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Crawford's glove matching bat in All-Star push for Giants

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Whether he's voted in this week or selected by his fellow players, the odds are extremely high that Brandon Crawford, his wife and his four young children will board a flight to Denver next month for his first All-Star appearance in three years. When Crawford looks around the National League clubhouse, he might get a familiar feeling. 

Crawford's last appearance came in 2018, when he was voted in after a scorching first-half stretch where he was the best two-way player in the NL for a few weeks. He was 31 years old at the time, and his backup, Trevor Story, was just 25. On the other side, the American League brought shortstops who were 28, 26 and 24 years old.

No matter how the voting plays out this time, 22-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. is a lock to be on the NL team and Javier Baez (28) could be, as well. The finalists in the AL vote are 28, 26 and 23 years old.

Then there's Crawford, nearly six months past his 34th birthday, and turning back the clock on both sides of the ball. Crawford's OPS+ of 137 is the highest of his career by 23 points, and with 16 homers and 50 RBI, he's on pace to shatter previous highs. But the defensive numbers are just as impressive, particularly when you consider the fact that many around the game and even inside the Giants organization thought he was on the downslope with the glove a couple of seasons ago. 

 

"I don't think his defense has been talked about enough," manager Gabe Kapler said recently. "It's been excellent. I do think there was kind of that weird narrative floating around the last couple of years that Craw's defense was in decline, so I have to feel like this must be incredibly gratifying for him."

When Kapler took over and brought along bench coach Kai Correa, one of the best defensive minds in the business, they were well aware of the whispers that Crawford was in decline as a shortstop. Crawford and Correa discussed changes they could make to address some of the areas that had become weaknesses over time, and Correa immediately saw a difference last season. He pointed to key areas Crawford has addressed. 

The first step was reevaluating Crawford's pregame routine. He takes more grounders than just about anyone in baseball and always has loved pregame defensive work, but the Giants wanted to make it more targeted.

"We were thoughtful about a very specific type of play or different types of plays that he had tougher times with in recent years and made sure he got a higher volume in his work," Correa said. 

In particular, that meant focusing on balls up the middle to Crawford's glove side, and the Giants ramped up the pregame work there while also altering the way Crawford positions himself against left-handed hitters during games. That led to another change. Correa said it was important to make sure Crawford was a big part of positioning and shift conversations. 

"We made sure that he had a hands-on part in our positioning and that he was involved in that process so that he could feel really, really invested when we make those decisions on the field," Correa said. 

The last key is one Crawford has pushed himself. He is more muscular than in recent years, in part the result of an offseason that wasn't interrupted by any vacations as the country dealt with a pandemic.

"I think we all deserve that (break) at some point during the offseason, but I was just a lot more consistent (last offseason) getting into the stadium and being able to work out," Crawford said on Monday's Giants Talk podcast. "We progressed through the offseason pretty well, being able to add weight and add some strength and stay on conditioning. Keeping on top of it and staying more consistent has helped a lot."

In a baseball season defined in part by the incredible number of injuries, Crawford has been the rare everyday player for Kapler. He has played 61 2/3 more innings than the next closest Giant, all as the oldest everyday shortstop in the big leagues by two years. 

While the offensive numbers get all the attention, Crawford is once again a darling of defensive metrics -- which he's admittedly not really a fan of -- putting him back in the race for what would be a fourth Gold Glove. He won three straight in the middle of his career but hasn't won since 2017.

 

Crawford is tied for second among NL shortstops with four Defensive Runs Saved, placing right alongside Baez and Francisco Lindor and one behind Nick Ahmed, who ended his Gold Glove run. He is tied for eighth among all big league position players with six Outs Above Average and is third among NL shortstops behind Ahmed (11) and Lindor (10). 

Defensive metrics aren't fully reliable in small samples, but they do show a change in Crawford, at least in terms of how the numbers view him. After posting 57 DRS from 2015-17, Crawford was rated as a negative the following two seasons and just plus-one in 2020. 

The eye test backs all of this up. Crawford's steady glove has been a game-changer for a surprisingly effective starting staff, and, as Kapler guessed, it's something he is very proud of. 

"I've always kind of prided myself on being able to play defense," he said. "I came up to the big leagues because I could play defense. Shortstop -- as offensive as a position as it's gotten -- it's still a very important defensive position. 

"I still work on defense just as hard as I have my swing or any offensive changes that I've made. I still put in the work to keep my defense just as sharp as I can. It's nice that the metrics line up, I guess, with how I feel, but I don't know if you'll ever convince me that defensive metrics are very accurate."

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That's probably true, but right now they paint the same picture as all other available evidence. Crawford is once again one of the best players in the National League, a huge development for a team with championship aspirations and a new staff that wasn't quite sure what it would be getting at shortstop. Correa knew what was being said about Crawford's defensive future when he came to San Francisco, but he has found those thoughts to "very much not be true."

"Playing shortstop every single day is an incredibly demanding responsibility, especially for someone who has done it with bumps and bruises year after year after year without a true backup," Correa said. "What we've seen more than anything else is that when he's healthy and refreshed and prepared the right way, he's the equivalent -- if not the superior defender -- to when he was in his younger years."

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