JAWS and the 2022 Hall of Fame Ballot: Carl Crawford

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2022 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Content warning: This piece contains details about alleged domestic and gun violence. The content may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.

2022 BBWAA Candidate: Carl Crawford
Carl Crawford LF 39.1 32.3 35.7 1,931 136 480 .290/.330/.435 105
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

The new millennium hasn’t exactly been a banner one for the stolen base. Between soaring home run rates and the influence of analytics on front offices, the tactic has gone out of style, and per-game rates have fallen. As one-run strategies go, teams seem content to wait for a player to knock a ball over a wall rather than manufacture a run. During the first decade of the 2000s, as home runs kept flying, Carl Crawford stood out for his electrifying speed and skill on the basepaths.

In the first eight full seasons of his 15-year career (2002-16), Crawford led the American League in stolen bases four times, finished second once and third twice, stealing at least 46 bases in each of those seasons. He topped an 80% success rate in the first five of those seasons, and led the league in triples three times as well. Crawford’s wheels — as well as his midrange power and strong defense — helped him make four All-Star teams and win a Gold Glove while starring for the Rays’ first two playoff teams.

Alas, Crawford hit free agency, signed a massive seven-year deal with the Red Sox, and almost immediately went into the decline phase of his career due to injuries. After totaling 35.6 WAR with Tampa Bay from 2002-10, he managed just 3.5 WAR over his final six seasons spent with Boston and the Dodgers while missing substantial time due to Tommy John surgery, plus wrist, finger, oblique, and hamstring woes. He was released by Los Angeles with a year and a half still to go on his contract, and never played again.

Since retiring, Crawford has made grim headlines, including one for a 2020 arrest for domestic assault against his ex-girlfriend, and another for the drowning of a 5-year-old boy and 24-year-old woman during a party at his home and a subsequent lawsuit alleging negligence. If Crawford were a serious candidate for election, on the level of Omar Vizquel, such matters might cost him the support of voters. As it is, they complicate his legacy.

Crawford was born on August 5, 1981 in Houston, Texas, and grew up in the Fifth Ward. His grandfather, Roy Burns, ran a legendary barbecue restaurant, Burns Original BBQ, in Houston, and his father Steve went into the family business. Later, so did Carl’s brother, Cory, and Crawford used some of his career earnings to help finance the restaurant’s rebirth.

As a child, the left-handed Crawford pitched and played first base for the Smokey Jasper Park Angels, a Little League team coached by Ray Bourn, whose son Michael — yes, Michael Bourn — was 16 months younger than Crawford. The younger Bourn played 11 years in the majors (2006-16), won three stolen base titles and made two All-Star teams but was not included on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot despite being eligible. The team was very good, but due to a lack of money for travel, “We didn’t even get a chance to play in (the Little League World Series),” Crawford recalled in 2014. “I mean we beat everybody else. We scrimmaged one of those teams that went and blew ‘em out.” The situation led Crawford to help fund the travel of the national title-winning Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago.

At Jefferson Davis High School, Crawford lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. While lore has it that UCLA offered him a basketball scholarship to play point guard, Crawford later debunked that story. He did sign a letter of intent to go to the University of Nebraska on scholarships for football and baseball, but when the Devil Rays chose him in the second round of the 1999 draft (the 52nd pick overall), he soon signed for a $1.245 million bonus.

When he began his career with the Devil Rays’ Princeton affiliate in the Appalachian League in 1999, Crawford was still just 17 years old and comparatively inexperienced at baseball, given his interests in other sports. Nonetheless, he hit .319/.350/.404 and stole 17 bases in a league where he was 2.7 years younger than the average player, then hit .319/.350/.404 with league-leading totals of 170 hits and 55 steals, not to mention 11 triples, as an 18-year-old in the South Atlantic League. Baseball America placed him 72nd on their Top 100 Prospects list in the spring of 2001 while noting that the Devil Rays “rave about Crawford’s ability to take instruction and put it to use. His enthusiasm is apparent, and he never seems intimidated… [even if] his inexperience sometimes shows.”

