As we all marvel over Yasiel Puig and try to parse Ned Colletti’s comments that seemed to suddenly leave a door open for the young Cuban to make the team, we need to remember that it’s not only for Puig’s own development that he’s likely to start the year in the minors. It’s also because of Carl Crawford, because if you start Puig alongside Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier, you’ve turned Crawford into a fourth outfielder — one who can’t really throw, no less — and essentially taken any hope of him earning his contract away before he’s even had a chance to prove himself.
Carl Crawford will participate in a more intense throwing drill on Tuesday involving cuts and relays. On Tuesday morning, he talked about the changes made to his batting stance from his days with the Red Sox. “When I got to Boston, my stance was more open,” Crawford said. “I’m trying to get back to being more square to the pitcher, and my batting stance isn’t as wide. Those are two of the little things I’m trying to focus on.”
I remembered Crawford’s stance as always being pretty wide open, so I began to wonder: is that true? If so, could his struggles really be as simple as fixing his stance? And if so, why was that not corrected in Boston?
To investigate, I went back over the last few years to see how Crawford’s stance looked in both Tampa Bay & Boston as compared to what it’s been this spring with the Dodgers. In order to attempt to avoid differences in camera angle between stadiums and networks, I looked at only games in Fenway Park that were broadcast on NESN (excluding, of course, games from this week in Arizona), and plate appearances against righty pitchers. The samples were otherwise picked completely at random, from different points in the game and during at-bats.
Crawford had a great year in 2009, hitting .305/.364/.452 and contributing 5.9 WAR with a career-high 60 stolen bases. Here he is in May of that year, facing old friend Brad Penny. His stance is somewhat open, but not remarkably so.
The next April against future teammate Josh Beckett, starting his final season with the Rays, Crawford had opened his stance slightly…
…but that’s nothing compared to what we see by the time he made his final trip to Fenway with the Rays, in September of 2010. We can see that he’s become incredibly open, with his front foot nearly touching the white line of the box. What’s also really interesting is the way he’s holding his bat. In the 2009 & April 2010 examples, he is holding his bat angled upward. In the examples to follow, his bat is completely flat, with his arms at or above the top of his head.
After signing with the Red Sox, he made his Fenway debut against the Yankees on April 8, 2011. His stance here is at the extreme, fully open and with his front heel now firmly on the line. His arms are still high, putting the head of his bat almost below sea level.
2011 was of course a complete disaster, as he hit just .255/.289/.405. By the end of his first season in Boston, his bat was still flat and his stance was still quite open, as we can see on September 21 against Baltimore. Hey, they’re making a movie out of “Moneyball”? It’ll never work.
Crawford missed most of 2012 due to an injury to his wrist, but even in February of that year he was planning on making changes to his stance:
Once Crawford returns, he plans to tweak his batting stance. During his first season in Boston, the four-time All-Star struggled to produce offensively, batting a career-low .255 while striking out 104 times. He didn’t attribute his subpar season to his nagging wrist injury. Crawford ––who examined footage of his posture in the offseason –– ultimately accepted the view that he should tighten his stance.
“I think I was out of whack in so many ways,” Crawford said. “I just couldn’t figure it out. So it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. That’s what happened from that and now I’ll try my best to stay on top of what I need to remember and hope my athletic ability can take over like it normally do.”
Crawford managed only 125 plate appearances in July & August between his return from the wrist trouble and the Tommy John surgery that ended his season, but he made good on his promise, closing up and tilting his bat. This is how he looked in his final home game with the Red Sox, against Texas on August 8.
Now he’s a Dodger, playing in his first games since that August finale in Boston. It’s a little more difficult to compare in Monday’s game against Arizona, because the camera is lower and off-center to the right, which makes him seem more open than he is. Still, you can see that his bat is nearly at 45 degrees and his feet are clearly within the white lines of the box, which is incredibly encouraging.
So what impact did the stance shenanigans have? Among other things, it made him unable to get to the outside pitch. Using the Baseball Prospectus heat maps, we can see that when Crawford was having his career year in 2010, with his stance slowly opening up, he was quite good at getting to pitches on the outside part of the plate. In 2011, fully open, he had absolutely no prayer. (And, it should be noted, even in September of 2010 he was beginning to have trouble getting to outside pitches.)
It’s a pretty stark difference, as pitchers routinely pitched Crawford away and he was completely unable to do anything about it. In 2012, as he went back to his older, more open stance, there was hope; while he was completely impatient, leading to a lousy .305 OBP, his .197 ISO and .479 SLG (in limited playing time, of course), ranked among the better numbers of his career.
It’s overly simplistic to simply attribute Crawford’s struggles to his stance, because there was obviously a lot more going on there — things like injuries, an uncomfortable fit in Boston, a contract that was widely seen as an overpay even at the time it was signed. He might not stay healthy in Los Angeles, and his best days might be — hell, probably are — behind him. But if we’re looking for any reasons for optimism, and any indication that giving Crawford a chance to prove himself while sending Puig out is the right thing, seeing him get back to the closed stance and upright bat that gave him so much success in Tampa Bay looks like a really good start.