Baseball’s a zero-sum game on the field: Somebody wins, and somebody loses. Off the field, it isn’t always as cut and dried, but when you want to talk about the season’s goat of the year, sometimes it’s a lose-lose proposition: for the free agent who gets big-time money and for the team that signs him.
Welcome to Carl Crawford’s world because, after an ugly 2011 season, he’s the player who gets the unhappy label of our goat of the year. Seen as perhaps the biggest prize of last winter’s free-agent crop, Crawford agreed to a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox at last year’s winter meetings in Orlando, Fla. His arrival in Boston was part of the reason the Red Sox were overwhelming favorites to win the American League East, the AL pennant and -- for more than a few prognosticators -- the World Series.
None of that happened, and although the Red Sox’s ultimate ignominy was achieved on an epic final day of the season, that was just the last note in a six-month-long sad song for their left fielder. Crawford finished the year hitting a pathetic .255/.289/.405 with the Red Sox, his worst season at the plate since he was a 21-year-old regular with the then-Devil Rays.
This was a season so disappointing that, by the time the Sox lost him for 30 days and 24 games to a strained hamstring at midseason, it was almost a relief. At the time, he was hitting just .243/.275/.384. But even after he returned from the DL, Crawford didn’t hit anything like the Carl Crawford of old, delivering a .267/.304/.428 line thereafter.
Dive into Crawford’s performance, and you can see he was set up for some measure of disappointment from the get-go. Whatever your brand of wins above replacement (bWAR, fWAR or WARP), he had put up a career year at the plate for the Rays in 2010. Considering it was his age-28 season, that was right around when you’d expect a hitter is supposed to deliver better than ever, falling within that age 25-29 sweet spot that sees most players deliver their best seasons.
That breakout led to the big payday, and the equally exaggerated expectations. Per Baseball-Reference.com, the value of his 2010 at the plate with the Rays was 5.6 wins, which is made only more remarkable by the fact that he had never topped 3.2 in any other season across 8½ years in the majors. It couldn’t have been better timed, considering his impending free agency, of course, but what’s a guy supposed to do, say no to $142 million?
Some of the drop might have been associated with the leg injury, of course. And some of it involved his having to hit against the Rays, against whom he struggled in 2011 (.541 OPS) after owning the Red Sox in 2010 (.847). It’s also worth noting that Crawford, a very good fastball hitter, saw a lot fewer fastballs for Boston than he had in Tampa Bay (dropping from 41.4 percent of pitches seen to 39.5 percent). And perhaps you can blame some of this on Crawford’s role. With the Rays, he’d been a star, batting second or third in the order. The Red Sox initially had him up top, but a slow start got him kicked toward the back of the order before the end of April. As much as it’s easy to say a player should just deliver wherever he’s put, you couldn’t blame the guy for wondering about his place on a new team and in a different lineup.
To be fair, Crawford was not solely responsible for the Red Sox’s epic collapse in 2011. He wasn’t the guy on the mound for five late-game losses in September; Daniel Bard was. As bad as Crawford’s 2011 season was, the Red Sox got even worse numbers out of their right fielders (.652 OPS) than they did out of Crawford & Co. in left (.723). To conjure up a collapse as epic as Boston’s, it took a village.
But for all that, it’s Crawford’s lot to be the signature player of a Red Sox team that achieved none of the things foreseen for it before the season. If just one player has to wear the horns as baseball's goat of the year, they belong on Crawford's head.
Again, sticking with players, we can start out with already-mentioned Daniel Bard of the Red Sox because of his September: three blown saves, four losses and 14 runs allowed in 11 innings. It ruined what had been a tremendous season for the setup man.
Adam Dunn, White Sox: Jayson Stark has already done a great job of noting some of the truly ghastly things about the 2011 season of the South Side’s DH. For those of us here in Chicago, it was even worse to have to witness, and added up to the worst season via bWAR among big league hitters, at minus-2.7. When Kenny Williams’ White Sox went “all-in” for 2011, this wasn’t what they expected from the slugger for whom they had shelled out $56 million for four years.
Jeff Mathis, Angels: An easy target because of his putrid season at the plate because a .484 OPS is just not something anybody should carry as a lineup regular and expect to win.
In all of these cases, you have to hope they have better 2012 seasons, not just for the fans of their teams but for their own sake.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.