batted .320 and struck out only 14 times in 85 plate appearances. He hit four home runs, as many as he hit in 476 plate appearances in 2012, his first full major-league season. Like he'd worked on all spring training, Crawford had become top-hand aggressive – as a left-handed hitter, his left hand. With that came backspin, and carry, and confidence, and then some agreement that Crawford might not be a defense-first (and only) shortstop after all, or a shortstop who couldn't hit left-handed pitching after all.

So, perhaps, Brandon Crawford, the fourth-rounder five years ago, the sturdy, athletic shortstop who'd ridden his glove to the middle of the Giants' infield, who at this very moment has a World Series ring in an apartment drawer where he keeps his watches, whose power appears to be coming, was breaking out.

For the next week-and-a-half he hit .069, which included a night off against Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw.

Psychology, physiology, history, whatever, the game bites back. Yet, through about 20 percent of the season, Crawford has raised his batting average (.250), on-base percentage (.325), and slugging percentage (.481) to career highs. At this time last year, he was batting .198.

It takes time. It takes at-bats. Crawford said he believes the 54 plate appearances in October helped. That playing every day, against lefties as well as righties, helps. That a full season behind him helps. Now it's about showing up, figuring out that day, going home to Braylyn Ann, who really could not care less whether people believe daddy's a defense-first (and only) shortstop, and starting over tomorrow.

"I like where my swing's at now," he said. "Hopefully, that label's going away a little bit.

"You're never the perfect hitter. You're always becoming something new. I don't think people realize that. … I know I can keep getting better. And I like where I'm at."

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Scouts who hang around enough, along with his own coaches, see a player who finds places to get better. The game was a little big, a little fast, when Crawford arrived. Now it's not. Lefties buried him at first. Now he's growing more competitive against them.

The product is unfinished. A lousy 10 days cost him 70 points on his batting average. And yet the Giants win, and Crawford does not doubt that the next at-bat will be different, that his course is the proper one.

So, he said, he does not envision any major changes. Not anymore.

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