This is not about picking on Carl Crawford for his slow start. A quick look around the league is all it takes to know that the left-fielder is hardly alone in his struggles, and in fact, he's shown signs of breaking out of his funk.
Over the last two weeks, Crawford has compiled a .748 OPS in 46 plate appearances. Narrowing the focus further, his last seven days have been even better, featuring a .950 OPS in 20 plate appearances.
Consider that his cumulative March/April OPS was .431, and you'll realize how poorly he was playing prior to this recovery stretch.
Most Sox fans knew they would have to be patient with both Crawford and fellow newcomer Adrian Gonzalez. It simply takes time to adjust to a new team, especially when that team comes with plenty of on-field pressure and media scrutiny.
No, this isn't about Crawford's slow start. I fully expect him to return to form and finish with something close to a typical season. Historically, that has meant between 10 and 15 home runs, 75-80 RBI, 100 runs scored and 50 steals.
Not at all bad.
What this is about is the problem that the Red Sox face in the long term. Namely, how and where does Crawford fit into this team?
Back when Boston first inked the former Ray out of free agency, I was ecstatic to have him on the club. I had been reasonably sure that he'd end up in New York or Los Angeles, and adding him after acquiring Gonzalez was more than most of us had dared to hope for. But even in my euphoria, I immediately wondered how he'd be used.
Defensively, he's a great fit. Boston needed a left-fielder, and despite the organization's misgivings about Jacoby Ellsbury's abilities in center, I didn't support moving him to left and was glad to see that experiment abandoned.
Crawford instantly improved the defense in a major way, and once the Sox unload J.D. Drew at the end of the season, they can look to finish off one of the best outfields in the game.
But offensively, Crawford is a conundrum. Because of the other pieces Boston has in place, there's no obvious home for him in the lineup. The question prior to the season revolved around the leadoff role.
Would Terry Francona put a now-healthy Ellsbury back atop the lineup? Would Crawford assume the duties? If not, where would Crawford hit?
Now, more than a month later, the team is still struggling to answer that very question. And this post on Yahoo! brought the issue back to my attention.
Here's the thing:
Carl Crawford is not a leadoff hitter.
He posted career highs in walks (51) and on-base percentage (.354) back in 2009, but even those numbers don't do the leadoff role justice. And for his career, he's more of a .330-.340 OBP guy.
In his nine-plus seasons, he's had 1,728 plate appearances as a leadoff hitter. The results have generally been mediocre. Crawford has significant plate appearances at each of the top three spots in the lineup, and his production from the 1-hole has been worst.
Check his career slash lines:
Batting first (1,728 PA): .284/.319/.415
Batting second (2,664 PA): .305/.348/.462
Batting third (860 PA): .291/.336/.448
To some degree, it makes sense that he's done best in the slot with which he's most familiar, but 1,700 plate appearances are more than enough to get a guy comfortable.
His splits raise another issue.
The Red Sox won't hit him second.
Dustin Pedroia is safely ensconced at the team's No. 2 hitter. It doesn't make sense to bounce him in favor of Crawford. Most of Pedroia's big-league hitting experience has come from the 2-hole, and all he's done is post a career OPS of .844.
Pedroia is the perfect No. 2 hitter. He has just enough power to be a home run threat. He has just enough speed to be a catalyst atop the lineup. His lifetime on-base percentage is a hair shy of .370. There's simply no justification for swapping him out, and in fact, doing so would hurt the team.
So where does that leave Crawford?
Crawford doesn't have the power to hit third.
Or fourth. Or fifth, for that matter. He's never broken the 20-homer plateau, and while his power number may improve slightly with age, he'll never have the kind of swing that the heart of the order would require.
With Adrian Gonzalez locked up and Kevin Youkilis only 32 years old, the third spot and cleanup are taken care of for at least the next few years. If anything, it would be the addition of another power bat that might bump Youk to fifth.
The 5-hole is a remote possibility for Crawford, but he hardly fits the profile of the type of guy you'd want cleaning up after cleanup. Even if the Red Sox say farewell to David Ortiz at the end of the season, it's tough to imagine the club installing Crawford at No. 5.
Which brings me to the final part of the problem.
Carl Crawford is too good for the bottom third of the order.
We're talking about a guy who can cause all kinds of damage from the dish. When he's playing well, Crawford is a tough out for any pitcher in addition to being disruptive on the basepaths. And over the course of a full season, the difference between the top of the order and the bottom of the order could be 100 plate appearances.
It's difficult to put Crawford in a position where he will have fewer chances to hit. At the same time, it's seemingly the only option remaining. So what's the resolution?
Traditionally, lineups have been about speed at the top, power in the middle and weaknesses stashed near the bottom. Sabermetrics changed that slightly, and enlightened clubs are paying more attention to on-base percentage and OPS.
Statistical analyses, like this one conducted by Harvard, suggest that arranging a lineup based on descending OPS can increase the team's winning percentage.
Of course, I'm not advocating for the Red Sox to take that exact approach. It's a little too simplistic. Ellsbury, for example, hardly has the best OPS but definitely needs to be the leadoff guy right now.
At the same time, looking at the players' likely OPS totals might be the best way to try and answer the Crawford question. Based on career patterns, I estimated what the starters might be likely to do. And these numbers peg Crawford as the team's sixth or seventh best OPS guy.
Like I said, Drew will be gone after this year (finally...), so it makes sense to seek a solution that will work once he leaves. If Papi also departs, you can bet that the Sox will seek a power-hitting replacement, so depending upon who become the right-fielder of the future, Crawford will probably remain the sixth best hitter in terms of OPS.
The sixth spot in the order isn't such a bad place for him to be. He'd follow the power bats and would able to reset the table, so to speak. His speed would help get him in scoring position for the generally less productive bottom third of the order.
My first choice, as things currently stand, would be to bat Crawford sixth. And it would be worthwhile to start that experiment now.
If the Sox want an alternative (and this might seem crazy), they should try hitting him ninth. Why? because at the very end of the order, Crawford could, in some ways, serve as another leadoff-type hitter.
Think about when Tony LaRussa hit his pitcher eighth so that a position player could bat ninth. In most respects it's an odd move, but for this Boston team, it might just work.
There are so few weak spots and such a lack of a natural position for Crawford, that doing something unexpected could pay dividends. Having Ellsbury follow Crawford would provide a ton of speed at that point in the order, and while his plate appearance totals would suffer, there wouldn't be any power or RBI pressure involved.
Crawford is obviously better than a No. 9 hitter. But in the absence of a great solution, a good one might have to do.