Craig a Dangerous Weapon for Cardinals

On the same day he took home the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, Lance Berkman was given the day off in favor of Allen Craig. This raised a few eyebrows, as Berkman had started and hit in the middle of the order in each of the Cardinals’ first eight postseason games. But in Craig, the Cardinals had an apt replacement, and perhaps the best bench player in this year’s postseason.

Craig displayed the light tower power that he is capable of in his second trip to the plate last night, unloading on a Randy Wolf pitch and taking it to out deep to right field. There was talk of the wind blowing out to right field last night, but while the home run from Matt Holliday may have qualified as wind-aided, Craig’s blast probably gets out on any day. It’s nothing to new to Craig.

The quintessential player without a position, St. Louis has seemingly not known what to do with Craig throughout his professional career. Drafted in the eighth round in 2006 out of the University of California, Berkeley, Craig saw time at shortstop, second and third base in his pro debut that summer. In 2007, he consolidated to third base, but saw time at first base as well. He carried both of those over into 2008, but also added 17 games in left field to the mix. In 2009, he made his Triple-A debut and for the first time his primary position was left field rather than third, though he saw time at all four corner spots. In 2010, the Cardinals could no longer deny his bat — his wOBA’s from stop to stop from 2007-2009 read .400, .450, .386 and .400 — and he made the Opening Day roster. But after garnering only 20 plate appearances in the RedBirds’ first 17 games — all as an outfielder or pinch-hitter — he was sent back to Memphis. There, for the first time ever, he didn’t play even one inning at third base, though his blurb in this year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook said he was still taking grounders at third. This year, the experimentation continued, as Craig was thrown back into the keystone mix. He started once at second in Memphis, and started eight times at second for the big Birds in May. Ultimately, he moved back to the outfield, spelling Berkman, Holliday and Jon Jay during the second half.

The lack of a true position has conspired to turn Craig into a late bloomer. But blooming he is. He sowed the seeds in the second half last year, as he put up a respectable but not flashy .284/.330/.484 in 103 plate appearances. The total was low, because while he started 24 games, he only finished seven of them, as the ever-tinkering Tony La Russa was nearly always on hand with a defensive replacement. This season, that ratio more or less persisted, as Craig finished only 20 of the 62 games he started. But he keeps turning up in the lineup, and his bat is why.

Looking at the past decade, we find that there is a decent sample of late bloomers — players whose first or second Major League seasons came from ages 25-30. Craig is a standout among that group. His .240 ISO this year, ranks him eighth out of the 190 in that group (min. 200 PA):

Num Player Year Age ISO
1 Chris Duncan 2006 25 .296
2 Luke Scott 2006 28 .285
3 Ryan Howard 2005 25 .279
4 Garrett Jones 2009 28 .274
5 Jason Bay 2004 25 .268
6 Josh Hamilton 2007 26 .262
7 Chad Tracy 2005 25 .245
8 Allen Craig 2011 26 .240
9 Jay Gibbons 2002 25 .235
10 Dan Uggla 2007 27 .234
11 Chris Heisey 2011 26 .233
12 Travis Hafner 2003 26 .230
13 Josh Hamilton 2008 27 .226
14 Hideki Matsui 2004 30 .224
15 Mark Trumbo 2011 25 .223

We seem to have two types of players here. Players that went on to have All-Star careers, or players that never grew out of their part-time role. Whether Craig can achieve the former may not be in his control. If St. Louis resigns Pujols, they will be covered at all four corners next season, which would probably limit him to something in the 400 plate appearance range (a range he may have hit this year if he didn’t miss more than two months due to injuries). But there is reason to believe that his output this season wasn’t a fluke. While Craig did have a high BABIP, we can see from his Minor League numbers that he has a pattern of generating high BABIP’s — at least .329 in any of his full season stops. And while the samples are small, he showed a proficiency against all pitches he was thrown. He also displayed an improved approach at the plate. In the NLDS, he led the Cardinals with four walks, despite not playing in the final two games once Holliday returned. Last night was his first start since, and Craig delivered. On a night when Wolf kept the Cardinals from finishing rallies, Craig’s homer helped keep the Cards within shouting distance.

