On Carl Crawford, Contracts And Pressure

by Matt on April 30, 2011

in Red Sox

image courtesy of Boston Herald

In Peter Abraham’s Friday notes from the Boston Globe’s Red Sox blog, he mentions Carl Crawford isn’t the only new big money free agent having a poor start to the season.  In the first year of his $126 million contract, Jayson Werth is hitting .233/.310/.444 with the Nationals. Crawford is doing significantly worse than that (a putrid .160/.202/.234 line through Thursday’s games) but as has been pointed out relentlessly here and elsewhere, it’s early yet.

Often times it’s said the pressure of trying to live up to a big new contract can be overwhelming which, as a person who will never see a million dollars let alone one hundred forty two times that, I can understand intellectually if not viscerally.  To my knowledge there is no great scientific way to figure out if his new contract is having an negative impact on Crawford or not, but I thought I’d take a look at some other similar players over the past decade and see if they also struggled initially after signing big deals.  The always useful Cot’s Contracts has a list of baseball’s largest contracts ever signed.  For the record, Crawford’s deal comes in eleventh, behind Miguel Cabrera and just ahead of Todd Helton.

Looking down the list, there are four position players in the prime of their careers who signed big money free agents to join a new team.  Here’s an entirely unscientific look at them and how they did to begin their deal.

Alex Rodriguez ($252 million, 2001-10)
After the 2000 season, Alex Rodriguez signed what was at the time the biggest contract in baseball to join the Texas Rangers (it has since been eclipsed by Alex Rodriguez).  During the 2001 season, Rodriguez’s first in Texas and his age 25 season, he hit .318/.399/.622.  It was comparable on the surface to his final year in Seattle, where he hit .316/.420/.606.  Whether he had any trouble vaulting to the top of MLB’s salary structure or not is unknown, but it certainly didn’t affect his hitting.  He hit .312/.426/.602 with seven homers in April of ’01, his first month in Texas.

Manny Ramirez ($160 million, 2001-08)
A 28 year old Ramirez hit an other-worldly .351/.457/.697 during his final season in Cleveland. On an unadjusted basis, it was the best year of his career. He joined Boston for the ’01 campaign and hit .306/.405/.609. for the Red Sox. He didn’t have any trouble out of the box either, hitting a Ted Williams-esque .408/.482/.735 in April.  No problem here.

Mark Teixeira ($180 million, 2009-16)
Teixeira joined the Yankees for his age 29 season after hitting a combined .308/.410/.552 for Atlanta and Anaheim in ’08. His first year in New York went very similarly, as he hit .292/.383/.565. He did get off to a relatively slow start with the Yankees though, with a .738 OPS that April.  However, Teixeira is known for slow starts.  He posted a .797 OPS in April for the Braves the previous season and had a .559 OPS in April of 2010.  His April of ’09 was less than his career average, but was far from his worst April.  He could have been negatively impacted by the pressure of signing the new deal, but more likely he was just having his customary lousy April while wearing different clothes.

Jason Giambi ($120 million, 2002-08)
Most of the big money contracts signed by players allow them to remain with their current club long term.  But like A-Rod, Teixeria, and Manny, Giambi hadn’t played a game with the team he signed a big money deal with until after the signing.  He was coming off an age 30 season that saw him hit .342/.477/.660 for Oakland. (Don’t these look like video game numbers now? Jeez…)  He followed that up by hitting an only slightly less ridiculous .314/.435/.598 in his first season in New York.  Giambi did have a bit of a rough start his first April in New York.  He OPS’d .834, which isn’t bad at all but when you follow that up by OPSing 1.100 over the next three months, it can be called a slow start.  It’s possible Giambi experienced some adjustment issues.

None of these guys are good comps for Carl Crawford as baseball players, but they are similar as members of the Enough Money to Choke An Entire Heard Of Cattle With One At A Time Club.  The good news for Red Sox fans is all of them, tough start or not, managed to live up to the lofty standards of their contracts.

There is pressure involved after signing a big money contract but there is massive pressure to perform simply through being a professional baseball player at any level.  It could be fairly argued that being a 28 year old in AAA is more pressure filled than being in a pennant race.  If indeed Crawford has been negatively impacted by the pressure of signing a big money deal, there’s no way of knowing it by looking at his stats.  In fact, this April is consistent with his career to date, as Crawford’s worst month throughout his career has been April.

Of course it could really be just about anything that has thrown Crawford off his game, a mechanical issue in his stance, a hidden nagging injury, or fear of giant green walls.  What we do know, as much as we can really know anything about baseball players, is that Crawford has a track record of success, big contract or not.  If that is what is bothering him, good.  He’ll probably get over it sooner rather than later.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

BigNachos May 1, 2011 at 5:36 am

Hmm, let’s look at some trends.

12.5%, 14.7%, 15.8%, 16.4% – Crawford’s SO% 2008-2011
6.3%, 7.6%, 7.0%, 4.8% – BB% 2008-2011
23%, 20%, 16%, 11% – LD% 2008-2011

So we have a player with a steadily increasing strikeout, declining walk rate, and a plummeting line-drive rate. Combine that with his declining baserunning and defense that utterly fell off a cliff (or was probably just overrated in the first place) and we have player past his peak who’s rapidly playing himself out of the league. It’s going to fun paying his contract long after he’s gone.

