After Carl Crawford‘s contract expired following the 2010 season there was unfortunately no chance that the Rays would re-sign Crawford as his superior play priced him far out of their price range. That being said, considering Crawford will miss the next three months of the season with a left elbow injury after an injury-riddled 2011, is there some way that the Rays knew that arm injuries were in Crawford’s future?
The stat in baseball that is most clearly indicative of the strength and accuracy of an outfielder’a arm is their outfield assists count. In 2011, Crawford had just 1 outfield assist after 52 in his first 9 MLB seasons. Something was clearly wrong with his arm. But in 2010, Crawford had 7 outfield assists, the third-highest total of his career. Clearly this article’s premise doesn’t make any sense, right? Luckily for me and unfortunately for Crawford we can delve deeper into the 7 assists, and the results are quite interesting.
Left fielders are often the worst or second-worst defenders on teams and left field has become a bat-first position. For players like Crawford (and now Desmond Jennings), they use not only their arm strength but their speed to hold runners back. Entering 2011, Crawford never faced a single significant leg injury, meaning his speed has been the same the whole time. Crawford did miss from mid-August to the end of September in 2008 with a torn tendon in his great middle finger that required surgery, but that has nothing to do with his throwing since he’s a lefty. In any event, there are statistics available for bases advanced on balls hit to specific fielders. We would expect Crawford to fare well in those types of statistics because he gets to balls hit in the outfield earlier just about any left fielder in baseball when he’s right. For his career, that is indeed the case as on balls hit to Crawford, runners “held” against Crawford, meaning that they took just one base on a single (e.g. there’s a single and the man on second stops at third), just two bases on a double, and no bases on a flyball that they had a chance to tag up on 67.5% of the time compared to the MLB average of 63.9% of the time for MLB left fielders over the course of Crawford’s career. But in 2010, Crawford’s held rate fell down to a bellow-average 63.8%, his lowest mark since 2006. Crawford threw out 1.5% of runners trying to advance against him in 2010 compared to 0.6% in 2011 and his 1.1% career mark. But that was only because baserunners saw that Crawford was playing a little more conservatively in left field and were more aggressive against him than they had been in the past. Crawford posted a .994 fielding percentage in 2010, his highest mark since 2005. He made just 2 errors, one a throwing error and the other a fielding error. Crawford had made multiple fielding errors the previous five seasons. Crawford has never been a guy with a rocket for an arm but he has always had good accuracy. He has made errors despite his great speed when he has tried to rush plays and almost tried to get the ball out of his hand before the ball even got to him. Crawford, rather than more aggressively charging flyballs that dropped in front of him, risking errors in the process but also giving him a better chance to throw out runners, Crawford played it safe more, letting the ball bounce a couple times but keeping it in front of him. Even in 2011, Crawford was more aggressive and despite his wrist problems held baserunners 68.2% of the time. Baseball-Reference took note of this in their defensive wins above replacement for Crawford, giving him a +0.5 mark compared to 1.8 and 1.2 the previous two seasons.
There is nothing conclusive from this data. There’s no way to prove anything other than the fact that Crawford was less aggressive playing left field in 2010 compared to every other season in his career. Could that have been because of the beginnings of arm problems? There’s a chance. Joe Maddon, Andrew Friedman, and the Rays often know a lot more than not just the average fans, but the average baseball managers and executives as well. This could have been another case where the Rays picked up on something everyone else missed.