Random Thoughts on Carl Crawford
Carl Crawford was drafted in the second round in 1999, out of high school in Texas. He was considered to be one of the best pure athletes in the draft class, but fell to the second round due to the fact that he was rather raw in baseball, plus he had a basketball scholarship to UCLA and a football scholarship to Nebraska on the table. The D-Rays got his name on a contract, and he adjusted to pro ball quickly, hitting .319/.350/.404 with 17 steals in 60 games in the Appalachian League. His plate discipline was shaky, but scouts were very impressed with him.
The following season, he hit .301/.342/.410 with 55 steals in 64 attempts for Charleston in the Sally League. His plate discipline was weak, but you had to be impressed with his speed. I wrote that he "has a chance to be something special, but must be handled cautiously." He got a B- in the '01 book.
The D-Rays bumped Crawford up to Double-A in 2001. I thought this promotion was too aggressive. . .he was still just 19 years old and still raw. . .and felt it would backfire. It didn't quite backfire, but his production did drop off, down to .274/.323/.352 with 36 steals but 20 caught stealing, the worst performance of his career thus far. Given his age-relative-to-league he was still very intriguing, and I kept him at Grade B- heading into '02. His potential was obviously higher than that, at least Grade B and probably B+, but I was concerned that he was being pushed too fast, sort of like Corey Patterson.
Crawford began '02 in Triple-A, hitting .297/.335/.456 with 26 steals in 85 games. His power spiked, with a SLG increase of over 100 points compared to 2001. Promoted to Tampa in the second half, he hit .259/.290/.371 for the D-Rays in 63 games. Poor performance in absolute terms, but not that bad considering he was just 20 years old.
Crawford now has three full seasons in the majors, and has improved slightly each year. His OPS is on an upward slope: .671 in 2003, .781 in 2004, .800 in 2005. He's maintained his speed and is stealing bases at a better success percentage. He set career-highs in homers and doubles this year. Although his walk rate remains poor, his strikeout rate has dropped.
Where does he go from here? Crawford is just 24, and if he continues to gradually improve at the current rate, he'd be an extremely impressive player by the time he's 27.
But will that happen?
Here are some players similar to Crawford, based on a combination of Bill James' Sim Score method, Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA method, and my own research into comparable players.
All good players. As you can see, Crawford is something of a throwback to a style of play that was more common in the 60s, 70s and 80s: the speedy outfielder with a slap-and-dash style, pop to the gaps, and occasional power spikes.
If his power develops further, Crawford could end up being better than any of those guys. Will said power develop? Perhaps. His ground ball/fly ball ratio isn't extreme in either direction, and he's certainly strong enough physically, though his swing is still tailored to the line drive. One thing he must do is improve against left-handed pitching. He hit just .244/.293/.326 against lefties this year, compared to .326/.348/.530 against righthanders. That may, or may not, improve with experience.
In any event, even if he stays about as productive as he is now and doesn't get better, he's still a good player, a fine example of how organizations dream of "tools" guys developing. His tools are tremendous, and he's developed the skills to make them meaningful. Further skill development would push him beyond being "good" into being excellent. At this point, if I were the D-Rays, I'd worry less about Crawford developing power, and would have him concentrate on better strike zone judgment. This would raise his OBP and make it less dependent on his batting average, and would get him better pitches to hit, which could increase his power production even without major mechanical changes in his swing. He doesn't have to become a walk machine, but even a marginal improvement in his discipline would go a long way towards making him an outstanding player.