Coco Crisp is not a big guy. He’s listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, and those numbers are often fudged upwards a bit. He’s been a big leaguer since 2002, and has spent a majority of that time hitting leadoff. He plays center field, and he’s also one of the most effective base stealers in the sport. If there was a poster child for the skills that allow a little guy to be a quality big league role player, it’s Coco Crisp. He’s had a long career as exactly the kind of player you imagine when you see a relatively short baseball player.
Except now, at age 33, Coco Crisp is becoming a power hitter. Well, actually, he started becoming a power hitter last summer, and it’s carried over to the 2013 season to the point that now we’re all noticing. And his transformation is one of the more amazing stories in baseball.
Last year, the first two months of the season were a total disaster for Crisp. After re-signing with the A’s to a two year, $14 million contract, Crisp was one of the worst players in the league right out of the gates. Last June 6th, he went 0 for 4 and dropped his overall line to .158/.213/.175, good for a .389 OPS. That’s the kind of offensive performance teams get when they send their pitchers up to hit. Crisp had managed just two extra base hits — both doubles — in 124 plate appearances. At 32-years-old, he looked washed up.
On June 7th, Crisp went 2 for 3 with a triple and a home run and never looked back. From that day on, he hit .293/.361/.499, with 41 of his 100 hits going for extra bases. In the first two months of 2013, he’s hitting .297/.384/.505, with 40% of his hits going for extra bases. Since June 7th of 2012, Crisp has racked up 609 plate appearances, which is about equal to one full season’s worth of playing time. During that stretch, Crisp has 64 extra base hits, which is not exactly what you expect from an aging leadoff hitter whose career specialties have been speed and defense.
So, what’s the deal? How did Crisp not only turn his season around last summer, but become a legitimate power hitter in the process? In a word, patience.
A’s hitting coach Chili Davis has been a big advocate of the A’s longstanding philosophy of working counts, getting into fastball situations, and then swinging hard. As he told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week:
“”Guys are more patient at the plate, they’re seeing a lot of pitches. They’re making pitchers work, too.”
Crisp is a perfect example of a more patient hitter and how that approach can lead to better hitter’s counts and better results. From 2007-2011, PITCHF/x data shows that Crisp swung at 43.3% of the pitches he was thrown, and while he wasn’t Pablo Sandoval at the plate, he chased his fair share of pitches out of the zone, posting an out-of-zone swing rate of 24.4%. Over the last year, Crisp’s swing rate is down to 40.9% and his out-of-zone swing rate is down to 21.8%.
These aren’t huge drastic shifts, but they’re increasing as Crisp gets more comfortable with the more selective approach. In 2013 only, Crisp’s at 38.7% of the pitches he’s thrown, and his out-of-zone swing rate is down to 18.7%, which is the fourth lowest rate of chasing balls of any hitter in baseball. Crisp has transformed from not-a-hack into a guy who swings almost exclusively at strikes, and that has led more swings in favorable counts.
Here are the rates at which Crisp’s at-bats have ended in either pitcher’s counts, hitter’s counts, or even counts, for both his career and for 2013.
Batter Ahead: 35%
Pitcher Ahead: 29%
Even Count: 35%
Batter Ahead: 42%
Pitcher Ahead: 29%
Even Count: 29%
Crisp has basically moved 7% of his plate appearances from even counts to hitter’s counts, which might not like sound that important, but here are Crisp’s relative performances by count this season:
Even Count: .250/.246/.375
Batter Ahead: .375/.564/.719
Five of Crisp’s eight home runs have come in hitter’s counts, and while you might think that this is the norm, Crisp is killing the ball in hitter’s counts at a rate that far outpaces the average AL hitter. According to Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, of the 168 players with at least 200 plate appearances this year, Crisp ranks 19th in OPS when ahead in the count and 23rd in slugging percentage. When he gets into counts where he can look for a fastball and swing for the fences, he has a higher slugging percentage than guys like Carlos Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, and David Ortiz.
And for all the talk about how a patient approach leads to more strikeouts and lower overall offensive levels, Crisp is showing the exact opposite to be true. For his career, 44% of his at-bats have reached ended on two strike counts, but by swinging less this year, he’s up to 53% two strike counts, and yet at the same time he’s posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career. Strikeouts aren’t just a function of getting to two strikes, but also swinging at the wrong pitches in two strike counts. Crisp has been willing to get to two strike counts this year because he knows he has the contact skills to still put the ball in play, and the increase in selectivity has gotten him into more favorable counts overall.
So, while some corners of the world rail against the A’s for encouraging hitters to not swing, Crisp is a living example of just how this offensive philosophy can work. Instead of becoming a slower, less effective lead-off hitter, Crisp’s turned himself into a guy who gets into good hitter’s counts and swings for the fences. As a result, he’s having the best offensive season of his career, and he’s one of the main reasons why the A’s are in first place in the American League West.
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