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Crawford needs to pay off in second half

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  July 15, 2011 02:30 PM

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Riding high at 55-35 in first place in the American League East, the Red Sox start the second half of the season tonight on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays, Carl Crawford's former team. But Crawford, the Red Sox' lavishly-paid left fielder, won't be in St. Petersburg, Fla., to take in his old hardball haunts.

The $142-million man, who has been out since June 18 with a hamstring strain, will commence his second-half in Pawtucket, R.I., tonight making the first of two rehab appearances at Triple A before he (hopefully) returns to action Monday in Baltimore. Too bad. Familiar surroundings may have been exactly what Crawford needed to make sure he played like an All-Star, post-All-Star break.

For all the gushing and gasping over Adrian Gonzalez instantly boosting the Sox lineup with his batting exploits, it's easy to forget that Crawford was supposed to be just as significant an addition as A-Gon. He was AL-East battle-tested. He was coming off the best season of his career, a season in which he hit a career-high 19 home runs, drove in a career-high 90 runs and won his first Gold Glove. He was going to continue the tradition of superb Red Sox left fielders. He said his biggest adjustment to playing in Boston would be the cold weather.

We can debate the sagacity of handing a seven-year, $142-million contract to a corner outfielder who has never hit 20 home runs in a season later, but what is without debate is that the Sox are still waiting for the player they thought they signed to arrive. Crawford is batting .243 with six homers and 31 runs batted in, numbers that actually look good after he hit -- using the term generously -- .155 in April.

Perhaps more mystifying than his slow start at the plate is his slow pace on the base paths. A four-time AL stolen base champion, Crawford, who always ran against the Red Sox with impunity, has half as many steals (eight) as Dustin Pedroia, the guy with screws in his surgically-repaired left foot.

But no one will remember Crawford's forgettable first half-season as a Red Sox if he plays like the swashbuckling force on the base paths who tormented teams for the last nine seasons in the second half, and the Sox end up playing deep into October. Forget Carlos Beltran or Matt Garza, the Real Carl Crawford could be the biggest second-half addition for the Sox. And he won't cost a thing because he's already paid for.

While the Red Sox lead the majors in just about every significant offensive category, the lineup is a bit top-heavy. Sixty-percent of the Sox' MLB-best 482 runs have come from the top five batters in the order -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Ortiz. The percentage from the Yankees is even higher. Their fab five of Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez have combined for 61.7 of New York runs.

That would indicate that if Crawford can return to his usual All-Star form in the second half that he could help tilt the balance of power in the AL East towards the Fens by lengthening and strengthening an already potent lineup. Crawford, whom the Sox played lineup roulette with earlier in the season, has done best this season in the No. 6 spot. He is batting .344 there in 16 games with a .972 (on-base-plus-slugging) and three homers. He has batted in every position in the order, except cleanup, fifth and ninth.

The Red Sox issues in right field have been well-documented. With J.D. Drew struggling (insert Joe Namath voice) and his mystical on-base percentage powers lagging, the Sox are 28th in the majors in right field OPS. But due to Crawford's injury and early-season ineffectiveness, left field -- historically one of the most productive positions in the franchise's history -- has become unproductive territory as well.

In 2010, the Sox ranked 23d in left field OPS at .698. This year they're 18th, but the OPS is lower at .683. Crawford's current OPS is .659, which would be his lowest ever in any season, including his rookie year, when he played in 63 games. Last year, he had an .848 OPS, which was sixth among major league left fielders

For all the consternation that the Red Sox had a lineup that was too lefthanded, they've hit higher against lefthanders (.281 batting average) than righties (.277). Crawford is a notable exception. He has been vexed by lefties this season, batting just .151 with a .207 on-base percentage and a .267 slugging percentage.

There is reason to believe Crawford could be primed for a big second half, though. Since May 1, Crawford has batted a combined .295 with 16 extra base hits, including five home runs and four triples. Crawford has three four-hit games this year, which is the same amount as Gonzalez. Only Jose Reyes (four) has more.

Also, statistics indicate that Crawford has been the recipient of some bad luck. His percentage of pitches swung at (51 percent) and contact percentage (81 percent) are identical to last season. But his batting average on balls in play is .274. That's the lowest of his career in any season. In each of the last two seasons his batting average on balls in play was .342, and in his nine seasons with the Rays his combined batting average on balls in play was .331.

If there was a poster child for the Red Sox' false start in April it was Crawford. He looked as lost as an out-of-town driver trying to navigate Central Artery road closures. But the Red Sox have found their way and reached their talent level. Crawford looked like he was on his way to doing that before he got hurt.

When he returns he has do something that most speedsters are capable of -- make up for lost time in a hurry.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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