Is Allen Craig This Bad?

Allen Craig stunk in 2014. We all saw it. He stunk for the St. Louis Cardinals. He stunk even more for the Boston Red Sox. He stunk all season for fantasy baseball players, for whom he lost money, and ended up in the hundreds among outfielders. A regular. The only guy who accumulated 500-plus plate appearances this past season and finished ranked in the hundreds.

Is that it, then? Does he just stink now? It’s possible. Maybe even likely. Perhaps close to definite. But we don’t know. I don’t think that we can know. At least not yet.

We can spot some characteristics of his 2014 suckitude and attempt to explain them, however. If we do that, then we might come up with some reasons for hope. That can be good enough.

David Wiers put down a foundation for a Craig study earlier this year. The hitter’s plate discipline hadn’t changed much. His fortune to the pull field – left field for Craig – may have been lacking, however. I don’t think that it was bad luck as much as bad contact, though. The change in spray data suggests that something different is going on.

There’s even more data, which Jeff Sullivan on the FanGraphs side arranged earlier in the season, to support that notion. His piece led the way to the discovery of some potentially serious issues with Craig’s swing. The outfielder was clearly lacking pull loft and power. Opponents were much less afraid to challenge him with hard stuff inside.

The end-of-season results tell us more of the same. Craig saw more hard stuff, period, this season than in any his previous ones.

Allen Craig pitch categories by year

He was dreadful against fastballs this year. Just dreadful. Which is funny, because he used to be awesome against fastballs. Clearly, opponents observed something about Craig that led them to attack him with fastballs much more often.

Craig’s batted-ball mix became quite different, too.

Allen Craig batted ball by year

Much of the huge influx of ground balls can be traced to Sullivan’s findings, which demonstrated Craig’s problems with inside pitches. He lost some fly-ball production in 2013 but lost it for line drives. It’s possible that next he lost a lot of line drives for grounders, but that’s such an extreme shift in trends in such a short period.

This all seems to indicate that Craig, 30, lacked bat speed compared to previous campaigns. Perhaps there’s even a minor change in his swing plane. He may have just lost it. He’s kaput. This stuff is disturbing without some context. The changes are all too dramatic to be age-related and thus to accept without some other explanation, though. He may have lost something in his swing mechanics, whether it’s related to his 2013 foot injury – a result of pain, or to avoid pain, or to avoid the perception of a possible recurrence of pain? – or not.

Craig has stated multiple times that his 2014 performance wasn’t injury-related. Some players don’t like to use their health as an excuse. I don’t know if Craig is one of them, but there’s an allusion to the possibility that he is in the Gordon Edes piece. Craig may even acknowledge it indirectly by admitting his relief that he won’t have to deal with something medical this offseason. The BoSox, who do their due diligence on health issues, say that Craig’s past foot injury won’t be a problem going forward.

Something changed for Craig. We don’t know what exactly, but if something changed, then it can be changed back, minus some age-related decline. It’s easier to believe that poor health, or bad results related to prior poor health, was a factor in the most recent version of Craig than such a drastic loss of ability in such a short period. Given how little we know and what we’ve seen from Craig as a hitter, even if it’s been for a period of only a few years, he seems to have been too skilled to suffer this kind of fate so quickly without something to take some of the blame.

There might be reasons for hope. We don’t know exactly what those are yet, but they may exist. Will Craig work to find those swing mechanics again? Will he find them? Will he avoid reinjuring his left foot? Will he avoid other injuries? We obviously don’t know the answers to those questions yet.

Craig’s Steamer projection is heavy on the power (11 HR) in light of the playing time (383 PA). He’s not much of a power source, with his 22 home runs in 2012 a clear outlier. But it’s impossible for us to say that the .278 AVG isn’t doable. He could produce better than that, perhaps even .300 again. He could garner more PT, then, too. We don’t know the likelihood of any of these things, really, except that if he does hit well, the likelihood that he gets that PT is greater. Watch the news. See if it affects his cost.

Craig was so bad in 2014 that fantasy owners should stay away from any investment of significance in him next year. If he remains in Beantown, or goes to some other team where playing time looks like a potential problem, then his price should be depressed. If you’re a zig-zagging opportunist, then that’s a good thing. He’d be a tempting low-cost target because of the type of ability he’s known to possess. If people run away, then at least consider walking back. If they don’t, well, then they can probably have him.

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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Howard Bender
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It’s articles like this that bring a tear to my eye and make me miss the world of RotoGraphs. I’ve been dogging Craig for years and it’s good to see that the bandwagon is more full now than it was when I first lambasted him in these pages. Well done, Nick. Well done. I couldn’t agree more. Steer clear of Craig now and forever.