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Does Carl Crawford’s Platoon Split Matter?

Carl Crawford was widely considered to be the biggest prize among position players this offseason, and it was no surprise that he got the big money from the Boston Red Sox. However, historically he has had a lot of trouble with left-handed pitching. It’s one thing to point out that platoon splits can be expected to regress pretty heavily to league average. But beyond that issue, how much does his platoon split really matter, anyway?

Crawford has more than 1500 plate appearances in his career against left-handed pitching, so, in his case, Crawford’s true-talent platoon skill is probably closer to his observed split than to league average. Using his ZiPS‘ .351 projected wOBA for 2011 (with steals and caught-stealing removed because we’re concerned with the batter/pitcher matchup), I get a projected wOBA of .362 versus right-handed pitching, and .322 versus left-handed pitching. That .322 is about league-average in the 2010 run environment. If that seems high for a player with a .307 career wOBA versus left-handed pitching (and a .337 wOBA career with steals removed), keep in mind that we regress so much partly because of the year-to-year volatility (partly due to a low annual sample of plate appearances against sought paws) of splits. For example, as recently as 2007, Crawford had a .360 wOBA against left-haded pitching. He followed that in 2008 with a .289. But while regression to the mean is (as usual) important, it is really a side issue for this post.

In 2010, Carl Crawford had a .306 wOBA versus left-handed pitching and still managed to accumulate 6.9 Wins Above Replacement. In 2009, Crawford had a .313 wOBA versus southpaws and put up 5.7 WAR. Crawford’s value isn’t purely tied up in his bat: he adds value on the bases and in the field even when he’s facing left-handed pitchers. Beyond that, as bad as he can be against lefties, he hits righties very well, and (like all full-time players) sees them most of the time (more than 70 percent of his career plate appearances are against right-handed pitching). One might point out that he only had a .289 wOBA versus lefties in his disappointing 2.5-WAR 2008 season, except he didn’t exactly smash right-handed pitching (.327 wOBA) either — the problem wasn’t his platoon split, but his hitting overall. Even if Crawford’s true-talent wOBA is only about .310 versus left-handed pitching and he had to face them every plate appearance, his defense and baserunning would still make him about a league-average player. He isn’t going to hurt the team when he starts against lefties (although it would be a good idea to move him down in the order, but that’s another can of worms.). Crawford’s broad base of baseball skills and hitting ability against right-handers means that, despite his platoon issues, his value is what it is: outstanding.

That is enough to briefly answer the scattered concerns about Crawford’s platoon issues hurting his value. But might not the split still matter in another sense? Teams surely know that Crawford is a much less effective hitter against southpaws, so in crucial, high-leverage situations, they can exploit this by putting in a lefty-specialist in against him, right? Since Crawford changed teams within the division, he will be facing almost the same team opponents, so let’s see if he’s had trouble in high-leverage situations in the past. This is not to assume that there is some “clutch skill” on Crawford’s part, but rather to look at Crawford’s likely opponents’ treatment of him in the past: have they been able to exploit him in high leverage situations in the past?

During his career as a whole, Crawford has a .341 wOBA in low-leverage situations, .352 in medium-leverage situations, and a a.357 in high-leverage situations. Nothing there. Let’s looks at Crawford’s Clutch score, which quantifies player performance in terms of wins in crucial situations. Again, this is not to impute this skill (or lack thereof) to Crawford, but to see if teams have used it again him in the past. For his career, Crawford is +1.5 wins in “Clutch.” If we look more closely, we do see that his highest seasonal Clutch value came in 2007 (+1.79) when he also had his best season against southpaws (.360 wOBA). On the other hand, in his second best season against lefties, (.338 wOBA) 2006, he was -0.93 Clutch wins, and during 2008 when he wOBAed .289 against lefties, he was +1.08 wins. Without going listing every season and associated performances, it is simply worth noting that there is too little correlation with his platoon performance to conclude that the teams Crawford has faced have been trying (or at least not successfully trying) to exploit his problems against southpaws in high leverage situations.

Carl Crawford is an excellent player with a larger-than-average platoon split for a left-handed hitter. Despite that split, his abilities in the field, on the bases, and against right-handed pitching more than make up for it. Moreover, there isn’t obvious evidence most of the teams that Crawford will continue to face in the near future have been able to consistently exploit his platoon problem in high leverage situations. One ambiguous note in conclusion: there is one opponent that knows Crawford every well, although he hasn’t played against them in real competition before. He will now face them quite frequently. It’s a team known for using every bit of information they have to get that extra two percent. Carl Crawford versus the Tampa Bay Rays is a late-inning match-up I can’t wait to see.