Despite hitting a more modest .274/.323/.352 with 36 steals at Double-A Orlando in 2001, Crawford moved up to number 59 on BA’s list because he’d held his own as a 19-year-old. From his prospect capsule:

“He has great speed, quick wrists and a good idea of how to hit. His superior work ethic rivals that of any player in the system, and he’s considered the Devil Rays’ most coachable prospect. Crawford’s arm is his lone below-average tool. His baseball instincts, such as taking the correct routes on fly balls, should get better with experience. His pitch recognition and ability to work counts need improvement, and his swing could use some refinement. “

After spending the first half of the 2002 season at Triple-A Durham, Crawford was called up to make his major league debut. He went 1-for-4 with a two-run single off the Blue Jays’ Brian Bowles on July 20, 2002, 16 days short of his 21st birthday. On a team that lost 106 games, Crawford hit just .259/.290/.371 for a 77 OPS+ in 278 PA, but his baserunning and defense still boosted his value to 1.0 WAR. His hitting was only slightly better the following year (.281/.309/.362, 81 OPS+), but he did steal an AL-high 55 bases in 65 attempts; between his baserunning, double play avoidance and 11 Defensive Runs Saved, he was worth 2.3 WAR, a respectable showing for an age-21 season.

Crawford broke out in 2004, making his first All-star team, hitting .296/.331/.450 (105 OPS+) with league bests in triples (19) and steals (59), and 4.9 WAR. That began a four-year run during which he hit for a 112 OPS+ (.304/.341/.467) while averaging 14 homers, 15 triples, 53 steals, and 4.5 WAR. He made the AL All-Star team again in 2007, led the league in triples in ’05 and ’06, and in steals in ’06 and ’07; from 2005-07, he was successful on 85% of his stolen base attempts. In April 2005, he signed a four-year, $15.25 million extension that included club options for 2009 and ’10.

The Devil Rays remained a bad ballclub in this span, losing fewer than 95 games only in 2004. But the times they were a-changin’ in Tampa Bay. Manager Lou Piniella and general manager Chuck LaMar were replaced by Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman after the 2005 season, and the Devil Rays became the Rays after ’07. With rookie third baseman Evan Longoria joining Crawford, B.J. Upton, and a stable of young pitchers led by James Shields and Matt Garza, the team turned the corner in 2008, winning 97 games and the AL East. Crawford was not at his best, however; between a four-game suspension for his part in a brawl against the Red Sox, a minor hamstring injury, and surgery to repair a subluxation of his right middle finger tendon, he played in just 109 games and hit for an 89 OPS+ with just 25 steals and 2.5 WAR.

Despite not making a single major league plate appearance after August 9 due to injuries, Crawford reclaimed his starting left field job at the outset of the 2008 postseason, and hit .290/.333/.468 as the Rays beat the White Sox and Red Sox before losing to the Phillies in a five-game World Series. His biggest contribution came in Game 4 of the ALCS, when he went 5-for-5 with two doubles and a triple, scoring three runs and driving in two in a 13-4 win. He homered off both Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton in the World Series, albeit both in games that the Rays lost.

The Rays picked up Crawford’s options in each of the next two seasons, and he responded with performances that netted him All-Star berths in both years. He hit .305/.364/.452 (116 OPS+) with 15 homers and career highs of 60 steals — including an AL record-tying six in one game on May 3 — and 5.0 WAR in 2009, and was the MVP of the All-Star Game for his robbery of a potential go-ahead home run by Brad Hawpe.

Crawford topped that with a career year, hitting .307/.356/.495 with highs in slugging percentage, homers (19), OPS+ (135) and WAR (7.0, good for sixth in the league) while stealing 47 bases and boasting a league-high 13 triples. Though his 8 DRS wasn’t his best, he did bring home his only Gold Glove that year as well. The Rays won the AL East again, but lost a five-game Division Series to the Rangers; Crawford went just 3-for-21, though two of his hits and his only homer came in Tampa Bay’s Game 3 win.

