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November 24, 2010

B-Warned

Carl Crawford

by Brandon Warne

Carl Crawford is the most desired free agent hitter on the market. No disrespect to Jayson Werth, Victor Martinez, and the rest who filed for free agency, but Crawford’s speed, athleticism, and overall skill set are exceeded only by Ichiro. Given that Ichiro has never really hit the free agent market other than prior to coming from Japan to the Mariners prior to his historic 2001 rookie campaign, there’s little question why The Perfect Storm is as coveted as he is.

Some of the numbers on Crawford are pretty impressive. He’s stolen 409 bases in parts of nine seasons at a clip of just under 82 percent, which is well above the established break-even point of 75 percent. He reeled in his first Gold Glove in 2010, and if it hadn’t been for the Torii Hunter show running later than an afternoon Black Friday shopper, he may have snagged a couple more in the process, even if less than 4 percent of his career innings have been played in center field, a position Gold Glove voters tend to favor. His .279 career TAv is also nothing to scoff at, nor is his 35.5 career WARP.

Then again, there are parts of Crawford’s game that aren’t as pretty. These are the things that world-class speed can cover up, like a career .296/.337/.444 batting line that might suggest that in spite of said speed and stolen base percentages, he’s a misguided at best fit for the top of a batting order. With an isolated on-base percentage of .041 for his career, Crawford almost becomes a throwback to the days when players like Willie Wilson, Vince Coleman, and Tim Raines were commonplace. In fact, all three of these players show up on Crawford’s 10 most comparable players lists on both his Baseball Prospectus player card and his page at BaseballReference.com. Only Raines commanded the strike zone particularly well (Wilson career isolated OBP .041, with Coleman checking in at .060, and Raines at .091) of those three, and Crawford is definitely not in Raines’ stratosphere when it comes to plate discipline. Where Crawford seems to rival Raines, however, is that he plays second fiddle to today’s modern-day Rickey Henderson, the aforementioned Ichiro, when it comes to speedy, limited home run power outfielders.

None of this is to suggest that Crawford won’t continue to be productive, nor is it to diminish the exploits of Wilson or Coleman. Each of these men had long (19 and 13 seasons respectively) and productive careers at a time when their skill sets were more appreciated and widespread (players such as Lance Johnson, Willie McGee, and Otis Nixon come to mind). What both Wilson and Coleman had that Crawford has is an extreme reliance on speed. Speed is almost exclusively the name of Crawford’s game, and in the cases of Wilson and Coleman, once they began to lose that, their statistics plummeted. By contrast, Raines was able to continue to be an asset well after his stolen base totals, which ranged from 50 to as high as 90 early in his career, dwindled into the teens and single digits due in large part because he had a very discerning eye with 1,330 walks and 996 strikeouts in his career. Raines last stole 20 or more bases in 1993 as a 33-year old, but had a least five more productive (better than 770 OPS) seasons in him due in large part to an OBP that never dipped below .365 in that stretch.

So if Crawford doesn’t have the solid plate discipline to fall back on, is he doomed to the fate of Wilson and Coleman? Let’s consider their career paths. Wilson started out as a perennial MVP candidate, finishing in the top 20 in voting four times over a span of six years while swiping no fewer than 34 and as many as 83 bases with a remarkable 86.2 percent success rate in that period. At about the same age as Raines’ speed began to diminish, Wilson’s tailed off as well, as he swiped only 104 bags (at a less impressive but still solid 79.3 percent rate) in those last six seasons while hitting .262/.315/.661 (87 OPS+). Coleman, on the other hand, put up such absurd stolen base figures in his first few seasons that today's young fans might look at his totals and think he was stealing first base as well. In fact, in his second season it appears he must have been, as he stole an incredible 107 bases at a staggering 88.4 percent rate while only posting a .232/.301/.280 line. Once Coleman rounded his game into form, though, he was usually  good for an OPS in the neighborhood of .700, which may seem scant by today’s standards but usually worked out to an OPS+ of roughly 100 then. Coleman’s speed didn’t escape him until around age 34, though some might argue his sanity escaped him first as he injured Dwight Gooden in a golf club incident and a fan in a firecracker incident within the span of a few months. Coleman was part of the magical 1995 Mariners run before falling completely flat in stops in Cincinnati and Detroit in subsequent years, and he was out of baseball by age 35.

Still convinced that a general manager should throw a ton of money Crawford’s way? Granted, this is by no means a black-and-white case against signing Crawford; he’s an elite talent and looks likely to remain an asset for as long as a decade, at least according to the Baseball Prospectus 10-year forecasts. However, there’s a dangerous precedent set with speedy players and that isn’t even considering one final aspect: artificial turf. Crawford has played his entire home career on the artificial surface at Tropicana Field, which has no doubt at least began to wreak havoc on his joints as he nears his 10th big-league season. Hunter agrees, suggesting in an article from earlier this season “I’m pretty sure he has to think about that turf and that dome, and you have to think about your future first. Baseball is number one, and if you can’t play it because you’re sore every day, you learn that.” Hunter, for those unaware, played nine seasons on both AstroTurf and FieldTurf at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and openly lamented what the effects the surfaces had on his joints and limbs, and it’s not difficult to see that his range has decreased over the years.

