Allen Craig, so far, has been one of baseball’s all-time best hitters with runners in scoring position. Yes, as in ever. This year, he’s leading the league in batting average in that split. Last year, he led the league in batting average in that split. He is the leader, all-time, in such situational batting average, and his lead isn’t small. If you sort by OPS, Craig’s near the top of the historical leaderboard — between Albert Pujols and Joey Votto. Either the man has a knack for delivering important hits, or he just makes people feel that way.
The other night, Craig batted in the bottom of the seventh in a game between the St.Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were leading 5-4, but the Cardinals had the bases loaded with two outs. J.J. Hoover threw Craig a first-pitch fastball, up and away, and Craig swung and took it up and away for a deciding grand slam. For the Cardinals, it’s been a magical season when it comes to runners in scoring position, and no one’s had more magic than Craig. And for him, this is just more of the same. Which leads one to wonder: What’s going on with Allen Craig, anyway?
Craig, of course, is simply a good hitter. Good hitters deliver good hits. But over his career, with runners in scoring position, he’s batted .392. He’s slugged .635, and if you put it all together, you get a 194 wRC+. Moreover, Craig just recently passed 400 career situational plate appearances, so we’re not talking about a one-season fluke. What Craig’s done is the kind of thing that gets an analyst’s attention. While no firm conclusion is offered below — I haven’t solved the Allen Craig mystery, either — this begs to be investigated. Here are some assorted points. This is the result of a deeper look into Craig’s career splits, born of a reluctance to just simply say he’s going to regress.
(1) The strikeouts
When you see a split that’s unusually big, you wonder if it’s capturing something real. When you wonder if it’s capturing something real, you look for other indicators, signs of a changed approach or whatnot. With the bases empty, Craig has hit grounders 42% of the time. With runners in scoring position, he’s hit grounders 42% of the time. There’s nothing there. But some people have already observed the difference in strikeouts. With the bases empty, Craig has struck out 20% of the time. With runners in scoring position, he’s struck out fewer than 13% of the time, and that’s a significant gap. That’s an increase in balls in play, and that could be the result of a deliberate process. The drop in strikeouts convinces some people that Craig really is quite different.
I’m not going to argue passionately otherwise, but I’ll note that Craig’s strikeout split isn’t unprecedented. I looked at all the active players with at least 250 plate appearances with the bases empty and with runners in scoring position. I calculated their split strikeout rates, and the correlation between them is .92. Here are the top five guys with the biggest strikeout-rate reductions, in percentage points:
- Travis Ishikawa, -7.4 percentage points with runners in scoring position (K%)
- Allen Craig, -7.1
- Travis Snider, -6.9
- Jonny Gomes, -5.6
- Wilson Valdez, -5.5
Jeff Mathis ranks sixth. I don’t know what this list is telling me, if it’s telling me anything at all. For most players, strikeout rates with runners in scoring position look a lot like strikeout rates with the bases empty. Craig’s been different, but Travis Ishikawa has been just as different. (And do we have any particular opinions about Travis Ishikawa?)
This is a point neither for nor against sustainability. Craig isn’t the first player to trim his strikeouts when there are runners to drive in.
(2) The sample
Let’s just put this out there: This is Craig’s fourth season in the majors. When a guy has been showing a trend over four seasons in the majors, one is inclined to believe in it. After all, four years is a lot, right? Sure, but we’re not looking at overall performance — we’re looking at splits, and Craig just passed 400 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. He has the equivalent of a fraction of one whole year in that split, so we can read into it only so much. Over a stretch of 393 plate appearances between 2011 and 2012, Craig posted a .979 OPS. Over his next 416 plate appearances, he posted a .770 OPS. The cliche is that baseball analysts are always talking about fluctuation and randomness. Fluctuation is real, and it’s important for us to understand and appreciate.
(3) The complication
Over more than 400 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Craig’s batted .392. That is, of course, extraordinary. If one were to look for explanations, maybe Craig’s gotten easier pitches to hit. Maybe he thrives against pitchers working out of the stretch, and maybe he’s fond of different defensive alignments. Maybe Craig just mentally bears down when there’s someone else to bring home.
