Carl Crawford became a top-of-the-order hitter in his first full big league season, at age 21. Batting almost exclusively in the top three spots, he developed into an All-Star and the best player in Tampa Bay Rays history. He banked the best season of his career in 2010, making his fourth All-Star team, winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, finishing seventh in MVP voting, and propelling Tampa Bay to an achievement few ever thought possible: their second AL East title in three years. His success was so overwhelming, the Boston Red Sox gave Crawford a seven-year, $142 million contract, the second-richest deal in club history.
Then the Red Sox started the season 0-2. Terry Francona promptly dropped his left fielder to No. 7 in the Boston order — the lowest Crawford had batted since 2003 — against Rangers lefty Matt Harrison on Sunday.
But really, it was the other way around. For eight long years, Crawford’s managers misused him. Boston’s 0-2 start simply offered an excuse to make what might turn out to be one of Francona’s smartest moves of 2011.
In exactly 1,600 career plate appearances versus left-handed pitching, Crawford has hit just .270/.315/.381. For comparison’s sake, Jeff Francoeur, one of the most notorious hackers of his generation and a whipping boy for many baseball writers and analysts, has hit .268/.310/.425 for his career. Even Neifi Perez’s .672 career OPS isn’t far off Crawford’s .696 mark versus lefties.
Despite what’s now nearly a decade of futility against southpaws, Crawford has never seen anything close to a platoon, let alone been dropped from his perch at or near the top of the order. At first, this made some sense. When Crawford began his career in 2002, the then-Devil Rays were a joke of a team, licking their wounds after the ill-fated Hit Show saw Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco and Vinny Castilla blow up the team’s building efforts and financial situation in one offseason spending orgy. Tampa Bay saw a future star in Crawford, and wanted to give him every chance to grow into a successful everyday player.
Lou Piniella took the reins in 2003, found little in the way of dynamic, young talent and installed Crawford as his leadoff hitter. In 184 times up versus lefties that year, Crawford hit an abysmal .263/.283/.302. The next season, Crawford saw big improvement in both his overall game, and in his efforts against left-handers. His OPS versus lefties spiked 180 points (.295/.346/.418). But in 2005, Crawford’s production versus lefties nosedived again, to .244/.293/.326, the D-Rays won 70 or fewer games for the eighth straight year, and Piniella was out of a job.
Joe Maddon took over in 2006, rightly waiting to see what his young players had to offer before making big decisions. What he saw from Crawford in the next two years was a hitter who looked like he could hack it against pitchers of all stripes. Crawford hit a solid .288/.341/.436 versus lefties in ’06, then a career-best .318/.350/.437 against them in ’07. The Rays were maturing as a young club, a new wave of intriguing players had filtered in, and Crawford was going to be Maddon’s go-to guy, a five-tool player who would play (and bat high in the order) against everyone, no matter the circumstances.
That’s when the law of averages kicked in, and Crawford’s truer tendencies re-emerged. From 2008 through 2010, Crawford hit a blistering .316/.367/.493 versus righties, but just .259/.312/.372 versus lefties, right around his career average. Ever the lineup tinkerer and fearless decision maker, Maddon showed he would do just about anything to find the smallest edges — except drop Crawford lower in the order versus left-handed pitchers.
Left with a problem
These left-handed hitters are all considered stars. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at their career numbers against southpaws.
Player OPS vs. RHP OPS vs. LHP
Ryan Howard 1.039 .769
Josh Hamilton .984 .786
Prince Fielder .974 .796
Andre Ethier .915 .676
Carl Crawford .816 .696
Whether it was the team’s 0-2 start or other factors that prompted Francona to drop Crawford down to seventh in the order yesterday, the Red Sox could be better for it, while also being unique in taking such action. The Phillies’ Ryan Howard has always been a mediocre hitter versus lefties, posting a career OPS of just .769 against them, with an awful .316 on-base percentage. But the politics and optics of the situation dictate that Charlie Manuel keep batting his $125 million slugger in the middle of the lineup against any and all pitchers, just as other managers stubbornly give prime lineup spots to other hitters when career-long tendencies suggest they’re wrong in doing so.
The Red Sox should still play Crawford every day. As the game’s best defensive left fielder, and one of baseball’s most dynamic baserunners and base stealers, he offers plenty of value even when he’s not hitting. There’s even an argument to be made that his speed is even more valuable at the bottom of the lineup because he can take chances without worrying about robbing the likes of Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez of RBI opportunities.
Once the Sox’s lineup gets cooking, it will be very interesting to see if Francona keeps Crawford near the bottom of the lineup.