Carl Crawford was coming off what should be considered his best overall season as a major leaguer in 2010, just in time for him to hit free agency. The 28-year-old outfielder hit .307/.356/.495 with 19 home runs, 90 RBIs, 13 triples, 110 runs scored, and 47 stolen bases for the Tampa Bay Rays. His stellar play earned him the fourth All-Star selection of his career, along with his first Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards.
With such a tremendous season in his contract year, it was expected that the former Scott Boras client would get a big pay day, but the seven-year/$142 million contract Theo Epstein and the Boston Red Sox awarded him was certainly quite the shock. This seemed like a classic case of a team paying for what a player has done previously in his career, not what they’re expecting him to contribute during the life of his contract.
Unfortunately for Red Sox Nation, Crawford never lived up to the big money he was earning in Beantown. His two years with the organization were marred with multiple injuries and not performing up to expectations. When he was on the field, he put together a .260/.292/.419 line in 664 plate appearances, including 14 home runs, 75 RBIs, 88 runs scored, and 26 stolen bases. Now, those statistics aren’t that bad (with the exception of his OBP), but the 161 games he suited up for the Red Sox was over two seasons, not one.
Ben Cherington must have felt like he hit the jackpot last August when the Los Angeles Dodgers came calling with their deep pockets. Not only were they willing to take on the salaries of Crawford (who was on the DL following Tommy John surgery), but also Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, and Nick Punto. In exchange, the Red Sox cleared over $200 million in future salary commitments, while receiving top prospects.
While it’s likely the Dodgers will end up paying for these long-term contracts in a few years, they’re paying dividends right now. Crawford received the fresh start in Hollywood he desperately needed, and he’s been a productive lead off hitter for LA through the first month of the season.
Through his first 25 games played in 2013 (105 plate appearances), he’s showing the type of approach that helped him earn that huge contract. He’s hitting .308/.388/.516 with four home runs, six RBIs, four stolen bases, and 20 runs scored (tied for eighth in MLB). With Hanley Ramirez getting activated off the disabled list, Crawford can expect to continue scoring at a high rate, as long as he keeps getting on base.
His performance so far in 2013 is still considered a small sample size, but what are there any reasons as to why Crawford is experiencing such a revival on the West Coast? After taking a look at his FanGraphs stat page, there are a few things worth noting. First off, he’s swinging a lot less than he has in the past. Historically, Crawford has swung at 52.7% of the pitches he sees, but he’s only swung at 44.9% of them in 2013. The most dramatic difference is in his O-Swing% (percentage of balls swung at thrown outside the strike zone). Since 2010, Crawford has seen this number settle in around 37%, but he’s seen that drop to 24.9% through one month of games in Dodger Blue.
Since he’s swinging less at balls thrown outside the strike zone, he’s experiencing a snowball effect with his frequency of walks, strikeouts, and line drives hit. Due to a lower O-Swing%, Crawford has seen his BB% increase from his career mark of 5.3% to 8.7%. Meanwhile, his K% has dropped to 15.5% this season (an improvement from his 18.5% mark with Boston).
Lastly, since Crawford is being more selective and swinging at better pitches, the percentage of line drives he’s hitting has also increased. Throughout his career, he’s hit line drives 19.5% of his at-bats, but has seen that jump to 26.7% this year, which is also why his .338 BABIP is the highest it’s been since his career year of 2010.
The only thing that Crawford probably won’t be able to provide for the Dodgers in the coming years will be the stolen bases that he’s become known for. At the age of 31, I doubt we’ll see him be the league leader in stolen bases again, but he’ll be able to use what speed he has left, coupled with his experience to swipe somewhere between 20 and 25.
I’m happy to watch Crawford experience a resurgence; he was one of the most exciting players to watch when he was with the Rays, and it was a shame when he didn’t live up to the expectation set for him in Boston. If he’s able to continue this level of play, the Dodgers have themselves a solid lead off hitter for the next couple of years.
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