But then there’s this: Craig has batted 268 times with a runner on first. He’s hit .254, with a .710 OPS. His strikeout rate is the same as it is with nobody on. If there’s something about different pitches, we don’t see it here. If there’s something about pitchers working out of the stretch, we don’t see it here. Hitting with a runner on first doesn’t have the same feeling as hitting with runners in scoring position, so this leaves open the psychological possibilities. But Craig’s been worse with a man on first than he’s been with no men on. That’s difficult to reconcile with a belief that we’re not observing interesting randomness.
(4) The clutch factor
Read that a guy does well with runners in scoring position, and you’re going to see him as clutch. You might want to believe he’s just able to focus extra hard when the pressure is on, that he can achieve a higher level. According to FanGraphs, Craig owns a 140 career wRC+ in high-leverage situations, and a 136 wRC+ in the other situations. According to Baseball-Reference, Craig owns an .879 career OPS in high-leverage situations, and an .849 OPS in the other situations. Those differences are, basically, too small to worry about. To whatever extent Craig’s performance with runners in scoring position has to do with his being clutch, by other measures he hasn’t been particularly clutch or unclutch. By WPA, his career Clutch score is actually slightly negative, not that that’s something we talk about often.
(5) The spray chart
As you can imagine, Allen Craig has been asked about Allen Craig, before. Here’s an article from the USA Today from not too far back. Said Craig:
“The name of the game is giving yourself the best chance to succeed,” he says. “If you’re trying to pull the ball in that (RISP) situation, you leave yourself susceptible to anything away. It’s always good to keep the ball in the middle of the field. That’s not to stay I never try to pull the ball with runners in scoring position, but for the most part, it’s trying to hit the ball hard on a line somewhere.”
According to Baseball-Reference, with the bases empty, Craig has hit 56% of his balls in play up the middle. With runners in scoring position, that jumps to 64%. That supports the idea that Craig has just been looking to make contact and spray the ball. The strikeout rates also support the same idea. More confusing: Craig hits for more power with runners in scoring position. So if he’s cut down his swing, he hasn’t hit like it. Craig hasn’t traded power for contact and spraying. He’s gained contact and power and spraying.
To get back to the main point, what we see here is the slightest hint of the idea that something is different in Craig’s head when there are runners on second and/or third. So that could be a thing.
(6) The words
On the other hand, from the same article:
“I feel like I have the same focus every time,” says Cardinals All-Star slugger Allen Craig, the game’s best hitter with RISP. “I’ve just had a lot of opportunities with runners on base this year. It’s nothing I try to explain.”
And the Cardinals’ general manager, John Mozeliak, speaking not specifically about Craig, but about his team:
“At some point, you typically expect some regression to the mean or some normalcy,” says Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, who is among the new breed of GMs who place great value on analyzing statistics. “Having it be sustained year in and year out isn’t a good strategy. But it could defy and be a one-year outlier.”
“I don’t think from a statistical approach you can say this is sustainable for additional years,” Mozeliak says. “For us, enjoy the ride as we take it.”
Craig doesn’t think he’s a different hitter with runners in scoring position. The guy in charge of the Cardinals figures this’ll eventually all balance out. He didn’t even try to suggest this is part of some organizational plan. Mozeliak spoke of his own team like a FanGraphs writer, and you figure he wouldn’t have done so if he believed even a little bit that this situational success is sustainable. Presumably, the Cardinals have investigated, being the team responsible for all this statistical confusion. Ask them and they’ll shrug their shoulders.
This is the part I hate writing: Allen Craig has a really interesting career split. It’s my belief that, over time, things will balance out. That’s such a stereotypical analyst perspective, but the fact is that most things regress, and regression spoils a lot of would-be fascinating stories. Craig, for his part, denies his approach changes much depending on the situation. The guy who gave Craig his contract doesn’t think there’s more to good hitting than good hitting. The only reason to believe something’s different is what the numbers say, and the numbers are based on limited samples. And so on and so forth — you know this part by heart.
Allen Craig, at least, has made a lot of people curious. Allen Craig, at least, has caused people to notice. Allen Craig, at least, has left me not completely certain he’s going to regress all the way. I don’t know if there’s really something about Craig, but I do know that I don’t know that. And that has to count for something.
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