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Can Bill James see 2016?

12/14/2010

Sean McAdam on the Red Sox doing their homework:

    Before the Red Sox gave Carl Crawford a seven-year, $142 million deal, they made sure to do their homework.

    The club had special assistant Allard Baird trail Crawford over the second half of the 2010 season, hoping to gain some insight. While Baird was providing more traditional scouting reports, the Sox also had consultant Bill James, the preeminent sabermatrician, provide some detailed statistical analysis.

    Recognizing that a long-term deal would be necessary to land Crawford, the Red Sox wanted to know what James could uncover about how well players who base their games on speed age as they get into their mid-30s.

    (Crawford's seven-year deal will have him playing out the final year of his contract with the Sox at 36.)

    James has written extensively about the topic before. Without disclosing the specific details of his study on Crawford, which looked into athletic players and their late-in-career productivity, he described highlights of his past research on the subject.

    "As players age," James relayed in an e-mail, "their hitting skills decline and their speed decreases, which creates a kind of pincer movement that ultimately snaps careers. The number one thing that drives players out of the game is the loss of hitting skill, but the number two thing is the loss of speed.

    "As players slow down they become less able to play the key defensive positions -- center, right, shortstop -- and get pushed toward the positions for slower players, which are also the positions for big hitters. THE thing that drives them out of the game is not the loss in hitting ability in absolute terms. There are dozens of 37-year-old first basemen who could still hit enough to play -- if they could play the outfield. When their speed drops below a certain level, they're no longer able to play the outfield at a decent level, no longer able to hit enough to be a cleanup hitter, and they're gone.

Believe it or not, that's essentially chapter and verse from a study that Bill published 23 years ago. Which is why he's able to share it with Sean McAdam. I'm sure that Bill has more recently done work that's germane to Crawford's future, but of course that's the stuff he isn't sharing. Because, you know, the Red Sox own it.

We do have some stuff, though. We know that Bill rated Crawford as just the fifth-best left fielder in the majors when he filled out his Fielding Bible ballot (almost every other voter had Crawford first or second). We know, from the baserunning section in The Bill James Handbook, that Crawford grounded into only two double lays in 132 double-play situations; he was the toughest in the majors to double up. Also, Bill writes, "Including stolen base attempts, the best baserunner in the majors was Juan Pierre -- +54 bases. The top five were Juan Pierre, Carl Crawford, Brett Gardner, Elvis Andrus, and Michael Bourn."

Bill might know something special about Crawford. What I'm seeing is a fantastic all-around player, whose solid hitting is wonderfully enhanced by his speed (and skills, and judgment) in the field and on the bases. In five years, most of that speed will probably still be there. In six and seven years, even.

What we don't know about is the walks. I don't think even Bill knows about the walks. If Crawford draws 50 walks per season, he'll be an excellent player, and worth almost every penny. If he draws 30 walks per season -- which he's basically done roughly half the time, in his career -- he'll be merely good, and overpaid.

It's a fine line, and even Bill James can't really know which side Crawford will fall on, six and seven years from now.