Allen Craig, Who Once Knew Left Field

Let’s accept that the St. Louis Cardinals could probably use multiple upgrades. Let’s accept that, publicly, the Cardinals are more focused on improving their offense than they are on improving their pitching. Let’s accept that improving a team’s offense is a complicated matter. Let’s accept that part of the problem, but not the whole of the problem, is the struggling Allen Craig. Now then, with all of that accepted, I want to show you an at bat. I promise it’ll go quick. Let’s watch Craig’s first showdown against Brandon Cumpton, from Wednesday night.

Pitch No. 1

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Fastball, inner half.

Pitch No. 2

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Fastball, inside edge.

Pitch No. 3

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Fastball, inside edge.

On three pitches — three similar pitches — Cumpton got Craig to bounce out rather harmlessly. For Craig, that’s kind of been a season theme, as his production is down and his grounders are up. The second showdown between the two, incidentally, lasted five pitches. Cumpton gave Craig some more inside fastballs and put him away with an outside slider for which Craig wasn’t prepared. Here’s why this is relevant:

Craig’s been a consistent and excellent hitter in the past. He only turns 30 in a week, and to our knowledge, he’s not currently playing through a major injury. You’d expect Craig would be  hitting well, but instead his wRC+ starts with an 8 — well below his career 126. With good hitters who’re struggling, it’s smart to bet on the track record. But it’s smarter still to go through a deeper investigation. Of you investigate Craig, you become aware of some red flags. Red flags that probably shouldn’t be there, but red flags that indicate something is seriously wrong.

It used to be that Craig saw about 60% hard pitches. This was the case each season, with very little bouncing around. Yesterday, I took a look at Josh Hamilton‘s recently unprecedented fastball rate. Craig’s going the other direction. From last year, Craig’s rate of hard pitches seen is up by more than eight percentage points. His is the biggest increase in baseball. Put a very similar way: No one in baseball has seen a bigger increase in hard pitches than Allen Craig.

You can break this down further. On the year, Craig’s held his own against lefties. He’s been productive enough against pitches away. But, a year ago, Craig saw just over 30% inside fastballs. This year he’s over 39%, indicating that pitchers are challenging Craig’s bat speed. Why might pitchers be challenging Craig’s bat speed? Because the numbers point to the likelihood that something is awry with Craig’s swing. Let’s look at Craig’s slugging percentage on contact against pitches over the inner third, and beyond:

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Craig used to handle those pitches. Even a year ago, he slugged .622 against inside fastballs and cutters. This year that’s down to .266. Against all inside pitches, he’s also slugged .266. Craig hasn’t managed to cover the inner bits of the strike zone, and the opposition has collectively noticed, leading to an increase in pitches thrown to that vicinity. There’s a scouting report on Allen Craig. It’s been updated for 2014, and everyone’s got a hold of it. It stands to reason the ball is in Craig’s court, but he’ll be fighting both struggles and presumably diminishing playing time.

Similarly, let’s take a look at Craig’s spray charts, from Brooks Baseball. This is a different way of arriving at the same conclusion.

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Before this year, Craig was no stranger to hitting the ball to left field on the fly and with power. This year he’s hit only a few balls to left in the air, and they haven’t been struck with much authority. Pull power right now isn’t a part of Craig’s game. If a guy isn’t pulling the ball anymore, and if a guy isn’t covering the inside part of the zone anymore, there are only so many explanations. Pretty much none of them is encouraging.

Before this year, Craig hit 16% of his balls in play in the air to left field. He hit 5.5% of them in the air to the left field, beyond 300 feet. This year, respectively, he stands below 6% and 1%.

That was balls in play against all pitches. Let’s narrow things down to balls in play off inside fastballs. Before this year, Craig hit 19% of those balls in play in the air to left field. He hit 5.7% of them in the air to left field, beyond 300 feet. This year, respectively, he stands below 9% and 1%. And by below 1%, in this instance, I mean he’s at 0%. Craig hasn’t yet pulled and drilled an inside fastball.

No matter the instance, there’s always always the possibility what you’re dealing with is sample-size nonsense. But I’m getting the vibe that’s only a slight possibility, because we have evidence of changes to pitcher approach, and because we have evidence that there’s something driving those changes. Pitchers are throwing Allen Craig a lot more fastballs, many of them in. Craig hasn’t handled those pitches in like he did in the past, and he’s not really pulling the ball much at all. A previously consistent hitter is in a deep funk, and all of this should raise eyebrows.

The most encouraging thing I can say is the Cardinals might have enough good hitters anyway. With Oscar Taveras around, maybe they don’t even need Craig. On the other hand, Craig’s under contract through 2017, with a 2018 option, and the deal’s guaranteed. When the Cardinals extended Craig, he was quietly one of the better hitters in baseball. There was no hint of these struggles to come, and this goes beyond just bad luck. Something almost has to be wrong with Craig’s process.

Maybe there’s some kind of injury, and Craig just needs a rest. Maybe Craig’s a mechanical tweak away from getting back to normal. I’m not a very good analyst when it comes to swing mechanics. Those would be the optimistic takes. The pessimistic take would be that this is something worse. Something that might not be so easy to solve. Something that might be some kind of permanent. We’re never really good at being able to tell when a hitter is declining, but there are questions that Allen Craig needs to answer. But it’s possible he’s not able to answer them. It’s possible Craig isn’t so good a hitter anymore.

Allen Craig needs to find left field again. He needs to find left field, or else he’ll find the bench.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Matt
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Craig’s batted ball distribution have had a general downward trend ever since he started getting regular playing time. He had lost a significant amount of loft even by last season – he was hitting more line drives and fewer flyballs. Now he’s barely even hitting line drives. This is a multiple year trend – not a 2014-only occurrence.

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