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A season only Jimy Williams could love

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 14, 2011 02:59 PM

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The timing of this is probably unfair to Carl Crawford, coming a day after one of his best games -- two hits, including a double, a walk, and three runs scored -- of his frustrating first season with the Red Sox.

It was an encouraging performance in a crucial victory for the Red Sox, though Crawford's lousy luck did not abandon him entirely -- he'd have had a home run, too, had Adam Loewen stood shorter than 6 foot 6 or, I suppose, decided to stick with pitching.

Perhaps it's a sign that Crawford, who has a respectable .814 OPS over the past month, will spend the rest of the season finally playing like the game-changing nuisance he often was with the Rays rather than continuing his occasionally adequate but often abysmal output from his first five months in Boston. Some October vindication reminiscent of J.D. Drew '07 isn't out of the question.

Crawford's work ethic has countless testimonials from peers and media observers, and I cannot believe that his talent has just evaporated. He's only 30 and not even a full-season removed from a seventh-place finish in the American League Most Valuable Player balloting.

But that's the cruel catch here, because no matter whether or not you have optimism for him going forward this season, the reality is that he's been one of the least valuable everyday players in baseball this season.

He will be better. But then, it's hard to be worse. What he's accomplished -- or hasn't accomplished -- so far through a little more than 90 percent of the season puts him in some very undistinguished company.

harper74finn.jpgThis morning, my interest was piqued by a post on the baseball-reference.com blog titled The Worst Full-Time Players of the Last 50 Years. Catchers, shortstops, and second basemen were excluded since those were and sometimes still are positions where defensive ability took precedence over a player's hitting skills. Among those who fit the other criteria -- the most plate appearances by a player with an OPS+ of 60 or lower since 1961 -- was a familiar one to Sox fans who remember Jimy Williams's sometimes peculiar lineup choices in the '90s.

If you thought Darren Lewis's regular place in the lineup during the 1999 season -- when he hit .240 with two homers, a .620 OPS, and a 57 OPS+ in 538 plate appearances -- was inexplicable, well, history and the numbers are on your side. It's tied for the 10th-worst season by this measure, right there with Bobby Tolan '73 and Michael Bourn '08.

As you might have guessed by now, that's where Crawford and that undistinguished company comes in. A bit of goofing around deep and complicated research on the site's addictive Play Index revealed that he and Lewis are two of just three Red Sox outfielders since '61 to meet other specific criteria: an OPS of .691 or lower, an OPS+ of 85 or lower, a batting average of .253 or lower, and no more than 11 home runs while having enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

In other words, Crawford's statistics thus far in 2011 . . . or worse.

Turns out there have been just two seasons that have been worse: DLew's aforementioned '99 season, and Tommy Harper's in 1974, when at age 33 he followed up consecutive 112 OPS+ seasons for the Sox by hitting .237 with a .630 OPS. He retired a year later.

(Note: If batting average is removed from the equation, the 1995 season of one Otis Nixon also makes the list. He hit .277 and stole a bunch of bases, but was statistically dismal in every other way. If you think we're going to dis Otis around here, you haven't been paying attention very long. Now, pretend this conversation never happened, got it?)

So what conclusions can we come to today? That you never speak ill of Otis Nixon, obviously. That Jimy Williams must have bumped more than just his booty for thinking it was a good idea to run DLew out there pretty much every day -- and did I mention he often hit him leadoff? That Tommy Harper's rough '74 season did portend the end, which happens to the best of 'em. And that Carl Crawford's miserable season has been . . . well, just as miserable as it has seemed.

Here's hoping October -- yes, presuming there is one for the Red Sox -- brings him some redemption.

* * *

Update: Crawford's prolonged ineptitude has reminded me more than anything else of Troy O'Leary's 2000 season, when the formerly dependable left fielder's at-bats suddenly became exercises in hopelessness. Turns out that even though O'Leary didn't appear on the previous list, he is one of five Red Sox outfielders to qualify for the batting title while having an OPS+ of 85 or lower, joining the aforementioned Lewis, Harper, and Nixon. O'Leary's was 81. The fifth? Coco Crisp in 2007, when he hit .268 with a .712 OPS, an 83 OPS+, and played the most spectacular defense over a full season of any Sox center fielder I've ever seen. Jimy Williams would have loved him, too.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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