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October 2, 2012
The Ever-Changing Mechanics of Carl Crawford
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A tragic combination of limited upside and bad makeup, Chad Moriyama is in his fifth year as a blogger covering the Los Angeles Dodgers at ChadMoriyama.com, the only domain name he wouldn’t get tired of eventually. An expert at thinking he knows what he’s talking about, you can follow him on Twitter, find him on Facebook, or contact him at email@example.com. He also makes amusing moving pictures at MLB GIFS.
It’s easy to forget that Carl Crawford was one of the most desired free agents of the 2010 class, until one recalls that he was coming off an MVP-caliber season in which he hit .307/.356/.495/.851 as a plus-plus defender and a plus-plus runner. Unfortunately, after getting the mega-contract he sought, Crawford has fought through two injury-filled seasons with the Red Sox that have seen his batting line dip to .260/.292/.419 and both his defense and baserunning fall to merely average. His stock plummeted far enough that in order for the Dodgers to acquire Adrian Gonzalez via trade, they needed to be convinced to bail out the Red Sox by taking on Crawford’s contract (and Josh Beckett’s).
Crawford is now the Dodgers’ problem for the next five years, part of which he’ll spend recuperating from Tommy John surgery. For a lot of Dodgers fans (myself included), Crawford’s future is a significant concern going forward.
Quality analysis regarding Crawford’s role in the deal has been done all over the Internet, focusing especially on his contract and its ramifications. As such, I was more interested in knowing whether there was anything that Dodger scouts might have seen that could have made the front office willing to take on the significant risk. After all, why was the team so willing to take on an albatross of a contract for a guy performing at near replacement level? Surely they weren’t willing to take on over $200 million under the assumption that only Gonzalez would produce, right?
Crawford’s offensive capabilities seemed to bounce back a bit in 2012 after his horrid 2011. In his last seven seasons in Tampa Bay, he posted a .301/.344/.461/.806 line, good for a .282 TAv. Obviously, that dipped in his debut year with Boston, as he checked in at .255/.289/.405/.694 (.247 TAv). But despite missing most of this season due to injury, he had a resurgence of sorts, posting a .282/.306/.479/.785 line (.267).
Those 2012 offensive numbers piqued my interest, but in light of the small-ish sample size (125 PA), it would be unreasonable to conclude anything from that stretch, statistically speaking. As such, I turned my attention to whether there were mechanical changes in Crawford’s swing that could explain his struggles last year, and if so, whether he got back to basics in 2012.
What I found were significant differences in Crawford’s setup, approach, and swing mechanics in all three years. (Click to expand still images and GIFs.)
In 2010, Crawford’s bat was held flatter, and his hands were closer to the launch position than in 2011, but not much else changed. In 2012, though, his stance closed off a bit, making him more upright than in previous years. While the bat wasn’t laid as flat this season as it was in 2010, his hands were closer to the launch position than they were in 2011.
Basically, everything in the 2012 setup was geared toward efficiency. The less exaggerated starting alignment put him in a more athletic position, and his upper body was optimized to keep his mechanics quieter than in the two seasons before.
While Crawford’s setup changes from 2010 to 2012 were noticeable, they may have meant nothing unless the differences extended to what occurred when his swing actually goes into motion. For a lot of players, the setup is inconsequential to the eventual approach and swing (hence the diversity you see in batting stances around baseball). However, for Crawford, the significant shifts did affect what came next.
In 2010, Crawford’s hands and weight were on his back leg, and his weight transfer occurred after footstrike, just before his swing started. In 2011, though, he employed a stutter-step timing device, which hindered him for numerous reasons.
The problem didn’t lie with the toe-tap timing, as players like Chipper Jones have built Hall Of Fame careers using it. Rather, the issue lies in how Crawford implemented it. Chipper uses it simply as a timing device, as he doesn’t shift his weight at all on the initial footstrike.
Compare the three paused frames in the GIF of Chipper’s timing to that of Crawford in the middle section of the GIF above. While Chipper keeps his weight back throughout and takes a fluid and balanced approach to the ball, Crawford is choppy and almost spastic as he approaches the ball.
Crawford essentially starts his swing on the initial footstrike during his tap fest. That’s when his weight begins to shift forward, as you can see in the 2011 section of the captures above. There’s a subtle but noticeable difference between the 2010 and 2012 approaches in the way that taking the tap changes his weight distribution.
With his weight already shifted, it’s much more difficult for him to get his hips to open on time, leading to potential issues with bat speed, swing consistency, and even plate discipline because of his general discomfort at the dish.
Crawford’s 2012 approach represented a return of sorts to 2010, once again making his leg lift the primary timing device. However, in 2012 it was a lot less exaggerated, with less of a kick and a slightly earlier footstrike. Crawford still had a tendency to rush his mechanics more than he did in 2010, almost as if he was on edge at the plate, but there’s no doubt that he made a significant mechanical improvement over 2011.
2010’s swing was the ideal for Carl Crawford. He consistently showed greater hip separation compared to 2011, a consequence of being on time and balanced, and his swing plane was level throughout, allowing for an improved contact area. Watching his 2011 at-bats makes it clear that in order to compensate for his mechanical flaws, he often dipped his back shoulder as a means of getting his bat into the zone on the correct plane. The shortcut made it more difficult for him to make good contact and caused him to miss a lot of otherwise hittable pitches in the strike zone.
In 2012, Crawford was much more consistent in using his core to rotate into contact position, and his hands stayed in the zone longer. However, there was some inconsistency, and he showed flashes of reverting to the rushed, choppy stroke of 2011. Still, there were clear signs that Crawford made adjustments and experienced some success in implementing them.
Statistically speaking, given Crawford’s specific mechanical issues, one would expect to see struggles against fastballs.
Since Crawford established himself as an above-average bat in 2004, he has averaged 4.8 runs above average per year against the fastball, or 0.32 runs per 100 fastballs faced. If we exclude an injury-affected 2008 (wrist/hand), then those numbers jump to 6.2 and 0.44, respectively. So effectively handling fastballs has always been a part of his offensive success. In 2011, he saw a dip to 7.0 runs below average against heat, or -0.54 per 100. After his adjustments in 2012, he rebounded to 2.7 runs above average, or 0.98 per 100.
The statistics themselves aren’t definitive, but when we combine them with what we know about his mechanical issues, we may have an explanation for what happened during Crawford’s disastrous 2011.
It’s been three years and three different setups, approaches, and swings for Carl Crawford. In a game of inches, it’s especially noteworthy that such a productive and successful player would make such drastic changes to the way he hits in consecutive years. Still, despite all the turmoil, he seems to be back on the right path again.
As mentioned above, with such small sample sizes to work with, his 2012 success could very well just be a bunch of noise statistically. But visually, at least, it seems clear that he’s tried to go back to the mechanics that made him an MVP candidate with the Rays.
Crawford has rehab from Tommy John surgery in his future, so he faces considerable obstacles beyond his hitting stroke. With two wasted years behind him, and accounting for the typical player aging curve, it’s unreasonable to expect him to bounce back to 2010 levels, even assuming his mechanical changes will be permanent or improved upon. Yet, while the question marks surrounding his Dodgers career are real and numerous, if his 2012 adjustments are any indication, there’s reason for optimism here, and certainly reason to believe the Dodgers acquired him with the expectation that he will be a productive member of the team going forward.