There has been a surprising amount of negativity surrounding Carl Crawford coming to the Red Sox. He is a difficult player to analyze quickly, as there is so much he does that isn’t immediately apparent in his triple slash line or homer numbers that makes him valuable. He’s one of the most exceptional defenders in the game, to the point that, despite playing in left, he is Gold Glove worthy (and we’re talking about the standards of myself and other statistically-inclined folks, not the people who actually vote on the award). He is an excellent baserunner, and not just due to his ability to steal a base with ease. There is a total package here, and it’s his combination of talents that make him worthy of the contract Boston offered him, and that’s why the outcry of “But he’s never hit 20 homers in a season before!” mean so little.
There are some concerns for Crawford, namely, how well his legs age over the length of the deal, as a considerable amount of his value is stored in them, both on the bases and in the field. The Sox would not have signed him if they didn’t have some idea of how he would age though–if his legs react to his mid-30s the same way Kenny Lofton’s did, then the Sox are in for a treat. Possibly of more concern is how Crawford’s game plays on grass instead of turf though. Baseball Prospectus colleague Steven Goldman has this covered in one of his recent Pinstriped Bible posts:
Now that Crawford is with the Red Sox, you can, just maybe, start subtracting from your expectations. Crawford is a better hitter on turf than grass. His .291/.332/.425 rates on natural surfaces aren’t spectacular for the position…Add in that Crawford is going to be hanging around from age 29 to age 36 and the Red Sox could really regret this deal, and that is even if Crawford doesn’t have some kind of catastrophic leg injury. All he has to do is lose a few leg hits a year and there goes the batting average that is at the heart of his game.
This is a valid concern, as the grounds crew at Fenway isn’t about to tear up the infield and replace it with turf to make Crawford’s life easier. But is it necessarily a bad thing? Crawford may just have to replace that production elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be writing that line if I didn’t think it were possible.
Tropicana and Fenway are two completely different parks in terms of design. The former uses an artificial surface and is very difficult for left-handed hitters to hit homers in if they aren’t dead-pull sluggers. If they utilize the power alley, then they are in trouble, as that area starts at 370 and, moving further back as the fence heads to right-center, ends at 404. Fenway has also been difficult on left-handed hitters who aren’t dead-pull, but thanks to the shift of the bullpen fences, that will change. Fenway won’t be a great park for lefties to hit for power at, thanks to right-center still being quite a ways from home plate, but the power alley where the actual bullpens reside will see more homers than before.
Carl Crawford is not the kind of hitter who hits the ball with severe pull to it. He is one who utilizes the power alley in right and right-center, which means that Fenway, in a rare occasion for the park, is going to increase the home run production of Crawford compared to his previous park. David Pinto covered this at Baseball Analytics earlier in the week (image taken from the linked piece):
The inner red portion of the image on the left are Crawford’s homers to the power alley in right field. You can see those in the hit chart on the right, and he has the same kind of massive sweet spot for triples, except those end up closer to right-center than right. David Ortiz hits triples when he puts a ball in the triangle–Carl Crawford is going to have time for an inside the park homer when he puts a ball in the same place, and, if he kept running after scoring, would probably end up on second before the throw came in.
Crawford is going to lose some batting average when his infield hits drop. Let’s say turf grants him an extra 10 infield hits a year, so now he will be a hitter who averages 170-175 hits a year instead of 180-185. That is a bit of a problem for someone who walks as little as Crawford and is dependent on their batting average, but remember how the triangle and right field are going to treat Crawford, and that the Green Monster out in left is going to turn some fly outs into doubles. He may lose some batting average, but the value of many of his hits–doubles turning into triples in the triangle, fly outs or doubles turning into homers at Fenway–will increase, meaning his slugging percentages will be higher.
Crawford is not going to be unproductive at Fenway because he no longer can lean on turf. He’s just going to be different. And remember, those infield hits are just one part of his game–we’re still talking about a fantastic baserunner that is one of the top defensive players in the league. His talents are varied, and, with the move to Boston, are going to have to vary some more. Hey, he might even cross that elusive 20 homer threshold everyone is so concerned about!