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Breaking Down Brandon Crawford – Viva El Birdos
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Breaking Down Brandon Crawford – Viva El Birdos

Mar 8, 2024

Ya know, I was planning on writing my first Spring Training notebook of the year today. I was ready to talk about some highlights, some velocity readings, some new pitch shapes, and some other stuff but then the Cardinals went out and signed Brandon Crawford and now my spring training notebook has to wait until next week.

Thanks Cardinals.

No, actually, thank you because this team was woefully thin up the middle prior to this signing. So much so, in fact, that someone asked me on Twitter who the next shortstop up in the system would be and I had to say “probably Arquimedes Gamboa” (assuming Thomas Saggese isn’t being considered a shortstop option).

If your first reaction was to say…”who?”…then you now understand why the Cardinals signed Brandon Crawford.

At shortstop there’s Masyn Winn. Behind him is Tommy Edman who is also the starting center fielder. And he’s hurt right now. So who was behind him? Brendan Donovan, probably, and he’s not a true shortstop. So if we’re looking at guys who can be at least average or better defenders at short, there really wasn’t anyone behind Edman. Hence the need for the signing.

Crawford may not be the most exciting player in the world but between Edman’s wrist injury and Winn being unproven, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Crawford on the field quite a bit.

So, with that said, I want to turn out attention to Crawford today. Is there any hope of a turnaround at the plate? Is he still a solid defender? Can he add value to the team?

These are the questions we’ll seek to answer.

Let’s get started?


I want to start with some background. We all know who Brandon Crawford is. We all know that he hasn’t been great in the last few seasons. But just how bad are we talking? Let’s turn to Fangraphs to find out:

In recent years, Brandon Crawford has really only been bad for one season. It just so happens that the one season was also his age 36 season. Players tend to not get better after that. Crawford’s bat really fell off a cliff last year to the point where he went from being a glove first shortstop to really just being a glove.

Still, though, the quality of his glove kept him above replacement level in 2023. That’s notable. I’ll let you pick your preferred defensive stat to evaluate Crawford. Do you prefer Defensive Runs Saved? Because at -14 DRS, Crawford doesn’t exactly profile well. Is OAA more your jam? He did just great there at +6.

Or are you more of a nonconformist who prefers UZR? That’s bad news for Crawford because he didn’t grade out well there either (-7.8 UZR/150).

It’s hard to evaluate players when their defensive numbers diverge so dramatically. Is he a bad defender or a good one? We’ll just have to see how things play out this year so I’ll take the middle ground right now and say that Crawford is probably a perfectly cromulent backup shortstop.

This means I’ll also take the view that the Cardinals now have a legitimate shortstop on the roster besides Winn and Edman. That was a need. Even if the offensive production isn’t there for Crawford he will make the Cardinals a better defensive team when he’s on the field when compared to the alternative.

This also means that Edman might now be allowed to stay in centerfield without having to worry about backup shortstop duties. We’ll see if that comes to fruition.

Diving a little bit deeper into the offensive profile we can see that Crawford stuck out at a career high rate last season but his walk rate stayed right around his career average. He didn’t hit for much power but he also suffered from a nearly career worst BABIP of .241.

There’s some potential for positive regression there. Not likely enough to make him an average hitter coming off a 63 wRC+ season but it’s still worth noting.

All in all. The Cardinals got their veteran, glove first, leadership-oriented bench shortstop in Brandon Crawford.

We’ll have to dive a little bit deeper to see how much potential there is for him to improve his offensive game.

Positive Signs

For as bad of a hitter as Brandon Crawford was in 2023, there are some positive signs in his exit velocity profile.

For starters, he posted the second highest average exit velocity of his career (89.8 mph) since 2015 (the limit of Statcast data). So that monster season in 2021? Crawford hit the ball 1 mph less on average than he did in 2023.

Pair that with a 43% hard hit rate that was well above the league average of 36.3% and it’s clear that Crawford hasn’t lost his ability to impact the baseball.

