Allen Craig: The Wrench Loses a Key

Pablo Sandoval at catcher. Josh Willingham at catcher. Trevor Plouffe at shorstop. Allen Craig at second base.

Every once in a while, a young player comes up to the bigs in a unique situation that pumps positional-based fantasy value into their early career numbers. Most of the time, it’s because they’ve been attempting to man a position on their way up, and though it’s been obvious that they wouldn’t continue to hack it at that position, they’ve played enough games during the process of coming to that realization that their rookie season still features that remnant.

So Allen Craig will never be a second baseman again, most likely. According to Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings, the 28-year-old put up the fifth-best fantasy season by a second baseman in 2012, so he’ll be missed at the position. In rooting around for that lost eligibility in the bottom of the toolbox, you might notice a few other dings in your Allen Wrench, as well.

First, the good stuff. Craig has that rare combination of plus power and contact ability that leads to high batting averages along with good power totals. His 6.9% swinging strike rate was better than league average (8.5%) and though it was better than his career number, it wasn’t by much (7.7%). The only time he ever struck out more than 20% of the time for an extended period was his 124 plate appearance debut in the majors, and even then he kept it respectable (21%). He looks like he’ll settle in around 17-18% strikeouts, and that’s comfortably better than league average. And it should help him continue to put up plus batting averages.

But as he loses his starts at second base — and they aren’t coming back, he’s just that bad on defense — his power deserves more scrutiny. 22 homers looks sterling at second. At first, it’s a little light.

Part of the problem with that low total is just health. Craig managed to cross the 500 PA threshold for just the third time this year, and his 534 combined PAs was only 34 PA off his career high. His next 600-PA season will be his first. The injuries he’s suffered through seem myriad at first: a thigh strain this year, right wrist soreness too, and and lower leg, foot, ankle and groin problems throughout his career so far. But there’s one major injury that might be to blame: in June of 2011, Craig ran into the outfield wall at Minute Maid Park, and fractured his right knee. That surgery, and the recovery from it, cost him over three months of playing time. It’s hard to say that’s a chronic thing.

Pro-rate that power out — and yes, this is usually a bad idea, but let’s try it anyway — and you get 26 home runs per 600 plate appearances. With a .300ish batting average, that’ll make him a top-half first baseman. He still regularly had better isolated slugging percentages in the minors than he did last season (.215).

The slight power drop could just be from the level of competition, but it is worth pointing out that Craig’s ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio has slowly but surely skewed more grounder-heavy with each try at the major leagues (from .97 GB/FB in 2010 to 1.32 last season.) It’s not worth worrying about: Craig always hit more ground balls than fly balls coming up in the Cards system, and this was just a reversion to his natural state as a hitter.

There was a bit of a late-season power drop, and probably because the Wrench started going the other way more than focusing on pulling the ball. Each cluster of red below shows a year of fly balls and home runs, and the “plus” angles in the graph on the right are the pull/right field values for the righty Craig:

With an average distance of 291.6 on his flies and home runs, and a career 16.5 home run per fly ball rate, Craig just isn’t an elite power hitter, though. So this drop in batted ball distance, and this insistence on going the other way, they just aren’t a real big deal.

Pencil Craig in for 500 PA, 20+ home runs, a great batting average and strong runs and RBI totals in that Cardinal lineup, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised if he stays healthy all year or enjoys a relatively old-ish power peak at 29. And it’s probably best to enjoy all of those numbers in the outfield for one last year before he settles in at first base and first base alone. His glove doesn’t even look great in the outfield, though, so don’t expect him to take reps at second base again. That part of the Wrench is lost.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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I’m not at all convinced Craig will lose OF eligibility any time soon. Here in the NLCS, Matheney has had Craig start in the OF and Carpenter start at 1B for the two occasions that one of Holliday and Beltran hasn’t been in the starting lineup.

Also, while Oscar Taveras will be dedicated to the OF whenever he comes up, Matt Adams will be dedicated to 1B whenever he comes up. So I suspect that Beltran and Holliday will be rested enough in 2013 such that for at least 5-10 games next year, Craig mans a corner with Taveras/Jay taking center, and Adams/Carpenter playing 1B. And Adams might even make Craig a regular OF again once Beltran’s contract is up.