For Brandon Crawford, there's no such thing as a routine grounder. Each ball hit in his direction brings promise, even joy. Taking ground balls, which grows monotonous for many infielders, is almost recreational to him."That's always been one of my favorite parts of practices," Crawford said recently. "I could go out there and do it for hours, really." Between the zeal in his heart and the dexterity in his hands, Crawford seemed almost destined to become the Giants' shortstop. Now that he has claimed the position, some believe that he won't relinquish it for a while.
"I think he can be the shortstop for the Giants for the next seven to 10 years," said instructor Shawon Dunston, who played shortstop for most of his 18-year big league career.Crawford, 25, grew up in the Bay Area, first in Menlo Park and then in Pleasanton, rooting for the Giants. He particularly liked Royce Clayton, who manned shortstop from 1991-95.
"That's who I wanted to be," Crawford said.And that's who Crawford has become, largely because of his defensive skill.
"He's one of the most dynamic shortstops you're ever going to see," said Class A San Jose manager Andy Skeels, who had Crawford on his teams during portions of the last three seasons.Crawford has no glaring weaknesses in the field. Whether he's delivering the ball off balance or from deep in the hole, seemingly all of his throws arrive at first base hard and true. Crawford charges topped grounders as well as he ranges into the outfield for shallow popups. Every double play in which he participates becomes a blur when he handles the ball. Apparently, it has always been this way for Crawford.
"He had all the tools then that he has now," said Angelo Scavone, one of Crawford's coaches at Foothill High School in Pleasanton. "The thing that I remember about him the most was [that] his instincts were just unbelievable. You can't really coach or teach that.""The guy had tremendous passion to play defense," said head coach John Savage of UCLA, where Crawford starred for three years. "We never worried about defense for one second. He was as good a defensive shortstop as there was in the country. He was a legitimate shortstop in college. What he's doing now doesn't surprise us." Indeed, Crawford has tried to develop his game to the point where nothing surprises him. He inherited his love of the game from his father, Mike, and recalls learning how to use a glove and a bat "as soon as I could walk."
Crawford's education continued into his teens.
"When you talked to him about fielding ground balls, he was just like a sponge," Scavone said. "We talked about trying to be as 'silky smooth' as you could possibly be."Crawford worked even harder after the Giants selected him in the fourth round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
"One of the hallmarks of every great player or people who do things very well is, they practice it. Every great shortstop that I've ever seen loves going out and taking ground balls," Skeels said. "When Brandon played for me, you never had to get after him to take ground balls or put more work in. He loved to do it."Skeels mentioned that Fred Stanley, Minor League player development director and a former big league infielder, and roving infield instructor Jose Alguacil have helped Crawford refine the aspects of his game.
But Dunston, a two-time National League All-Star, didn't have much to offer when he was asked to work with Crawford.
"For what?" Dunston replied. "He's a better fielder than me."
Maybe it was more than just coincidence that the Giants were 32-21 in games Crawford started last year.Crawford believes that his mastery of defensive fundamentals bolsters his confidence. "The muscular memory just kind of carries into the game," Crawford said. "'Hey, I've taken this ground ball before.' So it's easy when a ground ball comes." Natural ability helps, too. Having played 70 Major League games, Crawford already is being categorized as an infielder who never gets a bad hop -- the same praise that was accorded the noted defensive wizard Omar Vizquel.
This trait involves more than just being sure-handed.
"You have to have quick feet," Dunston said.Crawford's keen baseball instincts also sustain him. Sometimes they manifest themselves when he's not playing defense. Scavone recalled coaching third base as Crawford was a baserunner there and the opposing pitcher was throwing from a windup. After two pitches, Crawford insisted, "I can steal home."
Scavone held Crawford, pointing out that they had no sign to inform the hitter that an attempted theft of home was afoot. Two days later, Crawford singled before stealing second and third base. Again he whispered to Scavone, "I can steal home."
Replied Scavone, "I know you can."
That sufficed as permission for Crawford, who broke for home on the next pitch and slid in safely.Observers have cited Crawford's offense as his most glaring weakness, but he has provided hints of becoming a productive hitter since learning to incorporate his hands more actively into his swing. Though Crawford will enter Wednesday's game at Colorado batting .133, he ranks second among the Giants in RBIs, with five. His hitting struggles may have prevented him from establishing himself in the Majors earlier, but now it appears as if nothing will hold him back. "I think the Giants knew all along that they got a pretty good player," Savage said.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.