Disclaimer: This is a numbers heavy post, but the numbers are all easy to understand as simple percentages and will be accompanied by explanations. All numbers come from Fangraph's Player Pages
Today we are going to take a look at what is wrong with Carl Crawford so far this year using batted ball and plate discipline data, and not my honorary psych degree from the School of Bullshit. Batted ball data looks at the types of hits a player is getting by percentage, i.e. percentage of ground balls, fly balls, pop ups, etc. Plate discipline data shows the locations of pitches that a player swings at and takes. This data is good for analyzing performance irregularities because over a player’s career, the numbers stay fairly constant absent a change in approach due to a new team, manager, coach, ball park or rapid aging. Usually a guy who hits a lot of fly balls and doesn’t swing at pitches outside the zone will retain those tendencies until he hits his deep decline phase.
The reason I want to look at Crawford’s batted ball and plate discipline data is twofold. The first is obviously his lack of elite production through 11 games. At $20 million a season, nobody expects this player to produce a .152/.204/.174 over the course of the full season so what is causing this slump now? The second is that after watching the series against the Yankees, specifically the Beckett gem, I got the distinct feeling that there is absolutely nothing wrong with Crawford right now because all the balls he was putting in play were exactly like the balls he usually puts in play in the games I have seen him in the past. Now, anyone who knows anything about the law (bird, maritime or other) knows that eye witness accounts can be very shoddy. So to back up my observations I want to take a deep dive into the data.
Starting with the batted ball, there aren’t a lot of numbers that show cause for concern. He is hitting fewer line drives and ground balls than he has for his career, but is hitting more than he did last year when he had his best season with the bat. He is hitting more fly balls than his career, but again, less than last year when he had his career year. It is also important to note that his infield pop ups are down slightly so he is not producing a lot of bad at bats. The glaring number is 0.0% Home Run per Fly Ball percentage, compared to his 8% career mark. I am pretty positive we are not going to go the whole season without Crawford hitting a homer so this does not bother me.
If we want to find some meaning in the batted ball numbers we should look towards last year where there appears to be a clear change in approach. As I said before, last year started a trend that appears to be continuing this year where Crawford is hitting fewer liners and ground balls and hitting more fly balls to the outfield. Since this approach was clearly successful for him last year, I won’t be too concerned about it, but I will ask why he changed from a line drive/ground ball hitter to more of a neutral hitter. I have two guesses. The first is that he was in a contract year and this year is trying to prove himself in Boston. He could have felt that the best way to get a big contract and make good on it is with home runs so he started trying to get some lift on his balls. This strategy is well and good but his Home Run per Fly Ball percentage (HR/FB %) was 10.6% in 2010 and 10.3% in 2009 when he had his lowest fly ball rate since his second season so trying to hit home runs did not prove successful. The second guess is that he is recognizing an erosion in his speed so he is looking to add more extra base power and give up some ground ball infield singles. Again, this doesn’t line up with the stats as his stolen base percentage last year was 82% (very good) and the percentage of ground balls that turned into infield hits was exactly the same in 2010 and 2009 (10.6%). So not knowing what is going on in Crawford’s head, I am not really sure why his batted balls have shifted and until we get more information this year, maybe we just have to consider 2010 an aberration, but I will be paying attention this year to see if Crawford is trying to go from a speedy singles and doubles hitter to a still speedy power hitter.
Since the batted ball data does not seem to bore anything out, we can now look at his plate discipline numbers. Starting with the basics, Crawford is striking out 17.4% of the time, which is a little higher than his career but not out of line with his recent years (’07-’10: 19.2%, 13.5%, 16.3%, 17.3%). The number that jumps out is his percentage of walks, which sits at 4.1%. Last year this would have ranked 5th worst in baseball. As it is, Crawford has not walked a whole lot over his career, but at least in the last three years he has leapt into the realm of respectability hovering around 7%. So why is he all of a sudden taking walks like he is a member of the Kansas City Royals (for those that don’t know, they don’t walk ever)?
When looking at his plate discipline, there are two groups of numbers that jump out at me: his Swing Percentage (the percentage of pitches he swings at, which can be broken down to balls in the strike zone and balls outside the strike zone) and his Contact Percentage (the percentage of contact that he makes when he swings the bat). This year his overall Swing % is lower than it has ever been. Reasonably we could expect this to lead to either a spike in backward Ks or walks, but neither is the case and in fact the opposite is true with walks. Then we look at his Swing % on balls outside the zone (O-Swing %) to see if he is chasing more pitches leading to fewer walks, but we see that he is right in line with recent seasons when he had respectable walk rates. Finally we look at his Swing % on balls in the zone (Z-Swing %) and notice a career low rate. Now we start to get a picture forming. By swinging at so few pitches in the zone, Crawford is taking a lot more strikes than he is used to, putting him in pitchers counts more often.
Next, we look at his contact rates. The number that sticks out somewhat alarmingly is his contact rate on balls he swings at outside the zone (O-Contact %) is WAY higher than his career rate (75% this year vs. 65% career). What this means is that even though he isn’t chasing many more pitches out of the zone, when he does swing at those balls he is making a lot more contact. You would think more contact would equal more hits, but in this case, contact on balls outside the zone typically leads to bad contact. A lot of times these balls are harmlessly fouled off, but if the ball goes into play you usually don’t see good results unless you are Adrian Beltre or Vlad Guerrero.
Based on all the evidence we have, it appears that Carl Crawford is trying to fit into his new surroundings with an altered approach at the plate and, more long term, is trying to become a middle of the order hitter. This year he is definitely trying to take more pitches to fit the Red Sox philosophy, but he is finding himself down in the count too quickly. This is causing him to shorten his stroke to make contact on balls he otherwise shouldn’t be swinging at and are leading to just missed fly balls right at the outfielders. Crawford would do well to protect the strike zone better by being his usual aggressive self and jumping on good pitches to hit like he has in the past rather than worrying about working a 7 pitch at bat. We do not need Crawford to be the prototypical high on-base lead off guy, we just need him to be his usual dynamic self and I expect given time we will see exactly that.