The Rejuvenation of Carl Crawford

In Tampa Bay, Carl Crawford was a star. He was one of the most exciting players in the sport and one of the main driving forces behind the team’s rise from ineptitude to World Series contender. He was a homegrown talent who excelled in all of the things the Rays valued. He was an example of what small market teams could do to overcome the financial gap and take down the big boys.

Then, he signed a $142 million contract with the Red Sox. A lot of people were against that contract, especially for that skillset in that ballpark. A speed-and-defense guy getting power hitter money for years when his speed-and-defense would almost certainly be in decline? A guy who specialized in covering a lot of ground playing the smallest left field in baseball? Crawford’s struggles in Boston made him a new kind of example; a warning to those who had strayed from the simple concepts of on base percentage and slugging percentage. Crawford became the poster child for those who felt like places like FanGraphs had gone too far with our affection for guys who accumulate value through singles and UZR.

Through it all, Carl Crawford has been held up as more than just another player; he’s been the bully pulpit for both sides. Now healthy and away from the spotlight on the west coast — yes, he’s in LA, but he’s playing fifth fiddle to Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, and Zack Greinke — Crawford has been given a chance to get his career back on track. And he is taking full advantage.

52 plate appearances into the season, Crawford is hitting .396/.442/.563, and his speed and defense are still assets, so he’s been worth +1.0 WAR in just 13 games. Of course, that would be more impressive if his 178 wRC+ didn’t put him one spot ahead of Nate Schierholtz on the leaderboard, and the variance in performance over these kinds of samples means that you could also describe his batting line as worse than Francisco Cervelli and Vernon Wells. It’s 13 games. Literally anyone in baseball can hit well for 13 games.

So, no, I’m not here to write about how Carl Crawford is back to being what he was in Tampa Bay based on the first two weeks of the season. Even accounting for injury, we can’t ignore Crawford’s 664 lousy plate appearances the last two years, and Crawford is 31-years-old now. He has a .474 BABIP. He’s not going to keep this up.

However, Crawford is doing a couple of things that I think merit some attention, even with the small sample of data we’re dealing with. As we know, some metrics have less variance around them than others, and can be more meaningful in shorter amounts of time than others. As numerous people have shown several times, most recently by Matt Klaassen back in January, there is no hitting metric that has a higher year-to-year correlation than Contact%, and the whole range of plate discipline statistics stabilize much quicker than almost any kind of outcome statistic.

You can get a pretty good gauge of a hitter’s approach at the plate in a few dozen plate appearances, because these metrics are measuring things with very few outside variables. Hitters are very consistent in how often they swing and what kinds of pitches they swing at. What is a small sample for an outcome-based statistic is a much larger sample for a process-based metric like swing rate. It doesn’t mean that there’s no variance, but the noise is much smaller, and changes in short periods of time can be more meaningful.

I say all of that because no player has shown a more dramatically different approach at the plate this year than Carl Crawford. For his career, Crawford has swung at 52.8% of the pitches he’s been thrown, and during the PITCHF/x era, he’s swung at 34.8% of the pitches he’s seen that have been categorized as outside the strike zone. Of the 163 players with 2,000 or more plate appearances from 2008 to 2012, only 19 swung at a higher percentage of pitches than Crawford, and only 18 chased a higher rate of pitches out of the strike zone. Year in and year out, Crawford has always been one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball.

Not this year. Crawford’s 2013 swing rate is 41.2% and his O-Swing% is just 22.8%, both career lows and both well below the league average rates for the first few weeks of the season. In graphical form, his Swing Rate and O-Swing trends:

Swing

OSwing

Again, 52 plate appearances. Regression to the mean still applies, even with statistics that stabilize more quickly. Crawford has probably not become a patient hitter overnight, and his career trajectory suggests that he’s going to start chasing more pitches and more pitches out of the zone than he has in the first two weeks of the season. Any time you spot a guy doing something better than he ever has before, you should expect him to start doing that thing worse in the very near future.

However, you don’t regress everything the same amount. In 52 plate appearances, you’d regress a player’s BABIP nearly 100% back to the mean, or something very close to 100%. You’d regress ISO a little less than that, but still very heavily. For most statistics, 52 plate appearances is hardly anything.

