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October 3, 2012

Punk Hits

The Bay Area Body-Swap

by Ian Miller

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Existence is random. For indisputable proof of this, one need look no further than the 2012 Athletics or Orioles. But one of the basic drives of human nature is to try and make sense of things, to create narrative, to impose order on chaos. Why else would my brain suggest to me that Jemile Weeks and Brandon Crawford have switched bodies?

Maybe it wasn’t a full-on Vice Versa body-swap scenario, but they’ve basically traded stat lines. Or are mirror images of each other. Or something.

Crawford and Weeks were born five days apart (Crawford is older) in 1987. Both were drafted in 2008 after outstanding college careers: Weeks was selected by Oakland in the first round, 12th overall. Crawford looked for all the world like a first-round pick, but was undone by a lackluster junior year and a poor showing in the Cape Cod League; he was still on the board in the fourth round, when San Francisco snapped him up (no. 117 overall).

Both men are middle infielders on playoff-bound Bay Area baseball teams. Both have had one lackluster and one solid big-league season. The germane difference here is that Weeks’ big year was his rookie campaign, whereas Crawford’s came in his sophomore season. But other than that, they’re basically the exact same player! (They’re totally not.)

But both men did have similar paths to the Show. They were both promoted aggressively by their organizations (or “appropriately,” if you prefer, since both were drafted as college juniors) and both players missed significant development time due to injury. And both made their big-league debuts in 2011.

Jemile Weeks burst on the big-league scene in early June that year, started hitting immediately, and never slowed down. He tallied 2.7 WARP in just 97 games while playing an adequate, if inconsistent second base. His .303/.340/.421 slash line was good enough for a .289 True Average (TAv)—sixth best among major-league second basemen, if we set the minimum PA to an arbitrary 200. Watching him in 2011, it was easy to become enamored of his speed (both bat- and foot-), plate discipline, and gap power. His 67 percent stolen-base success rate is alarming, but hey, he’s raw! It wouldn’t be unreasonable to project a little more power, a little more OBP, and improved defense as he matures. I mean, he’s only 24! All very encouraging, if you don’t look at his BABIP.

Period three five zero: .350. That was Jemile Weeks’ 2011 BABIP. Now of course Weeks is speedy, so we might expect higher than average, but .350? Nah, dawg. I’m not buying that as sustainable unless you’re Billy Freaking Hamilton Himself. Warning sign no. 1. Warning sign the second was when Weeks said he wanted to prove he could hit for power in 2012. Jemile, baby. Listen, we love you! You’re our second baseman for the foreseeable future. Like I was saying up there, gap power, walks, solid defense, and we’ll work on that baserunning. That’s what we need from you. We’ve got guys like Carter and Cespedes to take care of the heavy lifting. So just keep setting the table, ‘kay?

But he didn’t listen. He hit two bombs in the first eight games, then spent the next three months overswinging and either rolling over on the ball or popping it up. He ended up with an equally unlikely BABIP of .256 and a .234 TAv. Weeks managed to simultaneously double his walk rate while knocking his OBP down from .340 (2011) to .305 in 2012. See, guys? Batting average does matter!

Across the Bay in San Francisco, Brandon Crawford has been reminding people that he was once considered a first-round talent. His .248 TAv is good enough for 18th out of 37 shortstops who’ve had at least 200 PAs this year. Not great, but light years ahead of the .213 mark he put up in his rookie season and, given his above-average defense, that’s plenty.

I asked Bobby Evans, Giants vice president of baseball operations, about Crawford’s turnaround. Were there specific adjustments he’d made? “So much of this game is about confidence,” Evans told me. “This year Bochy told Crawford that was going to stick with him, and that allowed him to play to win, and not play to stay.” So was 2011 Brandon Crawford the aberration, and the 2012 version is the real thing?

“I think the real Brandon Crawford is even better,” Evans said.

I suppose that’s possible. There’s a lot to like about Crawford’s approach at the plate: he’s a strong kid with a powerful, compact stroke. As long as he doesn’t come into camp next year convinced he’s a home run hitter, you could project him to hit for a little more power. His walk and strikeout rates both moved in the wrong direction this year, so his pitch recognition and plate discipline probably need to improve. But again, he’s 25 and has limited professional instruction, so this is all within the realm of possibility.

Same goes for Jemile. Is it pollyannaish to predict improvement for both players next year? Weeks isn’t as bad as his 2012 numbers would have you believe, and he might be able to attain or even surpass his 2011 form as he approaches his physical peak. And Brandon Crawford is reminding people that he wasn’t always considered an all-glove/no-hit guy. Both are gifted athletes who will receive more instruction, more repetitions, and continue to develop physically.

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that these are kids playing this game. Bobby Evans talked to me about the incredible pressure a draft-eligible college player might feel in his final campaign, and he suggested that alone might explain Crawford’s lackluster junior year in college. The pace of a baseball game allows doubt to creep in. Many of its greatest practitioners are able to empty their minds completely. For his part, Crawford appears to have recovered from whatever was plaguing him last season. The question is whether Weeks will be able to do the same in 2013.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  Brandon Crawford,  Jemile Weeks

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