Cherington Backs Crawford
Carl Crawford's first season in Boston was a bust. The long-time Tampa Bay Ray landed a seven-year, $142 million contract last offseason with the expectation that he'd bring his power/speed combo and top-flight defense to Fenway. Instead, Crawford missed a month with a strained hamstring and batted just .255, with a career-worst .289 on-base percentage and a .405 slugging percentage. His 85 OPS+ was his worst mark since he first became a full-time starter as a 21-year-old back in 2003, and he was exactly replacement-level according to Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement.
New Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, however, believes that the 30-year-old left fielder has plenty of championship-caliber baseball left in him. During his introductory press conference, Cherington backed Crawford:
“I was one of the strongest proponents of signing Carl Crawford last offseason,” Cherington said. “I pushed hard for that because I believed in him and I believe in him just the same now as I did then. This guy has been an impact player on both sides of the ball for a lot of years in this league. We saw over and over what he can do to help a team win when he was in Tampa.”
So, what went wrong at the plate for Crawford, causing him to look like a shell of the hitter who posted a 107 OPS+ during his time in Tampa? For one, he walked in just 4.3 percent of his plate appearances, his worst mark since 2005. Pitchers were more aggressive against Crawford in 2011, placing more of their offerings in the zone instead of off the outside corner. Check out opponents' pitch location versus Crawford from 2008-2010, compared to 2011:
Crawford's percentage of pitches seen within the strike zone climbed to 49 from 45 over the previous three seasons. And he let more of those pitches go by for strikes, as Crawford's called strike percentage increased to 34.1 percent from 30.7 percent from 2008-2010 (the league average is 31.2 percent). More in-zone pitches and more called strikes put Crawford in the hole more often: he was backed into pitcher's counts in 48 percent of his plate appearances this season. From '08 to '10, he fell behind the pitcher in 45 percent of his PAs.
Aside from showing poor pitch recognition, Crawford's batting average on balls in play took a tumble. His BABIP was .299 this past season, about 30 points below his career average before signing with the Red Sox. Check out his in-play average (including home runs) by pitch location from 2008-2010, and then 2011. With Boston, he rarely got hits on pitches thrown high and away:
His BABIP against right-handers fell somewhat (.325, compared to .341 from 2008-2010), but the drop was more pronounced against lefties (.240 BABIP, down from .298 from 2008-2010).
It's difficult to pinpoint the reasoning for Crawford's BABIP decline. He's undoubtedly one of the game's fastest players when healthy, boasting the second-highest Speed Score in the game over the past three seasons. Perhaps his bad wheel caused him to beat out a few less hits than he typically would.
Or, his falling behind pitchers so often could be a factor -- he could have been taking more defensive swings, instead of really letting 'er rip and making hard contact. The count has a significant effect on how often batters get hits on balls put in play. Overall, hitters had a .289 BABIP in pitcher's counts in 2011, compared to a .299 BABIP in even counts and a .308 BABIP in hitter's counts.
If Crawford's 2011 BABIP mirrored his career mark with the Rays, he would have had a batting average in the mid-.280s, a .320ish OBP and a slugging percentage in the mid-.430s (and that's assuming all additional hits are singles). That's not too terribly off his career .296/.337/.444 line with the Rays. Whether it be better health, improved strike-zone judgment or just a few more lucky bounces, Crawford needs his BABIP to bounce back if he's going to validate Cherington's confidence in him.