Last winter, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth both hit the free agent market, signed with East division rivals and received lavish seven-year deals securing them enough cash to make like Scrooge McDuck and dive into their own personal swimming pools filled with gold coins. Crawford got $142 million to trek from Tampa Bay to Boston, and Werth left Philly for Washington for a cool $126 million. Crawford’s average draft position in ESPN leagues entering 2011 was fourth overall, and Werth’s ADP was 47. Both were prime picks expected to anchor fantasy lineups.
Unfortunately, both landed in their new digs with a Peter Griffin-like thud. Crawford posted the lowest batting average (.255) and OBP (.289) marks of his career while stealing just 18 bases, nearly 30 bags fewer than he nabbed with the Rays in 2010. Werth hit .232 and slugged .389, popping a disappointing 20 home runs.
Suffice it to say, neither will be drafted as high in 2012. But which is the better bet to bounce back? Let’s take a closer look at pros and cons of each high-price fly catcher.
The Case For Drafting Crawford First
– A major reason why Crawford’s average dipped so low is that his batting average on balls in play was just .299 in 2011, well below his .331 average from 2002-2010. He hit a few less line drives and a few more fly balls than usual, but nothing drastically changed in his batted ball profile that would suggest a lower BABIP. In fact, his expected BABIP (xBABIP) was right around his career average, at .328. If you add 30 points of average to Crawford’s 2011 line, he has a mid-.280s average, an OBP a little under .320 and a slugging percentage in the mid-.430s (and that’s assuming all additional hits are singles). Not great, but that’s only a little worse than his .296/.337/.444 line from 2002-2010.
– He didn’t take off as much as usual, but Crawford’s 75% success rate was still above the 72% MLB average. Perhaps with better health in 2012 (he missed a month during the summer with a strained left hamstring), Crawford can rack up the steals again next year. Bill James projects 34 SBs in 45 tries, and The Hardball Times’ Oliver forecasts 29 SBs in 38 attempts.
– Crawford just turned 30 in August, so he’s not an old man and shouldn’t be expected to fall off a cliff performance-wise. He didn’t have much of an injury history with his all-important wheels prior to 2011, and research by Tom Tango suggests that speedsters like Crawford may age slightly better than most players. Bill James expects a .286/.332/.436 line and 15 homers in 2012, while Oliver has a somewhat more pessimistic .277/.319/.426 with 13 HR.
The Case Against Crawford
– Crawford showed lousy plate discipline in Boston, hacking at about 38 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone. That career-worst O-Swing led to a 4.3% walk rate, his lowest free pass percentage since he was a 23-year-old back in 2005. All of those swings at pitcher’s pitches may also have contributed to Crawford’s career-high 19.3% strikeout rate, far above his 14.2% average from ’02 to ’10. “You can’t steal first base” is cliche, but it applies here. Crawford has to get on base for his speed to come into play, and his approach last year prevented him from doing that.
– Crawford’s 75% success rate was better than average, but it was well below his 82% career clip entering last season. Also, it wasn’t just that he didn’t get on base enough to rack up high SB totals — he didn’t attempt to steal as much when he did manage to reach. Crawford tried to steal 15.4% of the time that he had the chance in 2011, compared to 25.7% of the time in past years. I don’t know whether that was organizational philosophy that might change under new management or Crawford taking it easy due to his hamstring, but it bears watching.
– He might not have a Jose Reyes-like history when it comes to hamstring injuries, but a lower-body ailment with a player like Crawford who derives so much of his value through his legs is concerning. If he’s just a 20 SB-a-year player with below-average patience and decent power, is that really worth a top-tier draft pick?
The Case for Drafting Werth First
– Like Crawford, Werth seemingly had some lousy luck on balls put in play. His .286 BABIP was nearly 40 points below his .324 average from 2002-2010. Most of his BABIP trouble came on grounders: Werth had a .213 BABIP last year, 51 points below his career average entering the season. He’s not a young guy, but he still nearly had a 20/20 season, posted above-average base running marks and anecdotally didn’t seem to lose a step or two last year. Werth’s xBABIP was .329. His line wouldn’t look so bad if he had hit in the .260s instead of the .230s.
– The 6-foot-5, 220 pounder still proved adept on the base paths with 19 steals in 22 attempts. Werth has never been a major source of steals, but he quietly nabs 15-20 per season while just about never getting thrown out (his career success rate is 87.3%).
– Despite his BABIP woes, Werth retained his plate approach and walked in 11.4% of his plate appearances. He doesn’t get himself out on junk pitches and still managed a solid OBP in 2011 in spite of his low batting average. Not many guys can pull that off while hitting .230.
The Case Against Werth
– Werth is 32 and turns 33 next May, making him significantly older than Crawford and perhaps a longer shot to toss aside his so-so 2011 and return to stardom in 2012. He’s entering the age range in which most players slow down, and that’s reflected in his projections for next year. Bill James shows a .259/.360/.451 line, 23 homers and 15 steals. Oliver has a .259/.340/.455 slash, 25 home runs and 12 steals. That’s a useful level of production, but it’s not the .275/.370/.500+-type peak Werth enjoyed with the Phillies.
– Werth’s hit many more ground balls than usual in 2011, giving another reason to be bearish about his power-hitting prospects. He had a 43% ground ball rate in D.C., compared to a 38% career averaging prior to 2011. That goes a long way toward explaining Werth’s lower HR total and his .157 Isolated Power, which was a good 80 to 90 points below what he did during his Phillies glory days. Changes in ground ball rate become reliable at around 200 plate appearances, a threshold that Werth more than tripled, and changes in ISO take on meaning at around 550 PA. So, chances are the sudden uptick in grounders and downturn in power aren’t flukes.
– Yet another reason that Werth’s offensive numbers might continue to suffer is Nationals Park’s hostility toward right-handed hitters. Per StatCorner, the venue decreases production by three percent for righties compared to an average park. It’s about average for homers, but it does a number on doubles and triples. Werth didn’t show a marked platoon split last year (he actually hit better at home), but it’s not a great hitting environment for an all-fields hitter who likes to split the gaps.
Both Crawford and Werth should hit for higher averages next year. The question of who holds more value seems to come down to whether you think Crawford’s legs or Werth’s pop are more apt to resurface in 2012. Personally, I’d take Crawford’s relative youth and potential to top 30 steals over Werth, who’s three years older and perhaps now just a good, not great power hitter in a less-than-ideal offensive environment.
So, who do you think is the better bet to rebound in 2012?