July 31 was kind of a crazy day around these parts, as the Red Sox were right in the middle of some of the biggest deals of the trade deadline. I was working that day, so I was unable to really look at any of the deals until after all the dust had settled, and I remember one distinct opinion upon looking through all of the deals. Why Allen Craig? It’s not that I thought they made a mistake in not getting a prospect out of a John Lackey deal, or even that I thought Craig couldn’t return to being the hitter he had been throughout most of his time in St. Louis. It was more that there was no apparent role for him to play on a team with a plethora of outfielders and a solid first baseman under contract for at least one more year. Fast-forward almost three months, and not much has changed. Surely, things will be different when April rolls around, but the Craig situation still remains confusing for me. What kind of role is he going to play in 2015?
Before we look ahead, it’s important to take a cursory look at just what happened to lead to his abysmal 2014, and how much of it is really worrisome. After consistently posting wRC+’s in the 130’s for the previous three years, Craig suddenly stumbled to a .215/.279/.315 line, good for a 69 (nice) wRC+. A few things jump out about his performance. As one may guess, his batting average on balls in play took a huge tumble, falling over 100 points from 2013 all the way down to .266. The 30-year-old also saw a significant drop in power, and started hitting more balls on the ground than ever before, which is not a great recipe for someone built like Craig. Some of this should regress normally back to his previous levels, but it also appears there are plenty of warning signs to be nervous about.
Taking a look at his numbers this year compared to his career norms, my main concern would be that he is losing some significant bat speed. Without having the actual concrete swing-speed data available, I have to look at some other numbers that could be explained by a lack of bat speed. While it’s speculation, all of the signs combined are worrisome.
For one thing, the drop off in power and line drive rate, along with the rise in ground balls, tells me is making worse contact, and perhaps fighting off more pitches rather than attacking them. On top of this, his performance against fastballs fell through the roof this season. Fangraphs has numbers tracking a batter’s performance against certain pitches and weighting them towards an average performance. Throughout his career, Craig had thrived against fastballs, boasting a 25.6 wFB in 2013. For context, that number was the 11th best in all of baseball. Last season, that number tumbled down to -9.9, giving him the tenth worst mark in the game. Finally, he had much less success pulling the ball last season than he typically had. While he’s always done well using the whole field, he posted the best wRC+’s of his career while pulling the ball. This year, however, his wRC+ when hitting it to left field was a putrid 47, and he had a .046 ISO while pulling the ball. That is alarming.
Of course, Craig also dealt with a foot injury throughout the 2013-2014 offseason, and that has been pointed to as a reason for his steep decline this past year. That could very well be the whole explanation, but it seems like that could be far-fetched given all of the problems he showed last season. Still, he’ll most likely be on the team next year as his trade value has taken a steep hit. So, what kind of role could he play?
As I stated above, he will not be taking playing time from Mike Napoli, who was one of the few players on last year’s team to consistently produce offensively. Napoli does still have those hip problems, though, and is a decent injury risk, so Craig will likely get some time at first next year. Beyond that, the best bet would be playing him in one of the corner spots in the outfield. There may be a spot open in left field with all of the trade rumors swirling around Yoenis Cespedes, which would be perfect for Craig. However, I would still be nervous about relying on Craig for a full-time spot. The ideal scenario would be to slot him in to one of the corner spots and have him in a semi-platoon with Daniel Nava. Throughout his career, including 2014, Craig has hit much better against left-handed pitching, an area in which Nava has struggled. Depending on what corner spot is opened up by a trade this winter, play Craig there any time a lefty starts for the opposition. Then, split time against right-handed pitching between the two until Craig proves he’s worthy of an everyday lineup spot.
Allen Craig is a very interesting case for the coming season. On the one hand, it’s always hard to completely change your opinion on a player based on one poor season. On the other hand, that one bad season in this case was an abomination with plenty of warning signs. Amid all the trade talk surrounding the outfield this winter, it’s hard to imagine anyone will give up something of value for Craig, so he’ll be here no matter what. While it’s hard to sell trading John Lackey for a back-end starter and a part-time player, players need to earn their role. With the one I lined up for Craig, he should still wind up with 400 plate appearances, and if he proves he deserves more, he can get them. It will be an fascinating case to watch as the season gets closer.