If this is the case with Crawford, perhaps he only has three or four good seasons left. Hunter, however, just completed his age-34 season with a slash-line of .281/.354/.464 and even though he moved to right field last season, due in part to facilitate the promotion of center fielder Peter Bourjos, he appears no worse for the wear. 

Related Content:  Carl Crawford

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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aronf77

I don't think the comparisons with Wilson and Coleman are apt. Crawford has significantly more power than either of them and is a better defender than Coleman.

Wilson and Coleman don't appear on Crawford's top-ten list for Baseball Reference similarity scores (the top two are Roberto Clemente and Sam Crawford). They do appear on BP's list, but I believe those are based on single seasons, not career trajectory.

Nov 24, 2010 08:33 AM
rating: 0
 
Brandon R. Warne

It may not be too apt, but Wilson's OPS+ at this point in his career was 103 and Crawford's is 107. Coleman's was more for the speed than it was the hitting, as Coleman's speed was a much more dangerous weapon than Crawford's is, and Crawford has provided a better stick.

Nov 24, 2010 14:32 PM
rating: 0
 
redsoxtalk

I don't know if it's that Crawford lacks plate discipline so much as it is pitchers don't want to walk him at any cost, because it's like giving up a double. You see that a lot with elite basestealers.

Nov 24, 2010 08:34 AM
rating: -2
 
jamin67038

Rickey Henderson was a 'limited home run power outfielder?'

Nov 24, 2010 10:10 AM
rating: -1
 
Ben F.

It surprised me to read that too based on my recollection, but he is In 25 seasons, Rickey hit over 20hr just 4 times, averaged 16 hr per 162 games and had an ISO of .140.

For a guy with blazing speed and a tremendous eye, he had good power, but nothing more.

Nov 24, 2010 10:40 AM
rating: 1
 
Brandon R. Warne

Took the words right out of my mouth. He had decent power, but he certainly wasn't revered for it while playing a good portion of his career in the early steroids era.

Nov 24, 2010 14:29 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Um, during his era, anyone who hit 20 home runs was considered a pretty good power hitter.

Nov 24, 2010 16:24 PM
rating: -3
 
BP staff member huckabay
BP staff
(9)

Um, only if you completely ignore context. Henderson played the bulk of his career in graveyards for offense -- middle era Yankee Stadium and Oakland Coliseum. According to BP's own player card, Henderson's adjusted HR for his career come to 420, a gain of 123 over his raw career totals.

Check the dimensions of the parks he played in during his exceptionally long peak. Yankee Stadium was something like a parsec to left center field, and Oakland Coliseum had more foul territory than Love Canal.

And, in the specific case of Henderson, your chosen points and illustrative items (25 years, averages) aren't particularly illustrative. Averages are easy to lean on, but Henderson was clearly a one-dimensional walk grabber in his late career, had a peak where he was a terrifying, slavering beast with the bat, and the shape of his contributions were such that they're harder to capture accurately using coarse tools.

It's largely due to the distorted, vile, accountant-green lens that traditional fantasy baseball has created that Carl Crawford is being lumped in with Rickey Henderson. They're similar players, except for the platform on which offense is engineered -- on base percentage. Which is like comparing astronomy with astrology -- they have so many letters in common!

God, I hate roto. Like it isn't hard enough to get people to eat their vegetables or do actual arithmetic as it is.

-Gary.

Nov 24, 2010 23:44 PM
 
Schere

+infinty

Nov 26, 2010 08:15 AM
rating: 3
 
Schere

+infinity

Nov 26, 2010 08:15 AM
rating: -1
 
meanwhoogean

Good article. I've always been low on Crawford. He's great at a few things, but I don't think any team should give up big money for a corner outfielder with a career ops under .800. People have this myth about Rickey that he was stealing 100 bases and putting up 30 home runs, and it's just not true. Still and amazing player though, and my favorite growing up.

Nov 26, 2010 16:37 PM
rating: -1
 
conwell

The problem with the lower than .800 OPS for Crawford is that it's incredibly misleading. It's the problem with looking at career numbers in general, they may include information that doesn't take into account context. In Crawford's case, that means numbers from his age 20 and 21 seasons that were less than stellar. If you take those numbers out, you see a line of .301/.342/.461. The issue for the coming team is what Crawford will do in the future. Last year's Pecota projects solid if unspectacular numbers for the forseeable future. While I would worry a little about the speed, Crawford should remain good enough to be a solid player throughout his contract. I wouldn't go 10 years for Crawford, but 6-7 wouldn't be unreasonable.

Nov 28, 2010 15:08 PM
rating: 0
 
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