"Anything hit in that area was going to be gobbled up," right-hander Matt Cain said. "He'd find a way to get a glove on it and have a good shot at throwing almost everybody out."
The best way to appreciate Crawford's defense is to watch him daily. The 26-year-old's performance in 2012, his first full Major League season, featured a steady accumulation of barehanded pickups, deft short-hop grabs and diving stops.
Another shortstop recently displayed such skill: Henry Skrimshander, the central character in the bestselling novel "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach. Several passages in the book, which deals with relationships much more than baseball, evoke Crawford's grace with the glove.
Crawford hasn't read the book. "Somebody brought it up in the second month of the season when I had 12 errors already," he said Thursday. But he identified closely with some of the story's baseball passages when they were recited to him. After all, "The Art of Fielding" also happens to be Crawford's art. Here's how Crawford reacted to how Harbach described the expertise of a shortstop, make-believe and otherwise:
Several times Schwartz felt sure (Skrimshander) would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn't seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
Crawford: "I guess I kind of relate to that. I try to make each play as easily as I can. So if I don't have to dive or something like that, if I can get a good enough read right off the bat, I'm going to try to do that."
He'd spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came at him would bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.
Crawford: "Sounds like the perfect shortstop. I don't study the spin, angle off the bat or stuff like that. But I do watch the [catcher's] signs and I try to get a read based off that. If I see a guy take a swing, he might be trying to hit something up the middle, so I might take a half-step toward second base. It's more just knowing the pitcher, the hitter and what pitch is coming."
The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.
Crawford: "That's more like Buster [Posey]. He doesn't say a whole lot, but when he does say something, it's probably pretty important. He's the reigning MVP, so if he has something to say, you'll probably listen."
To field a ground ball ... one moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. ... The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball ...
Crawford: "As an infielder, you kind of try to develop kind of a rhythm with the position, really. But each ball is a little bit different. You move your feet. That's why we do so many footwork drills in early work during Spring Training, just to kind of get that rhythm back."
Throw with the legs.
Crawford: "There was probably a weeklong stretch last year where I was throwing almost everything in the dirt. I think [first baseman Brandon] Belt probably saved a few errors for me. I ended up getting a few, also. I think I was trying just to use my arm and the ball would sink. When it's cold out there, you really have to use your legs, because your arm's not going to be 100 percent."