He also seems to still have enough bat speed to catch up to high velocity pitching as he whiffed on just 22.4% of his swings against pitches thrown 95 mph or harder.

So why did Crawford struggle so immensely?

It turns out that there’s more to hitting than just hitting the ball hard, even if that is important. Crawford’s exit velocities might still be slightly above average but he chases and whiffs more than the average hitter and his batted ball distribution is also not ideal as he has a tendency to pull his ground balls and spray his fly balls.

I’m not expecting a great offensive season from Crawford this year. With that said, there was quite a wide gap between his .260 wOBA and his .294 xwOBA last year which, again, lends credence to the idea that there may be some positive regression in store for Crawford.

Give him a .294 wOBA and he’s pretty much right back to his 2022 levels of production. Does that make him a good hitter? Not particularly. But that would put him right around an 88 wRC+ which would represent a substantial improvement from 2023 and certainly give him enough of a bat to be a viable backup shortstop.

2024 Projections

Zips actually believes that Crawford can get back to his 2023 levels of production as it is projecting him for a 91 wRC+ this year and 1.5 WAR in 381 plate appearances.

In fact, pretty much all the projection systems on Fangraphs have Crawford getting back to a respectable level of offensive production, projecting him for somewhere between an 86 and a 91 wRC+.

Those are solid figures for a bench player. In fact, even if they are underwhelming, it’s worth mentioning that ZIPS is projecting Crawford to finish with a better wRC+ than Masyn Winn (85) this year.

Now, those numbers are factoring in Winn’s 29 wRC+ from last year but that’s not really the point. The point is that it’s certainly possible for Crawford’s bat to rebound and it’s certainly possible for him to have a respectable season as the backup shortstop.

1.5 WAR in 381 plate appearances puts Crawford on pace for 2.4 WAR over 600 plate appearances. Even though I think that’s a bit of an aggressive projection, it’s still good to see that projection systems like ZIPS do see potential for a rebound season from Crawford in 2023.

The Bench Picture

Looking beyond Brandon Crawford, the signing seems to solidify the Cardinals 4 bench spots as Crawford will likely join Matt Carpenter, Dylan Carlson, and Ivan Herrera on the bench to open the year.

Notably that pushes Alec Burleson to Triple-A unless another spot opens up due to injury.

That’s not the most exciting bench in the world but it does cover a lot of bases. Ivan Herrera serves as the backup catcher and the primary bench bat. Dylan Carlson gives the Cardinals a fourth outfielder capable of playing center field and hitting lefties. Matt Carpenter gives the team a left-handed bat who can play the corner infield, even if he is likely to see most of his time at first base and DH. And then there’s Brandon Crawford to play shortstop when needed.

Clearly the Cardinals had another goal in mind too and we all know what it is by now – adding veteran leadership. They’ve talked about it all offseason and every signing seems to confirm the Cardinals stated goal. Clearly, the team felt like there was a gap in the leadership department last year and they’ve taken major steps to address that.

So what’s more valuable at the end end of the bench – talent or leadership and a veteran presence? The front office clearly has an opinion on that and for players that likely aren’t going to play that much, it’s honestly not worth the argument.

Leadership isn’t a measurable and quantifiable statistic that I can examine. It’s not something that I have access to so I can’t really say much about the need for it. What I can do is separate Crawford from the veteran leader archetype that the Cardinals clearly targeted and say that with this signing the Cardinals filled a need and they filled it with a player who, while bad last year, does have some potential to be a solid enough backup this year.

Final Thoughts

The Brendan Crawford signing isn’t a flashy one but it’s a signing that brings a player capable of hitting the ball hard, playing a decent enough shortstop, and bringing leadership to the clubhouse.

That makes the team better even if it’s not an exciting move.

The St. Louis Cardinals needed depth up the middle and they got it. Now we just have to hope that Crawford’s bat can bounce back and his defense can stay viable enough to add value off the bench.

Thanks for reading!

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