For swing rates, though, 52 plate appearances is something. It’s not everything, but in his original piece on sample sizes for various statistics, Russell Carlton noted that things like swing rate began to stabilize in “less than 40 PA”. If you just take the current swing rates for every player who has at least 30 plate appearances in 2013, the correlation between their 2013 swing rate and their 2012 swing rate is .65, a pretty hefty correlation for what amounts to a handful of games for some players.

Compared to last year, Carl Crawford’s swing rate is down 12.1 percentage points. The only other player who has cut their swing rate by at least 10 percentage points is Chris Davis, who is also absolutely mashing the baseball right now. The three guys who have decreased their swing rates by nine percentage points are Lance Berkman, Lucas Duda, and Michael Young, all of whom are off to excellent starts to their campaigns. It’s not a one to one correlation between reduced swing rate and improved performance — Kyle Seager is #6 on the list with an 8.8% swing% reduction and he has a .270 wOBA — but swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone is mostly a good thing for most players.

For Crawford, it’s probably part of the reason why he’s been one of the best players in baseball to start the year. He’s always been a fantastic all around player if you could overlook his plate discipline. Carl Crawford, being selective at the plate, is pretty close to the perfect leadoff hitter. He won’t keep producing at this level, but the Dodgers have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen so far. If Crawford sees a connection between his approach during the first two weeks and his career rejuvenation, he might very well end up making some adjustments and taking more pitches than he ever has before.

And if that happens, the Adrian Gonzalez trade might just become the Carl Crawford trade.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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D4P
Guest
D4P
3 years 2 months ago

…and Nick Punto.

rustydude
Member
rustydude
3 years 2 months ago

Beckett’s been useful, too… in keeping Matt Kemp out of bench clearing brawls. What a trade!

Roger
Guest
Roger
3 years 2 months ago

Everyone knows that it is and always will be the Punto Trade.

Nick
Guest
Nick
3 years 2 months ago

This was and will never be funny.

Steely
Guest
Steely
3 years 2 months ago

This comment wasn’t and never will be grammatically correct.

B N
Guest
B N
3 years 2 months ago

So it was funny at some point, but will never be funny ever? Contradict much?

capnsparrow
Member
capnsparrow
3 years 2 months ago

Sometimes a surgery will slow down a guys thinking to where he sees certain things from a better perspective while he’s sitting out and then applies it when he comes back. Carl Crawford will be great in LA.

Ivan Grushenko
Guest
Ivan Grushenko
3 years 2 months ago

Liposuction for everyone!

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 2 months ago

I think some of this has an ebb and flow aspect to it as well.

For example, when a player gets into “chase mode”, the advanced scouting throughout the league likely gets the word out that a player is “swinging at everything” and as a result pitchers start skirting the zone more often.

As the player adjust and stops chasing, the scouts notice and send the message and pitchers adjust by throwing more strikes.

This seems to be how it goes, as very few hitters are extremely consistent about everything.

The good news is that if pitchers notice his swing rate and challenge more often, he’ll get better pitches to hit (or more often).

Hitters that make good contact on strikes and don;t swing at pitches out of the zone generally have a lot of success*.

* I have not conducted a sabermetric research project on that aspect, only using general experience and example that really good hitters are selective and hit the crap out of good pitches.

The conflict with speedy players at the plate has always been the “balance” between being patient and trying to draw walks versus being aggressive and putting the ball in play and trying to use speed to get more hits.

Is there a “general age or experience level”, where a batter’s selectiveness tends to increase? Perhaps an age where natural skills decline a bit and mental skills need to increase (or do increase)?

Hank
Guest
Hank
3 years 2 months ago

Carl Crawford has massive home/road UZR splits while in TB. This was on a 6 year time frame (effectively 3 yr each sample) and he had a UZR/150 of around 7.5 on the road and 22.5 at home.

While people factored in the impact of playing in Fenway on defense, what they did not factor in was that the baseline # had large question marks and may have been overstating his true talent on defense significantly (for example he had an above average arm at home in TB)

So perhaps it wasn’t an issue with valuing defense and UZR, maybe it was not looking at the UZR closely enough to identify a true talent level…

Haloguy
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Haloguy
3 years 2 months ago

Speaking of Vernon Wells. Looks like the Angels should have kept him and traded Mike Trout instead.

Brian Cashman
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Brian Cashman
3 years 2 months ago

Wells for Trout? Done. We’ll even throw in Ivan Nova to upgrade your rotation.

bballislife17
Member
bballislife17
3 years 2 months ago

Include Joba and you have a deal.

