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Carl Crawford, batting champ?

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 4, 2011 05:43 PM

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OK, maybe that's four words of pure crazy talk considering the $142-million left fielder is coming off an inaugural season with the Red Sox so aggravating that after watching him for prolonged stretches, some of us might have begun wondering whether Troy O'Leary's ugly 2001 season was actually worthy of a 10-year anniversary celebration.

But it's not that crazy if you're adept at fiddling with the context. Crawford did finish ninth in the American League in batting in 2010 at .307, and he has the 29th-highest batting average among active players at .2927, .0004 behind teammate Adrian Gonzalez for 28th place . . . and Gonzalez nearly won the batting title this year. How about that for pretzel logic? Keep this up, and I'll be debating Skelator Bayless on "Whatever Cold Pizza Is Called Now'' in no time.

What's that? Why yes, there is a point here. It is this: After Ben Cherington's acknowledgment during his introductory press conference that he was the biggest advocate in the front office of signing Crawford -- a particularly canny step toward repairing the outfielder's psyche as well as a counter to owner John Henry's ill-considered admission that he didn't want to sign the longtime Ray -- and with the encouraging knowledge that Crawford at least tried to lead this unaccountable band of chicken aficionados as their season slowly drowned in gravy, there is reason to believe that his second season in Boston will go a whole lot better than his first.

That's a long way of saying I feel much better about Crawford's future with the Red Sox now that September is in the rear-view mirror and the memories of him flailing away puzzled and lost are fading into the haze of the offseason. It may be wishful thinking to suggest he'll approach the numbers of his career-year, age-28 2010 season when he had that .307 average, an .851 OPS, 90 RBIs and 62 extra-base hits. But it's certainly a wish worth having, though a more productive exercise is trying to gauge what a reasonable expectation for him is in 2012.

Reader Scott D. spurred this post when he checked in last week with an interesting comp:

Is Carl Crawford the new Willie Wilson?

Speed, good D wasted in left, not a typical lead-off guy (BA-centric OBP).

I look for Crawford to approach Wilson's 1982 bounce-back season - increased OBP due to higher BABIP, a bounce-back in steals (40ish) and triples.

Now, if you're a Red Sox fan of my generation, hearing the name Willie Wilson might lead to the return of a long-dormant tic. I can't find confirmation on baseball-reference.com for some reason, but it's the absolute truth that he average two triples per game against the Red Sox whenever they'd play the speedy Royals at Kaufmann Stadium. Come to think of it, it might have been three triples per game. Tormenting the Red Sox is one thing he absolutely has in common with the pre-Boston Crawford.

But is the suggestion that Crawford could duplicate Wilson's '82 season work? In some ways, absolutely. Wilson had a .796 OPS in '82, when he was 26 years old. Crawford has surpassed that number five times since 2005. Wilson's OPS+ was 118, the best of his 19-year career. Crawford's OPS+ in 2010 was 135, the fifth time he has equaled or surpassed a 111 adjusted OPS. Wilson swiped 37 bases in 48 attempts. Crawford was 47 for 57 in '10.

Oh, yes -- and Wilson won the batting title, hitting .332. (See, now the headline makes sense! Well, it does.)

While Crawford has more power and Wilson might be a twitch faster, it's a reasonable comp, and one that comes with an interesting juxtaposition: In 1983, Wilson had an 85 adjusted OPS -- exactly the same as Crawford's during his first year in Boston. (Wilson was also caught up in a drug scandal that season.) That considered, maybe the '84 version of Wilson is worth considering as well, and it should be of some encouragement that he had a very good bounce-back season, hitting .301 with 47 steals, a .740 OPS and a 105 adjusted OPS. Now that right there strikes me as a very reasonable expectation for Crawford in 2012.

It should be noted that Wilson's name does not appear when we plug some key numbers from Crawford's 2011 season into baseball-reference's Life-Altering Play Index Tool in a quest to find players who had similar seasons -- and how they fared after the misery. Searching for outfielders over the past 50 years who were 28-29 years old, qualified for the batting title, had an OPS lower than .700, 11 or fewer home runs, 18 or fewer stolen bases, and a batting average below .260, the BRLAPI gave us these 18 names:


vanslykefinn1004.jpgNow there's an interesting mix. There are lousy second-generation ball players (Gary Matthews Jr., Brian McRae), an array of good-field, no-hit types (Paul Blair, Rick Manning), someone named Turner Ward (Turner Ward), the original Tito (Tito Francona), and 3-4 names that provide some genuine hope that Crawford will get this right. Lou Piniella was traded to the Yankees after that brutal '73 and proceeded to hit .295 over 11 seasons in the Bronx. Beniquez, who began his career among the Red Sox' influx of outstanding young talent in the early '70s, had four straight seasons in his mid-30s with an batting average above .300.

But Van Slyke is the name that offers the most cause for optimism. In the three seasons following his miserable '89, he had consecutive OPS numbers of 132, 126, and 151. He finished fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting after that '92 season in which he hit .324 with 14 homers, 89 RBIs, and 12 triples. You don't have to squint to see that it looks a lot like Crawford's last season in Tampa Bay.

Yep, I've talked myself into being encouraged. So tell me: What do you guys think? Is '82 Willie Wilson a reasonable expectation for '12 Carl Crawford? How about the '84 version? Will Crawford enjoy a post-lousy-season run of excellence like Van Slyke? Can he be a reasonable facsimile of the Rays dynamo who stole 35 straight bases against the Red Sox without getting caught? How's it going to be?

Please, at least assure me he'll be better than Omar Moreno.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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