That big season carried the 29-year-old Crawford into free agency, where his speed, athleticism, defensive ability, and budding power attracted the attention of the Red Sox, who had missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006. When fellow free agent Jayson Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals, Crawford and his agents, Greg Genske and Brian Peter, got a boost. He signed with the Red Sox for seven years and $142 million, choosing them over the Angels, who were reportedly offering the same package. The deal was the game’s 11th-largest at the time, and the sixth-largest of any free agent to that point, after those of Alex Rodriguez ($275 and $252 million), Mark Teixiera ($180 million), CC Sabathia ($161 million), and Manny Ramirez ($160 million).

Crawford’s time in Boston was a disaster. He hit .155/.204/.227 in April 2011, missed a month from mid-June to mid-July due to a hamstring strain, and declined in every phase of his game, hitting just .255/.289/.405 (85 OPS+) with 11 homers and 18 steals — his lowest total since his rookie season — in 130 games. The Red Sox nonetheless carried the AL’s best record into September, but went just 7-20 the rest of the way. Still, they entered the final night of the season at 90-71, tied with the Rays for the AL Wild Card spot, and headed to the ninth inning of their season finale up 3-2 on the lowly Orioles. After striking out the first two batters in the ninth, closer Jonathan Papelbon gave up back-to-back doubles to Chris Davis and Nolan Reimold, tying the game. With pinch-runner Kyle Hudson on second base, Robert Andino lined a ball to left field, where Crawford tried unsuccessfully to make a sliding catch, then threw home too late to prevent the winning run from scoring. It made for an enduring image not just of the team’s season, but of the left fielder’s tenure in Boston.

The Red Sox lost that game, but they weren’t eliminated until the Rays erased a 7-0 deficit against the Yankees in the eighth and ninth innings, then won in the 12th.

In January, Crawford underwent surgery to repair cartilage in his left wrist. Initially, the Red Sox explained he had begun experiencing soreness during his offseason hitting workouts, but by Opening Day, it emerged that he’d dealt with wrist pain for years and had received painkilling injections to manage the problem in 2011. Just as he neared his return in late March, he sprained his left UCL and received an injection of platelet-rich plasma. He didn’t make his season debut until July 16, 2012, and it soon became apparent both that his elbow was still a problem and that the Red Sox were going nowhere, so he underwent Tommy John surgery in late August.

On August 25, two days after that surgery, the Red Sox shocked the baseball world by trading Crawford, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Punto, and $258 million cash — all but $12 million of what remained on the players’ respective contracts — to the Dodgers for a five-player package.

Crawford was surprised by the trade, and relieved. When he reported to spring training, he spoke of Boston’s “toxic” environment and his inner struggles. “I just didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he told the Los Angeles Times‘ Dylan Hernandez. “It puts you in kind of a depression stage. You just don’t see a way out.” A year and a half later, he admitted that he hadn’t done his research on Boston or spoken to a single player who had played there about his experience.

Crawford’s return to action was solid but unspectacular. He hit .283/.329/.407 (107 OPS+) with 15 stolen bases and 1.5 WAR in 116 games, missing just over a month due to a hamstring strain. He came up big in the Division Series against the Braves, going 6-for 17 with three homers in a four-game victory; he hit a three-run shot off Julio Teheran in Game 3, then homered twice of Freddy Garcia in Game 4. Though he collected hits in all six games of the Dodgers’ NLCS loss to the Cardinals, he scored just twice and drove in one run, that via a solo homer off Joe Kelly in a Game 5 win.

Crawford’s 2014 season was his best as a Dodger, not that it was a complete one. The 32-year-old left fielder hit .300/.339/.429 (118 OPS+) with 23 steals in 29 attempts, and 2.4 WAR, but he missed six weeks due to a left ankle sprain. Though he went 5-for-17 against the Cardinals in the Division Series, the Dodgers fell in four games.

From there, the returns diminished. Crawford was the Dodgers’ Opening Day left fielder in both the 2015 and ’16 seasons, but slipped below replacement level and was increasingly unavailable due to injuries. He missed 12 weeks in 2015 due to an oblique strain, and played in just 69 games, finishing with -0.2 WAR, then played in just 30 games, missing time due to a lower back strain. On June 5, a point at which he was a full win below replacement level in just 87 PA, the team designated him for assignment, then released him while still owing him $35 million. Despite the fact that he would have cost just the league minimum, he never played again. The Rays reportedly expressed at least some interest in bringing him back in late June of 2016 when their outfield was depleted by injuries, and he mulled a comeback over the following winter, but that was it for his career.

