The Situation: Carl Crawford didn't just have the worst year of his career in 2011. He had one of the worst years imaginable: Right after the best season of his career, which netted him a massive $142 million contract, the eighth-largest free-agent contract of all time (it was sixth until this year, when Pujols and Fielder pushed him back), Carl Crawford had a year-long slump. He hit .255 in hitter-friendly Fenway, and even slumped to the smallest stolen base total of his career. Way back in the hazy mists of 2010, I wrote that his contract might be a good deal:
If he stays healthy, he has a good chance to be worth the money. But, over the course of seven long years, that's a big if.
Now, Crawford did go on the DL with a hand injury, so I wasn't completely off base. But it still reads as an extraordinarily naive prediction. Still, back then, after Crawford had posted back-to-back All-Star campaigns and established himself as one of the best outfielders in the league, the contract seemed high but not unreasonable. Now, the 30-year-old has to prove he isn't over the hill.
The Question: Are Carl Crawford's best years behind him?
The Analysis: The reason that I endorsed Crawford's contract is simple. He was a really good player in Tampa Bay, with skills that tend to hold up well over time. As they get older, players tend to lose speed but gain walks and power, which is why hitters who are slow, walk a lot, and hit for power are said to have "Old Player Skills." Crawford is very fast, and he was a terrific defender in Tampa Bay, so even if he slowed down and became a worse defender at a constant rate over his seven years in Boston, he would still have a long way to go before he became average.
The problem isn't just that he stole fewer bases or appears to have played worse defense in the weird, tiny left field in front of the Green Monster. It isn't just that he hit for a much lower batting average, which can partly be explained by a much lower Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which implies that he may have gotten unlucky. The problem is that his walk rate collapsed.
Crawford's Achilles heel has always been his low walk rate. It was 4.3 percent last year, which nearly matches the 4.2 percent rate that he posted over the first four seasons of his career, 2002-2005. But then he took a major step forward, posting a 6.3 percent rate from 2006 to 2010. It's likely that his walk rate went down because he was pressing, due to a very low batting average — he was below the Mendoza line until May 6, and though his walk rate was above 5 percent for much of April, it plunged below 4 percent in mid-May and stayed there for much of the rest of the year.
In some ways, Crawford is similar to Jose Reyes, another speedy, high-average, premier defender who became elite after overcoming a terrible walk rate early in his career, who then received a $100 million free-agent contract. But while Reyes had an amazing 2011 and is likely to regress, as I wrote a week ago, Crawford has a good chance of bouncing back, as long as his walk rate does the same.
The major projection systems tend to agree, though they're not quite sure how many games to expect him to play. The Bill James Handbook, as usual, is the most optimistic, predicting 155 games and .286/.332/.436 with 15 HRs and 34 SBs. ZiPS is very similar, projecting 144 games played, with a .282/.325/.448 line to go with 14 HRs and 32 SBs. CAIRO is the most bearish in games played but the most bullish on his on-base percentage: 122 games, .295/.344/.457, with 12 HRs and 26 SBs.
So this much is clear: It is very likely that Carl Crawford will be better than he was in 2011. But it's also very likely that he'll be worse than he was in 2010. He'll turn 31 this year, and 32 in 2013, and... well, that's not terribly old, but hitters tend to peak around age 27, and that means that he's on the wrong side of history. That doesn't mean that he won't make the All-Star team again, but it does mean that he probably won't win an MVP award. The closest he ever came was seventh in 2010, and even if he approaches a year that good again he's unlikely to exceed it by much.
The Forecast for 2012: I'll predict that Crawford will bounce back with numbers right around his career averages: .293/.333/.441. Will that make him a $20 million player? Not necessarily. But it will make him an above average Red Stocking, and right now, that would make Bobby Valentine and Hub fans a whole lot happier than they were last fall.
Other Ask Alex questions for 2012
• Can Jose Reyes repeat as NL batting champ?
• Can Fielder and Cabrera combine for 80 homers?
• Will Julio Teheran or Matt Moore win rookie of the year?
• Will Alex Avila be an All-Star again?
• Can Michael Pineda keep his ERA under 4 in the AL East?
• Can Adam Dunn return to 30 home run territory?
• Can Jason Heyward return to his rookie form?
• Can Matt Kemp go 50/50?
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- Carl Crawford