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Should Carl Crawford Play Right Field at Fenway?

It may sound like a ridiculous question, it may even be a ridiculous question, but I have to ask it anyway. I can’t help it. There are probably some readers out there who will not get by the title of this article before they cry out, "NO! You Idiot! That’s a terrible idea" and that is fine. I have no idea what the results of this mad scientist’s experiment would be, but I have to ask the question, because there is something that I can’t get my head around: Carl Crawford’s 2011 UZR.

Prior to 2011, Carl Crawford was easily the top defensive left fielder in baseball by UZR. From 2002 to 2010 his 116 runs saved were more than double the next best mark. His UZR/150 led all regular LF during that time (minimum 4500 innings). His 18.2 UZR in 2010 was second among all left fielders (minimum 500 innings) behind repurposed CF Brett Gardner (Defensive Runs Saved had Crawford ahead by one run, but I digress…) 2010 was Crawford’s second highest UZR rating and the seventh time in eight seasons he surpassed 10 runs saved by MGL’s metric. The overall point being, Carl Crawford was very, very good at playing left field according to UZR.

Now, before Mr. Litchman and my fellow nerds raise the single-season-UZR-numbers-are-unstable chants begin (darn that catchy chant, it always gets stuck in my head), let me reiterate two tenants of UZR theory that must always be acknowledged; it takes a large sample (around 3000 innings) for us to get an accurate reading from UZR and Fenway Park’s Green Monster is the system’s arch-nemesis. Both of these issues are extremely relevant in considering Crawford’s dramatic drop in UZR. CC has played just 1098 innings as a Red Sox left fielder, around half of those coming at Fenway Park. This is around 1/3 the sample we would like to see to effectively judge his UZR. If the Monster is truly responsible for Crawford’s stark drop in UZR, it will take another two years to know for sure. I believe this to be case, in spite of the small sample size, and I will try to prove it.

UZR over a single season. In 2007, he was credited with -2.4 runs after two years of declining UZR numbers. 2007 is strange season for UZR, as no full time AL left fielder was given a positive ranking by the system. Only two left fielders topped 1000 innings at the position in the Junior Circuit, Crawford and the A's Shannon Stewart. Even in those three years between 2005-2007 when his UZR slipped, he still managed to rank fourth in all of baseball, possibly showing a decline in overall left fielder UZR during this period or a bias toward NL left fielders. Since UZR is based on a league average for its baseline, the decline in Crawford's numbers could be connected to a change in the baseline. So while Crawford's -2.2 UZR last season is a concern, it is not unprecedented.

Then there is the Green Monster. The Green Monster has necessitated revisions to UZR and only two players have ever posted positive UZR numbers in front of the iconic wall in over 500 innings (ironically, those two players are Jason Bay and Manny Rameriz, 2009 and 2008 respectively). The effect that the Monster has in turning would be fly balls into singles and doubles presents a major challenge for any defensive system. And that is where splits come in.

Manny Ramirez was a terrible fielder. You don't need UZR to know that. He ran like a man carrying a string quartet on his back and seemed to base his first step on anything but the batted ball's trajectory. At home, (and Fenway was his home park for 5.5 of the 7 years that he played where UZR is available) he was much worse than on the road, with a -23.5 UZR at home against a -11.9 on the road. Playing in Tampa Bay, Carl Crawford has experience the exact opposite. Both home and away, Crawford has been very good in left, but he is markedly better at home. His 22.6 home UZR is almost triple his 7.5 road UZR. Just over 10% of those road games have been at Fenway. Looking at the differences between Fenway and Tropicana Field helps to explain this.


Here Fenway is super imposed on top of the Trop and the differences in the fences are show in Blue (where the Ray's field is deeper than Fenway) and in Red (where Fenway is deeper)* In his former home ball park, Crawford had an addition 25 feet behind him in left field, giving him more chances and with his range, more putouts. Crawford's excellent range is now limited by a large green obstruction, taking away his best skill as a defender. Across the diamond, however, Fenway has wild expansive right field begging for a man who can range far and wide to turn doubles into mere fly outs. Carl Crawford is that man.

*The overlay is not to scale, but rather an approximation. Distances are accurate except where a * signifies an approximation

Now, the obvious flaw in this plan is Crawford's arm. Crawford doesn't throw well for a left fielder, with UZR giving him -1.1 runs for his throwing on his career. Right field requires a better arm due to the need to keep runners from gong first to third and scoring from second at will. Therefore, we have to temper the runs Crawford would save with his range as a right fielder with the extra runs he would cost the team with his inability to throw.

Last season, Boston right fielders saw 195 situations in which the right fielder's arm would factor in (situations where a runner could go first to third, score from second on a single, tag up to go to third, tag up and score). The superior throwing Josh Reddick got one of these base runners out everyone else failed to register a kill. That's right, Boston right fielders totaled one outfield kill. 41.5% of runners did not try to advance, obviously afraid to suffer the same fate as that one guy. That gave Bosotn the third worst hold percentage in the league. Just how much worse would they be if Crawford played home games in right? The worse right field arm in baseball, Corey Hart, cost his team less than six runs in over 1000 innings by UZR's arm runs. If Crawford was twice that bad in half as many innings, but had range numbers similar to his Tampa Bay UZR, he would still save the team five to ten runs. While a higher percentage of runners would take that extra base, his glove would be lower the total number of men on base, which is far more important.

In all likelihood, Carl Crawford will not see an inning of work in right field next year. There may be many good reasons for that beyond physical considerations like his range and his arm. Still, if Boston wants to maximize both Crawford and their outfield defense, playing CC in right at home might be worth a try. On additional benefit to this unorthodox plan would be the ability to sign a right-handed hitter for the bench that can only play left, such as Pat Burrell, Marcus Thames, or Jonny Gomes. Call me crazy, but I think it could work.