Crawford’s career total of 480 stolen bases ranks “only” 43rd all-time, but it’s fourth among those since the year 2000, behind only Juan Pierre (614), José Reyes (517), and Ichiro Suzuki (509), with 2022 ballot newcomer Jimmy Rollins (470) fifth, and current candidate Bobby Abreu seventh (347 of his 400). Similarly, Crawford’s 81.5% success rate ranks sixth among players with at least 300 stolen base attempts in that span, with Carlos Beltrán first (87.3%, nearly a point higher than his overall 86.4% dating back to 1998) and Rollins (81.7%) fourth. Crawford’s total of 83 runs for baserunning and double play avoidance also ranks fourth for the span behind Ichiro (118), Johnny Damon (95, from his career total of 125 dating back to 1995), and Pierre (85).

Alas, all of that is at least somewhat overshadowed not only by the dud that was Crawford’s contract but by his post-career legal issues. In 2017, he founded 1501 Certified Entertainment, a music label. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion signed with the label in early 2018 and soon found success, but when she signed a management deal with Jay-Z’s label Roc Nation in September 2019, 1501 blocked her from releasing new music. In response, she sued 1501 and Crawford, calling the contract “unconscionable” and the label “purposefully and deceptively vague” in paying her; the case is ongoing.

More tragically, on May 16, 2020, two people, 5-year-old Kasen Hersi and 25-year-old Bethany Lartigue, drowned in the backyard swimming pool during a party at his house in Houston. The woman had been staying at Crawford’s home while filming music videos; she jumped in to save the boy but neither one survived after being administered CPR. The boy’s father soon sued Crawford for $1 million for negligence, claiming that he had failed to take “reasonable and necessary steps” to prevent the boy from having access to the pool. Crawford publicly expressed remorse over the two deaths; the current status of that lawsuit is unknown.

On June 3, 2020, Crawford was arrested in Houston and charged with assault of a family member/impeding breathing, a felony. According to court documents, Crawford showed up at the Houston apartment of his ex-girlfriend, with whom he has a daughter who was one year old at the time, on May 8. The woman alleged that Crawford fired a semi-automatic handgun, threatened her at gunpoint, slammed her head against the wall and squeezed her neck. The emergence of the couple’s child distracted Crawford long enough for her to escape. Crawford also allegedly fled the scene, but left behind the handgun.

Crawford turned himself in and was freed on $10,000 bond. Via lawyer Rusty Hardin (who previously represented Roger Clemens in allegations related to the Mitchell Report), he denied the charges and his conduct. While further developments in the case were not publicly reported, according to Harris County court records, he was indicted by a grand jury in December 2020, but the case was dismissed the following March when his ex-girlfriend refused to cooperate with the prosecution.

Even without prosecution, such disturbing stuff would likely compromise a serious candidate’s chances for election to the Hall of Fame, and as it is, the litany makes even appreciating the high points of Crawford’s uneven career a complicated matter.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Wow, I actually didn’t think he’d be on ballot even. Didn’t realize he was that good in TB. He was a favorite of mine cause I liked the SB, but I didn’t think he was actually that good.

2 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

He was an old school leadoff guy for a while. Ran well, but his OBP wasn’t ideal for leading off. Still valuable, but it wasn’t until his last couple of seasons for the Rays that he put it all together. And then he totally fell apart after he left.

2 years ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

A bit surprised, Kevbot, that you got down votes for what seems to be a straightforward and honest post.

Crawford was a force in TampaBay, although he had the type of skill set that didn’t predict to age well, but I certainly didn’t expect him to collapse immediately. He looked a little thick around the middle in his Dodger years for a speed guy.

What I was unaware of was his post troubles after his playing career. Yikes.

He’d have made an interesting Hall-debate candidate if he could have maintained his peak level for another three or four seasons after he left Tampa.