In Tampa Bay, Carl Crawford was a star. He was one of the most exciting players in the sport and one of the main driving forces behind the team’s rise from ineptitude to World Series contender. He was a homegrown talent who excelled in all of the things the Rays valued. He was an example of what small market teams could do to overcome the financial gap and take down the big boys.
Then, he signed a $142 million contract with the Red Sox. A lot of people were against that contract, especially for that skillset in that ballpark. A speed-and-defense guy getting power hitter money for years when his speed-and-defense would almost certainly be in decline? A guy who specialized in covering a lot of ground playing the smallest left field in baseball? Crawford’s struggles in Boston made him a new kind of example; a warning to those who had strayed from the simple concepts of on base percentage and slugging percentage. Crawford became the poster child for those who felt like places like FanGraphs had gone too far with our affection for guys who accumulate value through singles and UZR.
Through it all, Carl Crawford has been held up as more than just another player; he’s been the bully pulpit for both sides. Now healthy and away from the spotlight on the west coast — yes, he’s in LA, but he’s playing fifth fiddle to Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, and Zack Greinke — Crawford has been given a chance to get his career back on track. And he is taking full advantage.
52 plate appearances into the season, Crawford is hitting .396/.442/.563, and his speed and defense are still assets, so he’s been worth +1.0 WAR in just 13 games. Of course, that would be more impressive if his 178 wRC+ didn’t put him one spot ahead of Nate Schierholtz on the leaderboard, and the variance in performance over these kinds of samples means that you could also describe his batting line as worse than Francisco Cervelli and Vernon Wells. It’s 13 games. Literally anyone in baseball can hit well for 13 games.
So, no, I’m not here to write about how Carl Crawford is back to being what he was in Tampa Bay based on the first two weeks of the season. Even accounting for injury, we can’t ignore Crawford’s 664 lousy plate appearances the last two years, and Crawford is 31-years-old now. He has a .474 BABIP. He’s not going to keep this up.
However, Crawford is doing a couple of things that I think merit some attention, even with the small sample of data we’re dealing with. As we know, some metrics have less variance around them than others, and can be more meaningful in shorter amounts of time than others. As numerous people have shown several times, most recently by Matt Klaassen back in January, there is no hitting metric that has a higher year-to-year correlation than Contact%, and the whole range of plate discipline statistics stabilize much quicker than almost any kind of outcome statistic.
You can get a pretty good gauge of a hitter’s approach at the plate in a few dozen plate appearances, because these metrics are measuring things with very few outside variables. Hitters are very consistent in how often they swing and what kinds of pitches they swing at. What is a small sample for an outcome-based statistic is a much larger sample for a process-based metric like swing rate. It doesn’t mean that there’s no variance, but the noise is much smaller, and changes in short periods of time can be more meaningful.
I say all of that because no player has shown a more dramatically different approach at the plate this year than Carl Crawford. For his career, Crawford has swung at 52.8% of the pitches he’s been thrown, and during the PITCHF/x era, he’s swung at 34.8% of the pitches he’s seen that have been categorized as outside the strike zone. Of the 163 players with 2,000 or more plate appearances from 2008 to 2012, only 19 swung at a higher percentage of pitches than Crawford, and only 18 chased a higher rate of pitches out of the strike zone. Year in and year out, Crawford has always been one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball.
Not this year. Crawford’s 2013 swing rate is 41.2% and his O-Swing% is just 22.8%, both career lows and both well below the league average rates for the first few weeks of the season. In graphical form, his Swing Rate and O-Swing trends:
Again, 52 plate appearances. Regression to the mean still applies, even with statistics that stabilize more quickly. Crawford has probably not become a patient hitter overnight, and his career trajectory suggests that he’s going to start chasing more pitches and more pitches out of the zone than he has in the first two weeks of the season. Any time you spot a guy doing something better than he ever has before, you should expect him to start doing that thing worse in the very near future.
However, you don’t regress everything the same amount. In 52 plate appearances, you’d regress a player’s BABIP nearly 100% back to the mean, or something very close to 100%. You’d regress ISO a little less than that, but still very heavily. For most statistics, 52 plate appearances is hardly anything.
For swing rates, though, 52 plate appearances is something. It’s not everything, but in his original piece on sample sizes for various statistics, Russell Carlton noted that things like swing rate began to stabilize in “less than 40 PA”. If you just take the current swing rates for every player who has at least 30 plate appearances in 2013, the correlation between their 2013 swing rate and their 2012 swing rate is .65, a pretty hefty correlation for what amounts to a handful of games for some players.
Compared to last year, Carl Crawford’s swing rate is down 12.1 percentage points. The only other player who has cut their swing rate by at least 10 percentage points is Chris Davis, who is also absolutely mashing the baseball right now. The three guys who have decreased their swing rates by nine percentage points are Lance Berkman, Lucas Duda, and Michael Young, all of whom are off to excellent starts to their campaigns. It’s not a one to one correlation between reduced swing rate and improved performance — Kyle Seager is #6 on the list with an 8.8% swing% reduction and he has a .270 wOBA — but swinging at fewer pitches out of the strike zone is mostly a good thing for most players.
For Crawford, it’s probably part of the reason why he’s been one of the best players in baseball to start the year. He’s always been a fantastic all around player if you could overlook his plate discipline. Carl Crawford, being selective at the plate, is pretty close to the perfect leadoff hitter. He won’t keep producing at this level, but the Dodgers have to be encouraged by what they’ve seen so far. If Crawford sees a connection between his approach during the first two weeks and his career rejuvenation, he might very well end up making some adjustments and taking more pitches than he ever has before.
And if that happens, the Adrian Gonzalez trade might just become the Carl Crawford trade.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.