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Matt May 1, 2011 at 9:29 am

You’re making some heavy assumptions there, BigNachos. First of all, you’re giving a month’s worth of 2011 data the same weight as that of each of his few seasons. He’s been terrible this year, utterly awful, and I’m guessing you would get little argument from the man himself on that let alone anyone on this site. Still, you can’t count those numbers in line with those of his previous years. If you just look at his SO% and BB% he’s fine. Line drive percentage is a harder number to use because it varies from site to site and stadium to stadium. I’m not saying it’s useless, but certainly you’d have a hard time convincing me that last year’s 16% means much.

As for his defense, we’re all aware of what the Monster does to defensive metrics so I’m not close to prepared to say Crawford is even having a sub-par defensive season.

And as to his baserunning, dude hasn’t gotten on base nearly enough for us to have any idea one way or the other.

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BigNachos May 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Well, his low LD% coupled with his high BABIP probably means he was getting additional cheap hits from playing on artificial turf. With his power being exclusively to the pull side, Fenway is the worst possible place for him to hit with its natural surface and brutal right field dimensions.

I’m not aware that the affects of Fenway’s left field on defensive metrics are entirely clear, since the Sox have pretty much always had subpar defensive leftfielders since defensive metrics were born. That said, it’s pretty obvious that Fenway favors left fielders with quick, accurate throwing arms with a knack for playing bounces off the wall, and it de-emphasizes range. Crawford, with his poor throwing arm and slow release is an exceptionally poor match for Fenway.

It’s true he’s barely been on base, but he’s run poorly when he has been on as his 4.4 speed score (8.4 career). It’s particularly alarming given his pathetic performance in other areas.

Crawford’s skill set might let him be an above average left fielders for some ballclubs, but the Sox are not one of those.

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Matt May 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Crawford’s career BA at home is .301, on the road he hits .287. On turf he hits .301, on grass .285. I don’t think that shows he’s a poor fit for Fenway.

Crawford has a mediocre arm, but I don’t know where you heard or saw he has a slow release, and honestly, even if he does (I don’t think he does) I think that just makes him a better fit for left field at Fenway. You can’t put a guy with a bad arm and a slow release in right.

What this comes down to is you’re trying to draw solid conclusions from 1 month’s worth of data proving that signing Crawford was somehow fatally flawed. I’m sorry, even if it was we don’t have enough information to support that conclusion. Additionally, I think you’re putting too much weight into park factors. Sure, context matters on the margins, but it isn’t everything.

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BigNachos May 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm

At Fenway, there are far more opportunities for the left fielder to make a play on a throw than the right fielder (since almost every ball that hits the monster will result in a play at 2nd), so I’d argue that it’s actually the most important outfield position for throwing. As for the slow release, that’s just from personal observation. Crawford always takes a crow-hop with that long arm motion typical of a lefty, which results in a more slower release than, for example, Manny, who was quite adept at a quick step and throw into second base.

Now I don’t think Crawford will be a .155 hitter forever because he plays at Fenway now, but he won’t come close to replication his production in Tampa. He’ll lose a half-dozen homers and a couple of triples and at least 15 points of average, which probably not coincidentally, exactly matches his 50% percentile PECOTA prediction of .289 with 12 homers for a .274 TAv. That’s barely average for a left fielder, and pretty awful for a Fenway left fielder.

Of course, with this horrendous start to the season, he’ll be lucky to even match that production. Most likely, he’ll finish the season with a line close to his 2008 down season of .273/.319/.400. That line makes me throw up in my mouth so much that it comes out my nose.

To me, the Crawford signing feels a lot like the Lugo signing, in which the team somehow talked themselves into the idea that these guys would be productive in Boston and decided to pay far more than any other team was willing to do, only to have it backfire horrifically.

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Matt May 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm

First, I should say thanks so much for reading the blog and for putting so much effort into your comments. It’s much appreciated.

Second, I kinda think this argument has been done to death. Sure, Fenway isn’t the ideal ball park for Crawford’s skills, but 1/2 of Red Sox games are played elsewhere so I’m not sure it’s the end of the world. At some point Crawford is going to start making some hard contact. You don’t slug .495 and not hit the ball hard.

Sorry you feel that way about the signing (Lugo). I don’t and I think this guy is going to be a great player for the Red Sox for many years to come. This is a rough start is all. It’ll be interesting to see what the final verdict is on the signing in seven years.

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BigNachos May 1, 2011 at 6:48 pm

The reason I bring up Lugo is that, like Lugo, Crawford could perform exactly at the level we should reasonably expect from him (i.e. his 50% PECOTA and .274 TAv), and not be worth a fraction of his contract. That, I think, is the definition of a bad contract and a bad signing.

He gained 25-30 points in slugging from turning some doubles into triples at the Trop, BTW.

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