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Thursday, November 11, 2010
Clutch-hitter options for Red Sox

By Jeremy Lundblad
ESPNBoston.com

There's good reason a pair of outfielders are on the free-agent menu for the Boston Red Sox.

Not only are Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth the top free-agent hitters on the market, but either would seemingly provide much-needed stability to the outfield.

Red Sox outfielders combined to hit just .245 last season, the lowest average for the team over the past 35 years, according to STATS LLC. Even the Bob Zupcic-anchored 1992 squad provided a higher batting average. In that same span, only twice has a Red Sox outfield had an OPS lower than the .729 from 2010. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the outfield defense was no better, costing the team an MLB-worst 41 runs last season.

Although both Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury are expected to return to health, the Red Sox appear to be looking externally for solutions.

Between age and salary demands, the debate over pursuing Werth or Crawford extends beyond on-field performance. Advanced metrics -- such as WAR (wins above replacement) and runs created -- favor Crawford despite Werth's higher OPS in 2010.

The two had similarly strong seasons, yet one basic statistic provides a stark contrast between the two. Could it provide invaluable context to evaluating their 2010 numbers?

Crawford hit .359 with runners in scoring position, which put him behind only three players, all MVP candidates: Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton and Joey Votto. It was the second-highest such average in Rays history.

That prowess was a big reason Crawford was thrust into the third spot in the order Aug. 9, despite traditionally being viewed as a table setter. From that day on, he hit .323 with an .890 OPS.

Contrast that with Werth, who hit just .186 with runners in scoring position, while primarily hitting right behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. His was the fourth-lowest BA with RISP in the majors. Rather than the MVP-caliber company kept by Crawford, Werth bettered only three players: Russell Branyan, Scott Hairston and Mike Napoli.

Similar to J.D. Drew, Werth is extremely willing to take a walk in these situations. Despite that .186 average, he still had a .353 on-base percentage. He finished fourth in the National League with 38 walks with RISP.

Yet, despite this terrible performance with RISP, Werth finished with only five fewer RBIs than Crawford. Werth hit .333 when there were no men in scoring position, far better than Crawford's .255. In the end, both had similarly impressive contract years.

So are these numbers merely statistical noise?

Ultimately, that might come down to views of clutch statistics. Going into the season, neither player had dramatically different numbers with or without runners in scoring position. Has this changed, or will they revert back to their historic form?

As the Red Sox look to rebuild an offense that scored its fewest runs since 2001, it's just another piece of data to consider.

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