Carlos Gomez, Andruw Jones, Jesus Montero (who won’t be a part-time player for long) and John Mayberry (who had a very similar season to Craig but was in his third Major League season and is a year older) are or were valuable part-time players for this year’s group of postseason entrants. But in Craig, the Cards may have the most valuable bench player in this postseason, especially given the gimpy status of Berkman and Holliday. Should the Cards reach the World Series, his bat will keep St. Louis on even footing in American League ballparks, and if he ever gets a chance to play full time, Allen Craig could be an even more dangerous man.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Say Hey
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Say Hey
4 years 11 months ago

if it were up to Sabres, Craig would have been banished to the non-prospect scrap pile being that he’s already at the advanced age at 27.

Union of Concerned Scientists
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Union of Concerned Scientists
4 years 11 months ago

This is an uninformed, poorly thought out statement. Many of the sabermetrically-oriented Cards fans have been calling for Craig to get a shot for over three years. In fact, things are almost the opposite of your claim – one could make a good argument that if sabermetrics were a larger part of the calculus, Craig would have had a shot much EARLIER.

I’ve got my own gripes about sabermetrics, but your complaint sounds like a hammer looking for a nail.

CircleChange11
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CircleChange11
4 years 11 months ago

Agree with you about sabermetric guys and CRaig.

The problem is “where”?

Pujols is well, Pujols. Berkamn has been awesome in RF (overall, that is). Ray has had a very good year in RF and CF. Holliday has LF occupied and does very well. Freese has also been very good at 3B.

If Craig could play 2B,I’d be happy as a pig in sh, err mud. *grin*

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
4 years 11 months ago

Circle, it’s not so much that Craig needed a shot this year, when the corners are pretty well stocked. But there was really no excuse for not giving him an extended look in 2010 (or even 2009), when you have guys like Nick Stavinoha (ugh) getting extended playing time during the season, and (in the absence of David Freese) a variety of shortstops and utility men manning third base. It was obvious to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Cardinals farm system that Craig had much more potential than the likes of Stavinoha and Tyler Greene.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 11 months ago

I, too, was guilty of lumping him into the Stavinoha-Mather-4th OF group. He’s clearly better than those guys.

I believe it was VEP that got me turned around on Allen Craig.

CardinalRules
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CardinalRules
4 years 11 months ago

Really glad that there are finally posts about the Cardinals on Fangraphs. I really appreciate it. So many times it seems that FG has an AL bias…then an East bias…then a West bias….and finally they look at the NL Central, which is lowest on their totem pole. Believe it or not, the game of baseball is still played out here.

Felonius_Monk
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Felonius_Monk
4 years 11 months ago

I think that might be fair comment actually. Without going back through the archives, it does seem to me that there’s been an unusual lack of Cardinals posts on FG this year, especially for a team that made the biggest trade of the season (Rasmus for Jackson/Dotel/Rzepcsinski). There’s been quite a lot of sabermetrically interesting stuff going on in StL, I think – Berkman’s amazing comeback, Holliday’s first couple of months when he was on track for an 11 WAR season, Garcia’s first half, and some really interesting stuff in the bullpen – particularly Jason Motte’s emergence as a real bullpen ace, without finding an obviously dominant second pitch, after three years as a kinda OK-ish setup guy who struggled due to a lack of a second pitch. The emergence of a bunch of relatively unheralded late-bloomers with solid minor league careers (Craig, Jay, and Freese especially) who ended up putting up excellent seasons. All this stuff maybe deserved a post or two.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 11 months ago

Well, as they mentioned in the broadcast, Freese was 23 and still i college.

In the minors, there was no question that Freese could hit, but he had DUI problems, and due to giving up baseball after high school, there were also likely commitment questions (especially in combination with the alcohol stuff).

What I like most about Freese and Craig is the seemingly ease that they drive the ball the other way. That, to me, is uncommon and indicates relaxation and a successful mindset at the plate. Not to bring up Ryan Howard, but when Howard is going the other way he’s deadly, when he’s pull heavy, he’s more hit and miss.

The questions with Freese have never been with the bat, but with his brain, his fielding, his health, and his alcohol use.

When I look at Freese and Craig, I also look at what type of minds surround them. As RHBs, they have Holliday, Pujols, and even (as much as I hate to say it) McGwire. These are all guys that have an approach of looking for good pitches to hit, and if you don;t get them, take the walk. Not that just being around these guys turns Craig and Freese into all-stars, but it’s continual discussion and modeling of a very sound approach for guys that have good line drive and power ability.

