Saturday, December 11, 2010

Why I'm Not Thrilled about the Crawford Signing.

First, let's get this out of the way: Carl Crawford is, at the very least, a good baseball player. In some ways, he's a very good baseball player. I'm not trying to take anything away from him.

But he has never been a great baseball player. Not ever. Not so far. Yet the Red Sox just signed him for great-player money and a contract that is probably two years too long, if we're only looking at performance on the field. Let me give you a few reasons why:

  • Item: Crawford just finished his age-28 season, which means that we've probably already seen him at his best. He may well sustain that level for several more years, which will certainly be valuable to the Sox, but it's unrealistic to expect him to raise that level, or to raise it by much. He won't get faster, he probably won't translate his speed into 70-steal seasons, and he probably won't raise his walk rate or his home run rate by enough to make a big difference. At this point, he is who he is, for better and for worse.
  • Item: Crawford plays left field, which means that he must -- absolutely MUST -- hit the crap out of the ball to justify great-player money. Yet he's never cracked the top 10 in the American League for either on-base percentage or slugging percentage. (Contrast this to Adrian Gonzalez, playing at another slugger position, whose career OBP is 31 points better, and whose career SLG is 63 points better.) Crawford's been in the top 10 in total bases once, and he's about 15-20 extra-base hits per year below truly elite numbers. Leading the league in steals and triples isn't enough to make up for this.
  • Item: Crawford is clearly well above average as a defender, with superior range, a sure glove, and enough assists to tell you that he throws pretty well. But good left fielders will never be worth as much defensively as similarly good defenders in center or right. If Crawford put up identical numbers, but as a center fielder, it would mean substantially more. 

A lot of discussion among this group has centered on Crawford's personality traits: Is he a focused "grinder"? Is he misdirected? Is he a loafer or a malcontent in the locker room? To all of that I answer: Who knows? And who knows how he'll react as a newcomer to a club with a strong culture and several outspoken leaders? If pressed, my guess is that he'll be fine -- less of a clubhouse gem than, say, Victor Martinez or Kevin Millar, but also much less of a head case than Manny Ramirez.

I understand the economics of the game, and no doubt Crawford will put more butts in the seats at Fenway, and get more people to tune in on television. The financial structure of the franchise requires continual sellouts at Fenway, and lots of ad revenue from broadcast venues. So his contract might make sense from the perspective of selling more tickets. It just doesn't make sense from the standpoint of his performance on the field.

In this off-season, Adrian Gonzalez is the steak. Crawford is just the sizzle.


(Image source.)


adamcohen said...

Great points Tim. Perhaps the best one is about A-Gon being the steak. Is it just me, or is Crawford-palooza 10X more than the A-Gon signing?

I don't know how we'd get stats for this, but Crawford has always been a Red Sox killer. Clutch situations, etc. This is about adding to the Sox just as much about taking away from the Rays and preventing him going to the Yankees.

A question - why "good left fielders will never be worth as much defensively as similarly good defenders in center or right"? Not sure I follow that.

Tim Walker said...

Thanks for the comment, Adam. I forgot to address the signing in terms of our division rivals. Shoring up ourselves (because Crawford is clearly better than, say, Ellsbury) while also weakening the Rays and denying the Yankees the chance to improve is definitely a meta-win for us.

Re left field: it's the easiest outfield position, and one of the two easiest defensive positions (with 1B) on the diamond. Center fielders must cover more ground and throw a little better; right fielders (esp. at Fenway) have to cover more ground and throw a *lot* better.

Basically, I'm following Bill James's old idea about the defensive spectrum. There's a reason we see so many heart-of-the-order sluggers who play LF and 1B, and so few who play C or SS.

Put it another way: of all the greatest defensive outfielders ever, only one that I can think of (Barry Bonds) regularly played LF throughout his career. All the others (from Sam Crawford to Ichiro Suzuki) played CF, RF, or some mix of both.

Aaron_Strout said...

Tim - as I said on Twitter, great post. And thank you for dusting off some of the cobwebs over here. I must admit, it has been fun talking shop on the BigP Facebook page however.

As you probably know, I am a fan of the Crawford signing. With that said, I also agree with many of the assertions you made in your post. Here's the wild card for me, however. Crawford played for five full seasons before Evan Longoria arrived on the scene. During those years, the Rays finished last or second to last in the AL East. Then came 2008 when the Rays finally turned things around and Crawford (after being one of the more durable guys in the league) gets injured and misses 53 games.

What am I getting at? Well, we've only really see Crawford fully healthy with a good (not great) lineup behind him offensively. In those two years - 2009 and 2010 - he put up some of the best numbers of his career. In fact, this year, Crawford had a career high in slugging percentage and OPS and his batting average was his second highest ever. More importantly, he enjoyed his two highest .OBP these last two years -- .364 in '09 and .356 in '10. While he'll never be Kevin Youkilis when it comes to plate discipline, he's no schmuck when he has protection in the lineup. We've all agreed, there will be even more protection now that he'll be batting for arguably the best hitting team in baseball.

And let's not forget how much better he'll make Pedroia (or whomever hits behind him) because his speed drives opposing pitchers crazy.

So bottom line, is Crawford worth the money the Sox paid for him? Probably not. But neither is Jason Werth. Neither will Cliff Lee at the money and years he gets signed for. Nor will Zach Greinke. That doesn't mean they aren't some of the best players in baseball, just that baseball is experiencing some irrational exuberance unlike anything we've seen in a while. The real key, as you point out, is that they took Crawford away from division rivals TB and NY and regular nemesis, Los Angeles.

Doug Haslam said...

Late to this thread of the CC party. I'll just add that I think Crawford is a terrible base runner. Blazing fast and can steal bases, but watching him a lot over the years, including a series live at TB, I noticed that he just never seemed to have a sense of the game, its situation, and where he was.

He gets by on athletic skill, but I don't see a high baseball IQ here, especially in baserunning. Expect him to screw up on the basepaths, especially on 1st -to-third situations, a lot