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2023 In Review: Kutter Crawford Can Get Even Better

The unheralded starter might be sneakily be a key piece of the 2024 rotation.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

2023 In One Sentence

2023 In Another Sentence

Kutter Crawford once again found himself a key piece of the rotation in 2023 and responded by taking a step forward, with occasional rough spots.

The Positives

In 2022, Crawford was thrust into the rotation due to countless injuries to the pitching staff. While there were positives that came from his first season in the bigs, he was often overmatched. In 2023, the righty built on those positives and proved he belongs at the major league level. He posted a fantastic 25.6% strikeout rate, along with a 6.8% walk rate.

A large part of his success can be attributed to his fastball. Despite the pedestrian velocity, it’s one of the best fastballs in baseball. Its vertical movement is the ninth highest among qualified starters, and Crawford commands it masterfully. It returns called strikes early in counts and generates whiffs at the top of the zone. A good fastball can be the foundation for a solid big-league pitcher, and Crawford has a great one.

The Negatives

It’s no secret that Red Sox starters struggled to get into the later innings, and Crawford was no exception. Across his 23 starts, he pitched an average of 4.2 innings. The whole “third time through the order” thing has been beaten to death, but it’s a real problem for Crawford.

Best Game of 2023

How about six innings of shutout baseball against the Baltimore Orioles to close out the season?

The Big Question

If you take a quick look at Crawford’s splits, you might be concerned about how he fits in Fenway Park. The numbers are what they are, but to me, they look more like noise than anything statistically significant.

Rather than worrying about Crawford’s performance in Fenway, I think a better question is: Can Kutter Crawford find a way to get deeper into games?

Pitching deep into games is difficult because hitters thrive on repetition. The more they see a pitch, the more comfortable they are identifying and punishing it. Currently, Crawford throws a ton of fastballs. His four-seamer and cutter make up almost 70% of his pitches. They’re great pitches, but they can only take him so far. His curveball is also only so useful because it’s almost exclusively used to pick up called strikes early in counts, and you can only slip so many of those by a hitter. Another reliable pitch could go a long way toward succeeding in the later innings.

Lucky for us, Crawford already has that pitch*: the slider. Even luckier, it already has the makings of a great pitch. In 2023, Crawford’s slider returned an absurd 45.2% chase rate and an even more absurd 25% whiff rate. All of this happened while using the pitch* about 13% of the time. Here’s a look at Crawford’s pitch distribution as the game progresses:

*He actually uses a slider and a sweeper, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m grouping the two.

The third time through the order is a small sample, but there’s very little change nonetheless. By the third time a hitter is seeing Crawford, they likely have a decent idea of how he’s going to attack them. When you know what’s coming, it’s easier to identify and punish. For example, the swing rate against his cutter drops almost over 10% from the first at-bat to the third. Hitters are refusing to get themselves out by making soft contact on those glove-side cutters. Instead, they wait for the four-seam fastball that they’ve likely seen several times at that point and punish it; the average exit velocity from the first to the third at-bat against Crawford’s four-seam fastball increases over five MPH, from 81.5 to 86.9.

Using his slider more often isn’t a guaranteed solution, but it is another thing for hitters to think about. As of now, Crawford rarely ever throws his slider for a strike. If he establishes that he can do that consistently, it becomes much more difficult to sit on a high fastball. Kutter Crawford is good, but embracing his slider could make him great.