Ned Colletti
Guest
Ned Colletti
3 years 2 months ago

We are looking to trade this Kemp bum and take on some salary at the same time. How bout Wells and A-Rod Mr. Cashman? We’ll even throw in Puig if you want.

Joe Maddon
Guest
Joe Maddon
3 years 2 months ago

Truth of the matter is, Crawford played terribly on purpose and faked all his injuries when he was with Boston. He also ordered the chicken, supplied the beer, and got Francona fired. Job well done.

David Wells (GM)
Guest
David Wells (GM)
3 years 2 months ago

I don’t know about the other stuff, but if he will supply me with chicken and beer he’s hired!

John Tyler
Guest
John Tyler
3 years 2 months ago

I can convert your concessions to all chicken no charge. Instead of hot dogs, chicken dogs. Instead of pretzels, chicken twists. Instead of beer, alcoholic chicken.

Big Stein
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Big Stein
3 years 2 months ago

How do you make that alcoholic chicken?

John Tyler
Guest
John Tyler
3 years 2 months ago

Let if ferment, just like everything else.

mike
Guest
mike
3 years 2 months ago

Stein – to make alcoholic chicken, just add Wade Boggs.

thomas
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thomas
3 years 2 months ago

Even if Carl Crawford has a 5 WAR year, it would still be a terrible trade.

Ivdown
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Ivdown
3 years 2 months ago

lolwut?

Victorious
Member
Victorious
3 years 2 months ago

For…..Boston?

Caveman Jones
Guest
Caveman Jones
3 years 2 months ago

Given that LA took on nearly all of those salaries and gave up quality pitching prospects when Boston had very little leverage and probably would have dumped those salaries for a bag of balls, yes this trade will still be bad for LA if CC produces 5 WAR this season.

Frank
Guest
Frank
3 years 2 months ago

No, it wouldn’t. Only a hand full of players can produce a 5> WAR. And there’s a very good chance Rubby and Webster will never be worth that much during a full season.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
3 years 2 months ago

I’d take 5 WAR from CC, 4 WAR from Adrian Gonzalez (plus the ability to never play James Loney again) and 2 WAR of Josh Beckett for that price. Prospects are overvalued.

thomas
Guest
thomas
3 years 2 months ago

Carl Crawford would need to produce 4+ WAR for the rest of his contract for the rest of his lengthy contract, in order to just justify his salary. Even if he produces 5 WAR this season, he is not going to average 4 WAR per season for the rest of this contract. Then you need to take into account that Allen Webster is showing top of rotation potential. Terrible still a trade.

Travis L
Guest
Travis L
3 years 2 months ago

Only if you assume the Dodgers need to spend their money at a market rate. They clearly believe otherwise.

They seem to spend as much as they’d like. When evaluating the dodgers, I think you have to remove the constraint of money and just look @ WAR, not WAR/$.

Ivan Grushenko
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Ivan Grushenko
3 years 2 months ago

Where are you getting this 4 WAR per year stuff? It sounds made up.

Felix
Guest
Felix
3 years 2 months ago

I feel like a similar article could be written about Pujols. For a guy whose O-Swing% and Swing-% had risen for 5 straight years, he’s showing improved plate discipline thus far.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb
3 years 2 months ago

Along these lines, I wonder if anyone has ever done any research about how long the typical “hot streak” lasts. When a player gets hot, that hot streak lasts how long? 25 PAs? 30 PAs? Is there too much variance from player to player to reach any sort of conclusions?

The reason I ask is that often when a player is going well, as Crawford is right now, it is said that he is “seeing the ball well.” It stands to reason that if Crawford is, indeed, “seeing the ball well” then he is probably doing a much better job during this streak of identifying pitches and distinguishing strikes from balls.

I wonder how long Crawford’s hot streaks have lasted in the past. Have they been anywhere close to 52 PAs or is this beyond the bounds of his normal hot streak?

Steve
Guest
Steve
3 years 2 months ago

I agree, that would be an interesting thing to look at. It’s way too early to say that Carl Crawford is “elite” again, or if he was ever really “elite” in the first place.

Bab
Guest
Bab
3 years 2 months ago

How would you define a ‘hot streak’?

