Carl Crawford has stolen a base in each of his last four games and in five of his last six. I have had a few too many false starts in assuming Crawford was back to the player he was in Tampa Bay since he left for Boston and both his health and his production abruptly left him. However, this is the first time since I accepted that Crawford would never return to his former self that I questioned whether Crawford might still be as fast as he ever was.
Crawford made it through most of 2011, his age-29 season and his first in Boston. However, he only stole 18 bases after stealing between 46 and 60 bases in his seven previous full seasons. He missed most of 2012 with wrist and elbow injuries and managed just five stolen bases. But when he returned, now to Los Angeles, in 2013, he stole just 15 bases. The injuries that cost him so much time were in his upper body, but it was easy to assume that Crawford had broken down physically. Runners in sports like football frequently hit the wall around 30 years old, and Crawford had played his prime on turf.
In his best years, Crawford was successful on between 78 and 87 percent of his stolen base attempts. From 2011 to 2013, Crawford was successful on 79 percent of his attempts, still in his prime range. I did not take that as a sign that Crawford still had his old speed. I assumed that, in his prime, Crawford was willing to attempt to steal bases against some of the more difficult pitcher-catcher combinations or in more obvious run situations where the defense would be prepared. Since he attempted to steal so much less since 2010, he could simply have restricted his steal attempts to the easiest situations.
Even after his stolen base blitz from this week, Crawford still has just 19 steals this season. He has succeeded on 86 percent of his attempts, which is excellent but still in the range he has maintained over his decline. There is no obvious indication that Crawford is his old self except for his recent streak.
But then, it’s also true that Crawford has both played less and hit worse this season than he did in his prime seasons. It is not exactly a point in Crawford’s favor that he missed more time because of injuries, has had to play musical chairs with the Dodgers’ other expensive outfielders, and batted more than 20 points lower than his career average. But it does mean that Crawford has had far fewer opportunities to steal bases this season, and his 19 swipes could represent a return to form on a rate basis.
|Carl Crawford Stolen Bases by Season|
In fact, that is the case. In the seven seasons Crawford stole at least 46 bases, he stole a base one in every 3.2 times he reached first base on a single, walk, or hit by pitch. From 2011 to 2013, that number ballooned to one in 6.5 reaches of first base. This season, Crawford has rebounded back to a one in 3.6 rate, near that of his prime. More than that, Crawford has proven to be one of the most prolific basestealers this season. His rate of a stolen base per 3.6 reaches of first is tied with Jose Altuve and Craig Gentry for seventh best in baseball.
|Most Prolific Basestealers, 2014|
I believe Crawford still has the speed to be an elite stolen base option, but the problem remains his opportunity. The Dodgers have all but abandoned playing Andre Ethier, but even if that persists or if they can trade him this offseason, Joc Pederson will create the same issue for Crawford once he reaches the majors. The team has more or less platooned Crawford in any case, although it is worth mentioning that he has a 115 wRC+ versus left-handed pitchers in 45 plate appearances this season, which is 32 points better than his career split.
It is not an issue if Crawford is platooned in daily leagues since it’s easy enough to predict which pitchers he’ll start against, but in weekly leagues, it’s hard to justify a one-category player who may only play five out of seven days. Those players may have one more week to reap the full benefits of Crawford before September hits, rosters expand, and Joc Pederson makes their outfield even more complicated than it already is.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt