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40 in 40: Boston Red Sox Player Profiles- Carl Crawford

For years as a member of the perennial basement dwelling Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Carl Crawford was the lone bright spot. He was the one player who survived the constant roster turnover that sent promising young players away from the team. When the current ownership group took control of the team, Carl Crawford was one of the players they built their 2008 ALCS championship team. In the weakest drawing market in baseball, Carl Crawford was the biggest star. When he hit the free agent market and signed a 7 year $142M deal with the Boston Red Sox, it was natural to wonder if the increased pressure of playing for one of baseball’s biggest and most intensely scrutinized franchise would get effect him.

It did. Not only did Crawford have the worst season of his professional career, he was visible effected by the pressure of his contact and the expectations that came with it. He was pressing at the plate.. His strike out spiked from a career average of 14.7% to 19.3% as his walk rate hit its lowest point since 2005.  He hit .155 in the month of April as bad luck and a poor approach left him looking completely lost at the plate. He stole just four bases in the month and was thrown out twice. His defense, a major key to his value, also suffered last year as a hamstring injury slowed him down and combined with the large green wall behind him to limit his range. In his first season with the Boston Red Sox, everything went horribly, horribly wrong for Carl Crawford.

Hitting

While Crawford was horrible in April and then again in September, part of his problem was a .031 drop in his BABIP. Crawford got a decent dose of bad luck on the balls he did put into play and that compounded with the move from playing home games in the Trop, which is neutral for lefty home runs, to Fenway which significantly depresses lefty home run power. Between the two, Crawford lost a home runs and bases hits alike. While luck should be kinder to Crawford in 2012, his ability to return to the 10%+ HR/FB rates he showed in 2009 and 2010 is highly questionable.

The good news for Red Sox fans and Carl Crawford is that beyond the bad luck, the  increased strike outs and the loss of home runs, he was not all that much different as a hitter in 2011 than he was in his previous highly productive seasons. He swung at slightly more pitches out of the zone in 2011, possibly another sign that he was pressing. His swing strike rate was almost the same as it was in 2010 and below his career levels.

Crawford can return to being an effective hitter with a bit more patience at the plate and some better luck. While his new home ball park in not going to help him hit more home runs, it should be good for both his average and for both doubles and triples, which are an important part of his game. He is not as patient as some of his teammates, but his speed and solid contact ability has made him a solidly above average hitter for his entire career and he will likely be that once again.

Defense

For the second time in his career, Carl Crawford was rated just over two runs below average in left field by UZR. Outside of those two season, he was average 16.17 runs saved per year by UZR. This is exactly why UZR drives people insane. If you watch Carl Crawford play, you are much more likely to believe the years that rate him around +16 runs than year’s like 2011 and 2007 where the system seemingly hiccups. This is why people like me constantly preach three year sample size when dealing with these advanced defensive metrics.

While 2007 was a strangle fluke, there is reason to believe that Crawford’s defensive value is never again going to be what it was. Fenway Park features the smallest left field in the game and a thirty-five foot wall that turns routine fly balls into singles and doubles. For a player with Carl Crawford’s exceptional range, playing in Fenway is a poor utilization of his best defensive tool. That said, there is learning curve associated with playing in front of the wall. A player with Crawford’s speed and instincts can learn to play extremely shallow, trusting that balls hit over his head to the wall would be not be catchable anyway. That will make it possible for him to take away many blop singles to left over the course of the season. Another year of experience could very well help Crawford climb back up into the upper echelons of the defensive metrics.

When Boston signed Carl Crawford to that mega deal, you can bet that they were conscious of the potential impact Fenway would have on his power and his defense. As much as those are real concerns, they are not nearly enough to turn Carl Crawford from a player capable of adding 4-5 wins to the team’s record to one who is barely above a replacement player on a permanent basis. While the former Ray’s star still has a lot to prove to his new fans, he almost certainly has put the worst behind him.