Thursday, May 7, 2009

Run Carl RUN!!!!!

First of all, thank you to everyone who sent condolences on my recent career change. The search for what I want to do when I grow up is on and it will be interesting to see how it goes. Now back to regular programming.

This morning Mario over at Wax Heaven wrote a quick post on Carl Crawford and offered to his multitude of readers the question, “Do you think Carl Crawford will steal 100 bases this season?” Never one to miss an opportunity to expound on someone else’s idea I decided to borrow that post for mine. And by the way, if you’re into collecting make sure that Mario’s site is on your list of daily reads, no one in the business is more informed.

As for the main question, I believe that Crawford has the best chance in the last 20 years to break the century mark in stolen bases. He has so many positive factors going for him, the number one being that he seems to be 100% healthy for the first time in two seasons. Leg issues limited him to a career low of 25 steals last year.

This year he has been a demon on the base paths. Twenty steals in 29 games, highlighted by a 6 steal effort against Boston last weekend. The fact that he hasn’t been thrown out yet this season is almost as impressive as the number of bases he’s swiped. In fact several times he’s slid into second with nary a throw from the catcher.

So how is he going to do it? Well, first of all, he needs to keep getting on base. His OBP is currently at .374, more than 40 points higher than his career average. His .302 average is helping him get on base, but what is really helping is that he is walking more in his career than he ever has. Over his career he has 208 walks in 4185 plate appearances, averaging a walk every 20 at bats or so. This season he has 12 walks in 131 plate appearances, which breaks down to one every nine at bats.

It appears after 7 full seasons he is maturing as a hitter. Taking more walks makes him more of a threat then ever. In Crawford’s case a walk is almost as good as a double. He is hitting a respectable .256 against lefties this year, no longer trying to pull everything against southpaws. Several times this year we have seen him lay the bat on the ball and shoot a ground ball into left.

Blessed with above average speed he is also becoming a better base runner. Early in his career, he stole bases primarily with raw natural speed. Now he uses that speed along with his knowledge to a much greater effect. Even if a pitcher guess correctly and attempts a pickoff or a pitchout he has the speed to “outrun” the ball.

What about his adversary - the catcher? After all Jorge Posada is throwing out 35% of the runners who are stealing on him. Well sure, but Jason Varitek and Gregg Zaun are only throwing out 20% of their would be base stealers. The Toronto catchers are fairing a bit better nailing 25% of the runners. Crawford has a ton of games against his AL East rivals, thus a ton of opportunities to run wild.

Manager Joe Maddon has always stated the Crawford is one of the players that has the green light to steal in all situations. Three times this season Crawford has swiped third base. A risky proposition when he has Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena hitting behind him. After all, with his speed he will score from second as easily as he can score from third.

Speaking of Longoria and Pena, their hot starts is aiding Crawford’s quest for 100. Pitchers can’t afford to get behind to either of those hitters by pitching out. Plus with Crawford dancing around on the bases the pitchers’ attention are definitely divided. When a pitcher can’t focus entirely on the hitter he has a tendency to make bad pitches. Bad pitches tend to go pretty far off of the bats of Longo and Pena.

Crawford is third on the team with 17 runs scored which doesn’t seem like a high amount. However, he has scored six times in the last seven games, all games in which he has had a stolen base. You might wonder why he hasn’t been moved to the leadoff role, especially since BJ Upton is struggling so far this season. The leftfielder has mentioned in the past that he doesn’t like leading off, as a matter of fact he prefers to hit third. Also, Maddon is stubborn (or loyal depending on your point of view) and he is determined to let Upton fight his way out of the slump. I don’t disagree with him. Upton is showing signs of life and once he starts reaching base opponents will be faced with the dire possibility of facing both him and Crawford on the base paths.

Overall, does his proficiency on the base paths help or hurt the Rays? Some saber metric/ money ball experts will say that the stolen base doesn’t help a team out and that the risk isn’t worth the reward. I don’t know if I agree with that in Crawford’s case. He swipes bases at a greater than 80% success rate so it’s not like he’s getting thrown out every other attempt.

The Rays play an up-tempo game that is predicated on putting pressure on the defense. Stealing bases is key to that. For example, during Tuesday’s game against the Orioles Crawford stole second, a bad throw from Zaun allowed him to advance to third. While he was on his way to third, O’s centerfielder Adam Jones sailed a throw into the dugout and CC was able to waltz home. One pitch and a run scored. For a team that struggles to drive in runners from time to time it’s nice to be able to score without swinging the bat.

Crawford stole 5 bases in the teams first 15 games. Over that time the team was 6-9. With 15 steals in the next 14 games the Rays have gone 7-7. Coincidence? Possibly. The Rays have been getting more offense lately, and their bullpen has shown signs of life as well. However, you could make the argument that Houston native’s thievery could be sparking the recent improved play.

It is a long season, there are over 120 games left in the season. Playing on the turf, no matter how close to the real stuff it seems, is going to take a toll on Crawford. As the games become more meaningful, will he steal more or less? If he goes into a prolonged slump will he be able to get on base enough to attempt 100 steals?

The answers to those questions are going to be key in finding out if Crawford can be the first player since Vince Coleman to steal 100 bags. It will be a nice subplot to a season that has gotten off to a rocky start.

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