A few weeks after the Giants hired Gabe Kapler to be their new manager, Brandon Crawford met with Kapler's hand-picked trio of hitting coaches, two of whom are younger than him and one who is just a year older.
Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind came into the process eager to learn from veterans like Crawford, Buster Posey and Brandon Belt, and as that first meeting ended, they asked Crawford if there was anything about his swing or approach that he wanted to pass along for the new coaches to look at. Ecker recalls Crawford laughing as he left the meeting.
"He said, 'I was hoping you guys would have something for me,'" Ecker said.
As he talked about that meeting last week, Crawford smiled and pointed out that his 2019 season simply wasn't very good. When the hitting coaches met him in Scottsdale, Crawford was about to turn 33 and coming off a .228 average and a .654 OPS, his lowest since his first full season. He hit 11 homers, his fewest since 2014.
"After the 2019 season I was kind of open arms to anything, to any changes that they had for me, any thoughts, any ideas," Crawford said. "I was like, I'll pretty much listen to anything right now to kind of try to change either my approach or my swing."
A day after that initial meeting, the new hitting coaches started putting together a plan for Crawford. The work on adjusting his bat path began that January, with Crawford getting put through new drills to help him keep his bat in the zone longer. The work ramped up that spring, and after the season was delayed, Crawford showed plenty of improvement last season, posting a .792 OPS and hitting eight homers in 172 at-bats.
In 2019, Crawford walked off the field after far too many grounders to the right side, but he started lifting the ball again last year and increased his slugging percentage by 115 points. The work wasn't done, though.
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Crawford has taken another step -- or multiple steps -- forward this season, putting up the best offensive numbers of his career while continuing to implement changes. The tweaks started before last season, but they are more pronounced now. Crawford has a much more open stance than he did in 2019, and he has changed the placement of his hands, leading to less movement as he starts moving toward the ball.
"My path and swing had gotten pretty rotational, to where I was kind of just, like, sweeping across the zone instead of staying through the middle of the zone for a long period of time," Crawford said. "That was the biggest thing that we were focused on. The changes with the hands and the setup were really just to make everything easier, to be able to keep my bat through the zone as long as possible."
The simplified setup and swing have allowed Crawford to be on time more often, no matter what the pitch is or who is on the mound. He said he feels he can look off-speed but still be quick enough that he can react to fastballs, a feeling he hasn't often had in his career. He is simply reading the ball out of the hand and reacting, and the results have been one of the stories of the first half of the season.
Crawford hit the All-Star break with a .921 OPS, which ranks sixth in the National League. He currently has the highest OBP of his career by 21 points, and is slugging nearly 100 points above his previous high, which came last year. Crawford already has the second-highest home run total (18) of his career and is three from his previous career high.
Digging deeper, Crawford ranks in the 92nd percentile among big league hitters in barrel percentage, nearly tripling his rate from 2019. His average exit velocity is up 2.1 mph over the last two years, and his launch angle has nearly doubled. After hitting a groundball 49.1 percent of the time in 2019, Crawford is down to 37.6 percent.
By any measure, Crawford is a completely different hitter than he was two years ago, but Ecker said he's not surprised. The new staff had faith that Crawford was better than he had shown in 2019.
"He's so athletic, his intelligence is as high as it gets in this game, and he has a high standard for himself," Ecker said. "I think it was less about making big changes and more just about his curiosity to see, what else can be in my game? What else should I explore? What are some options? And we just let him drive the bus from there."
The end result has been the type of production that could have Crawford in the MVP conversation later this season and made him an easy selection for the All-Star team. This is Crawford's third appearance and first since 2018, a season that had some similarities to this one. Crawford was red-hot at the plate in that first half, too, but his numbers tailed off after the break. This year's surge looks much more sustainable, in part because of another area where Crawford put offseason work in.
Crawford said he was more consistent in the weight room this past offseason, in part because travel wasn't an option for his big family, and that has continued into the season. He put on muscle in the winter and has worked to maintain it. Kapler points to that as an underrated factor in this bounceback year.
"I think he's a little sturdier, I think he's probably a little bit stronger than he has been in years past," Kapler said. "Not by a lot, but maybe just enough to make the ball travel off the bat a little bit faster."
Kapler has leaned hard on his shortstop, in part because he's showing no signs of slowing down. After carrying a heavy load for the first-place Giants throughout the first half, Crawford played some of his best baseball as the break approached. He was 19-for-32 over his last eight appearances, with four three-hit games and a four-hit game over that span. His 18th homer came Saturday, leaving the bat at 104 mph and traveling 422 feet to dead center.
Even with the All-Star break and a trip to Denver coming, Crawford started all six games on the homestand, missing just two innings in a blowout.
"He has posted every single day, he has wanted to be in the lineup every single day, his body has responded well to the big workload," Kapler said. "He hasn't lost any part of his power. His left-right explosiveness has seemingly gotten better over the course of the season. His throwing arm has been incredibly accurate. He's been in the right place at the right time, and all of this just seems to be getting better."