Commentary

Crawford's best spot in lineup is No. 7

Updated: March 2, 2012, 1:58 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPN.com

Forget the season Carl Crawford had in 2011.

Look beyond his .289 on-base percentage, the third-lowest ever for a regular Red Sox outfielder. Pretend the speedster didn't suffer a drop of 29 stolen bases.

Let's just assume the Red Sox will get the 2010 version of Crawford. The one with a narrower stance, who runs wild, plays great defense and was deemed worthy of $142 million.

He still shouldn't hit higher than seventh in the Red Sox's lineup.

[+] EnlargeCarl Crawford
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireCarl Crawford finished 2011 with a career-low batting average of .255.

So how does Crawford fit into the batting order? Can Bobby Valentine maximize his value, while putting him in a position to rebound?

The numbers point to Crawford being baseball's most expensive No. 7 hitter. If all goes right, he'd also be the best. Let's take a look at the reasons.

Process of elimination

Crawford signed his big contract after posting a career-high .851 OPS in 2010. Consider that David Ortiz, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis all exceeded that number. At his best, Crawford still began his Red Sox career as the fifth-best hitter on the team.

That was before Jacoby Ellsbury emerged as an MVP candidate. It was also before Crawford had the most disappointing season of his career, a performance that didn't exactly improve his standing.

Simply put, it's hard to justify Crawford getting significantly more at-bats than any of those five. Even Cody Ross has a higher career OPS.

Crawford is one of 10 position players currently signed to a deal averaging over $20 million a season. Of course, salary and reputation shouldn't be tickets to the top of the order, as they've been for Derek Jeter over the past two seasons. Nor do Crawford's strengths (speed and defense) point to a middle-of-the-order presence.

Sure, Crawford could hit first, though he's previously been wary of the leadoff spot. That would likely push everyone else down one spot.

Each spot lower in the order equates to about 19 fewer plate appearances over the course of a season. Should Crawford really come to the plate 95 more times than Ortiz? Last season, Ortiz would have reached base 10 more times in those trips.

The problem with batting sixth

A good case could be made for Crawford hitting sixth. He'd be able to feed off the heart of the order and drive in runs.

That was an area of concern for Crawford last season. He hit just .236 with a .641 OPS with men on base compared to .350 and .954 in 2010. But it would provide ample opportunity for a bounce back.

There's one major problem with hitting Crawford sixth. Assuming Ortiz is fifth in the order, it would create a situation of back-to-back lefties.

That's an issue, particularly when you look at Crawford's history against southpaws. He hit .195 against them last season, compared to .284 against righties. His .566 OPS against lefties was the fifth-lowest among AL regulars -- a fact that's ammunition for those who believe he should hit ninth against left-handed starters.

After hitting under .225 against lefties in each of the previous three seasons, Ortiz actually hit .329 with a .989 OPS against them last season. That could help alleviate concerns about back-to-back lefties. However, with both players having traditionally struggled, it may be a situation to avoid.

Does it really matter?

Considering all the attention paid to Boston's lineup, it's important to note the big picture insignificance. In the end, Crawford's spot in the order won't have a major impact on the final win total.

AccuScore provided 10,000 simulations of Crawford in each spot in the order. Boston's runs per game fluctuated by only 0.02. The win total varied by no more than 0.6 wins over the course of the season.

Certainly, simulations can't account for how batters will play off one another in the order. But the larger point stands.

Yet it's easy to say that the order won't matter. That will come as little solace the next time a game ends with Gonzalez on deck.

Ironically, public perception of Crawford's season could hinge on where he hits in the order. That's largely due to number of plate appearances, as well as those hitting around him.

For example, AccuScore projects 104 runs and 90 RBIs for Crawford as the No. 2 hitter. But batting seventh, he'd project to 86 runs and 77 RBIs.

Maximizing Crawford's speed

The last time two Red Sox teammates stole more than 30 bases? That was 1910, when Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper did it.

That seemed sure to happen in 2011 with Ellsbury and Crawford running wild. But while Ellsbury swiped 39 bags, Crawford managed only 18, his lowest full-season total. Among all of his disappointing numbers, that was perhaps the most surprising.

According to Crawford, it wasn't an issue of speed.

"I haven't lost a step speed-wise," he told WEEI.com in February. "I timed myself this offseason and I'm still running a 40 [-yard dash] in 4.4 [seconds]. I'm not losing speed."

So how can Boston get Crawford running again? He has an idea: Don't hit him seventh.

"You can't really steal," he said of hitting low in the order. "A lot of times there were two outs and I didn't want to run into the last out in important games."

Crawford added that he'd rather hit in front of the big bats to take advantage of his legs.

"With speed like that," he said, "I can't do much [running] hitting behind Big Papi."

Crawford's argument here seems quite counterintuitive.

Risking a steal with Mike Aviles at the plate makes a lot more sense than doing so in front of Ortiz. Crawford's speed could be the offensive catalyst for some small ball at the bottom of the order.

Without directing it at Crawford, Valentine has already addressed this issue.

"I think most guys will tell you that if a guy's just going to run wild on the bases, a lot of times you want him running in front of someone that you don't care if they get thrown out for, someone who can't hit a double," Valentine said in January, according to the Boston Herald. "I always thought the best stolen base guy batting seventh or eighth would be a perfect scenario. See if he can hit a triple and squeeze him home, and then I've got a run when I go 7-8-9."

One of Valentine's primary tasks this spring should be dispelling Crawford of the notion that his speed is more useful before the big bats come to the plate.

Perhaps it starts with a reminder of where Crawford excelled last season. When batting seventh, he hit .315 with a .915 OPS in 141 plate appearances.

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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