Baltar
Guest
Baltar
3 years 2 months ago

I would expect that the length of “hot streaks” would vary all over the board, just as any other random entity. Of course, the definition of what constitutes “hot streaks” will, by definition, not be independent of the length of such streaks.
In short, your suggestion is absurd.

Pigs town
Guest
Pigs town
3 years 2 months ago

He has made two big swing changes. 1. Closing stance 2. Keeping bat more vertical

GenericSawxFan
Guest
GenericSawxFan
3 years 2 months ago

Carl Crawfahd is a bum and he always will be.

Chief Keef
Guest
Chief Keef
3 years 2 months ago

But who is worse those type of people or people like you who write comments like this?

William Huang
Guest
William Huang
3 years 2 months ago

“Crawford became the poster child for those who felt like places like FanGraphs had gone too far with our affection for guys who accumulate value through singles and UZR.”

Has science gone too far? YOU decide!

Tim
Guest
Tim
3 years 2 months ago

PAs are the wrong thing to be using to compare sample size for swing rate stats. Low swing rates will stabilize in fewer PAs than high swing rates for obvious reasons.

Travis L
Guest
Travis L
3 years 2 months ago

What are the obvious reasons?

Tim
Guest
Tim
3 years 2 months ago

Really?

Because the denominator of swing% is pitches, not PAs, and someone who swings less often will see more pitches per plate appearance.

momomoses7
Member
momomoses7
3 years 2 months ago

I think you’re thinking of ABs

Hurtlockertwo
Guest
Hurtlockertwo
3 years 2 months ago

Crawford said that going to Boston was a mistake, so I’m thinking his heart just wasn’t in playing hard for them. (injuries aside)

B N
Guest
B N
3 years 2 months ago

Eh, that’s classic hindsight bias. If he plays great and they win a championship, he says it’s the best decision he ever made in his life. All relative.

Mr Punch
Guest
Mr Punch
3 years 2 months ago

Re Crawford’s fielding, I keep thinking of Jim Rice’s comment that LF in Fenway is tough for a guy who throws left-handed, because it’s harder to play balls off the wall. (Note that other Sox LHH who played left – Williams, Yastrzemski, Greenwell, JBJ – have thrown right.) That might have added to the pressure Crawford felt when he wasn’t hitting.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia
3 years 2 months ago

Crawfords problem wasn’t heart. It wasn’t the wall. It wasn’t UZR.

He was simply hurt the entire damn time he was in Boston. Thats not his fault, but it is what it is.

DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy
Guest
DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy
3 years 2 months ago

*cries*

Juan Rodriguez
Guest
Juan Rodriguez
3 years 2 months ago

crawford has a tattoo on his neck that looks like a sperm

Jason B
Guest
Jason B
3 years 2 months ago

Mine just looks like a big ol’ shapeless blob of goo…

(My sperms, not my tats.)

CircleChange11
Guest
CircleChange11
3 years 2 months ago

Hey thanks for that.

Naturally, your comment will be the only thing I remember from the entire article and thread.

SQUIRREL!!!!!!!

PepeTrueno
Member
PepeTrueno
3 years 2 months ago

Still the very definition of a small sample size. I checked the data and between Sep 17 2009 and Oct 1 2009 (same number of games – 13) Crawford had a 35% swing percentage. That did not mean that the result was sustainable after that…
He also managed to be below 42% at least one other time, and has been at 45% multiple times, over the years.

PepeTrueno
Member
PepeTrueno
3 years 2 months ago

And BTW, if you were thinking that this was at the end of the season and therefore his approach changed during the offseason, the other time this happened (40% swing) was between April 24th and May 6th 2009.

Craigary
Guest
Craigary
3 years 2 months ago

Thanks for this piece. I’d been wondering about this, actually, having seen most of Crawford’s at bats so far this (admittedly very young) season. The patience is one very positive sign, but it also seems like he’s made stance adjustments after developing some bad habits in Boston. Again, injuries are a part of that and sometimes it takes awhile even before a player officially goes on the shelf, before it’s acknowledged how these things are affecting approach at the plate. (And post-injury, this has to be one reason Matt Kemp is slumping at the start of the year.) Anyway, glad to see someone better at putting this analysis together than I am did just that here, so thanks. I’m sure he’ll hit some slumps this season but if he maintains this consistent approach Tampa Carl may indeed be back after all.

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