The Perfect Storm Reaches New England
Six points I’m allowed to make in public about Boston’s most recent free-agent acquisition …
1) Not all players experience the same aging pattern. The average aging curve for outfielders who are A) above-average hitters, adjusted for park and league effects, and B) derive a high percentage of their RAR-based value from baserunning + defense through their age-28 season experience much more favorable careers from age-29 going forward than outfielders with skill-sets that are more dependent on pure batting value. (Translation: The broader a good hitter’s skill-set is, the more likely he’ll maintain a high level of performance into his mid-30s.)
Carl Crawford is part of a sub-set of position players who consistently hold their value through their mid-30s. Some of the research I’ve conducted suggests that OFs with a skill-set similar to Crawford’s should expect to be as much as 60% more valuable on a WAR-per-game basis than than players who were equally valuable through age-28 but didn’t run or defend nearly as well. Players in Crawford’s group also earn notably more playing time in their 30s, reflecting their superior durability and longevity.
And just to dispel any notion that Carl Crawford’s on-field value over the last two years isn’t “elite enough” to make these aging-pattern arguments particularly convincing, consider the short list of position-players who have been better than Crawford — according to FanGraphs’ version of WAR, which is built upon a reasonable methodology but manages to underrate Crawford a bit, by my estimate — since the beginning of 2009:
Name WAR Albert Pujols 16.0 Evan Longoria 14.2 Ryan Zimmerman 13.8 Joe Mauer 13.1 Chase Utley 12.8 Carl Crawford 12.5
Consider, as well, some of the names who aren’t on this list because they trail Crawford’s production: Matt Holliday, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, et al. Is this a legitimately “elite” group? I think so.
2) Players with elite speed tend to hold on to that skill for a long time. Ichiro is a good example of this. So is Tim Raines. So is Kenny Lofton, another name I’ve seen thrown around as way of deriding Crawford’s game. There seems to be this notion that it’s common among players who run very well in their 20s to see that skill disappear once they’re on the wrong side of 30. I’ve found that’s distinctly not true. The key element, of course, is that Crawford isn’t entirely reliant on his speed for his on-field value, like the Vince Coleman-types of recent history. It’s just one element of his game, which also includes A) very high contact rates that translate into high BABIPs, B) above-average power, as measured by ISO, and C) world-class defense.
3) More than most players, Crawford’s career offensive line doesn’t reflect his true-talent level. Reaching the majors at a very early age and going through a rough development phase really hampers his career rate stats. Over the last five seasons, however — which spans more than 3,000 PAs, a significant sample — Crawford has hit .303/.350/.462, with 240 SB against 52 CS (that comes to roughly 50 SB/11 CS per 650 PAs). Crawford spent 2,300 PAs between his 20th and 23rd birthdays being a .289/.320/.421 hitter. That guy has almost nothing to do with the player who Boston signed on Wednesday night.
4) Crawford’s defense is about as good, relative to league average at his position, as any outfielder in the last 50 years. Yes, there’s a lot of uncertainly surrounding how a player’s defense will age — there’s just no getting around that. But that risk is almost certainly lower with Crawford than with any outfielder in the game, whose performance with the leather is about as consistent as any outfielder since Paul Blair. What’s more, if you’re inclined to believe the conclusions suggested by John Dewan’s +/- system, Crawford’s primary strength on defense is making plays on shallow balls hit in front of him. Given the constraints that the Green Monster™ imposes on LFs (e.g., limiting their ability to make plays on balls over their heads), that skill should remain unhampered, thus helping him retain the bulk of his fielding value.
5) Carl Crawford’s batting profile meets the definition of what you might reasonably call a “clutch hitter.” This is an odd point, but it’s real. In short: Crawford’s seasonal run-expentancy batting value (dubbed RE24 by nerds like me) consistently outstrips his “traditional” batting value, measured by linear weights, to a dramatic degree. This means that a disproportionate number of his hits consistently come with A) runners on base, and B) one out or more. Because we’re talking about a hitter with more than 5,300 career PAs, and not a tiny sample, I’m inclined to believe this reflects an actual skill. Because he seems to be able to actually “raise” his performance in inning-crucial situations, he’s somewhat more valuable than “mainstream sabermetric stats,” like WAR, would lead you to believe.
And perhaps most importantly …
6) Teams are acting as if the monetary value of a win is increasing. The best players in MLB have been paid roughly the same for about a decade now, without accounting for inflation. That’s a little weird, quite frankly, since we know that MLB revenues have been increasing pretty steadily. If this is just the first of a series of signings that value a Win Above Replacement at $6 million or more, then Crawford’s contract (and Jayson Werth’s, and Adam Dunn’s, and Cliff Lee’s, etc.) could look at lot more reasonable in retrospect. Because I would be very surprised if, in seven years, Crawford’s deal still ranks among the 20 most lucrative contracts in MLB history (it’s currently ninth). This bout of salary stagnation is about as likely to hold as the Democrats growing backbone before the end of December.
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