Felonius_Monk
Guest
Felonius_Monk
4 years 11 months ago

Kinda disagree about Freese. I think there are some questions about his bat – namely, he’s lived on unsustainable BABIP luck for nearly a full season of PAs now and doesn’t seem to pull the ball with any power. I have some hope that skill will materialise, as he hit a lot of HR in the minors, but I wonder if (due to his inability to turn on inside pitches) major league pitchers will start to adjust to him and just bust the ball in on his hands. Seems his only hitting ability (like Yadi Molina until this year) is poking the ball the other way through a gap (and occasionally elevating one).

He doesn’t really need to hit THAT much to be useful, as a competent 3B, but I really hope when the inevitable regression comes next year and he hits considerably worse than he has done thus far the mainstream narrative doesn’t become one of serious disappointment.

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 11 months ago

I think when Freese isn’t chasing breaking balls in the dirt, he pretty much hits the crap out of the ball. When he goes with outside pitches and pulls pitches that are middle in, he drives the ball well to either field.

Don;t get me wrong, he’s not going to sustain what he’s doing in the LCS … but he doesn’t need to perform at that level during the regular season.

He can hit at the ML level and no longer looks like a deer in headlights on in between grounders.

john
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john
4 years 11 months ago

West bias? Do you have examples?

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
4 years 11 months ago

I think if Pujols goes elsewhere and Berkman plays 1B, Craig has a good shot at putting up a Ryan Ludwick or Garret Jones type of breakout season.

I think when looking at Freese, Craig, Garcia, StL MiLB status has been under-rated because it’s been all about Rasmus and Miller. Throw in Motte and StL has potentially 4-5 guys that could be league average or better full-time players to go with their stars.

I hope Pujols returns, but if he doesn’t it appears that with a full year of Freese, Berkman at 1B, Craig in RF, Jay instead of Rasmus, possibly Furcal instead of Theriotm and the return of Wainwright they could more WAR overall compared to 2011. Pujols eldewhere could turn into contracts for Furcal and Jackson.

If Pujols returns plus Wainwright along with the established bullpen is a contender as well.

Regardless the gloom and doom has been eliminated with the options they have. I’m very happy with what the FO has done, aside from getting rid of Ryan and adding Theriot.

With losing Wain in ST and Pujols off to a horrible start, ’11 ended much better than anyone anticipated. Thank you Berkman and Rasmus trade.

Felonius_Monk
Guest
Felonius_Monk
4 years 11 months ago

Also bear in mind that if Pujols doesn’t return, there’ll be a serious chunk of change to spend on other areas (the only ones that currently give me cause for concern being 2B and acquiring a backup OF/right-hander who can play a bit of CF). If we picked up Kelly Johnson and someone right-handed to back up Jon Jay, I think that’s a pretty damn solid team. No obvious weaknesses and a couple of genuine stars.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 11 months ago

Do you really think it’s sustainable though? or do you think he’ll be another Chris Duncan? Personally, I think he’s just a minor league lifer having a career year and maybe have another ML quality year next year. Cards seem to churn out these guys like crazy.

adr3
Guest
adr3
4 years 11 months ago

Allen Craig is a much better hitter than Duncan in terms of understanding the strike zone and offering at pitches he can drive. Also….Duncan was playing well until he was derailed with a neck issue similar to Peyton Manning’s current situation. I truly think Duncan could have been a useful player for a few more years if not for the injury, but Craig is a potential star.

Felonius_Monk
Guest
Felonius_Monk
4 years 11 months ago

Chris Duncan kinda came out of nowhere. Craig hit in single-A, double-A, triple-A and now MLB. He’s been an above-average hitter at every level, isn’t a liability in the field like Duncan and (presumably) isn’t going to shatter any of his vertebra any time soon. Duncan also had a really horrible platoon split, which Craig doesn’t have. The two aren’t really comparable.

I see Craig probably having a solid, league-average, bat-first career in the mold of a right-handed Luke Scott. He isn’t going to be a star but he’s probably good enough to start in a corner outfield spot for a decent MLB team.

Union of Concerned Scientists
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Union of Concerned Scientists
4 years 11 months ago

This sums it up pretty well.

Derrick Viker
Guest
4 years 11 months ago

Very interesting, I will definitely make sure check your blog often thanks for the hard work.

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