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.