Thursday, February 06, 2014

Allen Craig and his slugging percentage

There is a world of numbers available to the baseball writer and the ardent fan of the game of baseball. While this is a very good thing, the numbers can also make us restless and under-appreciate the great offensive game of some of the players we write about and root for. You see this with Votto in Cincinnati with people screaming that he takes too many walks and does not drive in enough runs. And you see it with Allen Craig and people talking about his power numbers for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Craig slugged .555 and .522 in 2011 and 2012. He hit 33 homers in his first 733 plate appearances during those two seasons. He only hit 13 of them in 563 plate appearances in 2013. So what happened?
There are a combinations of things that lowered his home run total. The two main culprits are that he had less chances to hit them and on the chances where he did have the opportunity, those batted balls did not go over the fence as often. Let's break this down a bit.
Allen Craig hit more ground balls and line drives in 2013 than he has in any other season. And correspondingly, the percentages were higher on both. Of his batted balls, 297 of his 413 batted balls were either ground balls (45%) or line drives (26.9%). Obviously, ground balls are not going to go flying over the fence. And generally, line drives do not either. Of Craig's 199 line drives over the last two seasons, only five of them have gone for homers.
Having less of a percentage of his batted balls being fly balls means less of a chance for a possible home run. His percentage of fly balls went from 37% in 2011 to 33.3% in 2012 to 28.1% in 2013. The three years do seem to show a trend. His rate of ground balls and line drives have gone up in each of the three years as well.
Having less of an opportunity to hit a home run due to less fly balls can then be combined with less of those fly balls actually clearing the fences. Just like the other trends listed previously in the last paragraph, there is a three year downward trend for Craig's fly balls going for homers. That number was 18.3% in 2011 and went down to 17.1% in 2012 and then sank drastically to 11.2% in 2013.
Fortunately, Craig is very successful with his ground balls and line drives. His BABIP on ground balls was .279 in 2013, much higher than the league average. And his line drive BABIP and overall OPS with them are off the charts. And a 26.9% line drive rate is elite and right up there with Votto and some of the other great hitters.
When you have a great hitter like Allen Craig, you most often see a guy who is not pull conscious. And Craig is not a big pull hitter. Most of his batted balls are hit up the middle. He only pulled the ball 110 times in 2013. Center field and the gaps are the furthest distances to have to hit a fly ball for a homer.
But Craig is also doing less with the balls he pulls as far as power goes. In 2012, eight of his 108 pulled batted balls went over the fence. That number dropped to 4 in 110 plate appearances in 2013.
To tie up a little of what we have talked about so far, the data seems to indicate that there is a three year trend in Allen Craig hitting less fly balls and having less of those fly balls going over the fence. The numbers also indicate that Craig is not overly prone to pull the ball and when he has, less of those batted balls are going over the fence.
Add up this information and you have a recipe for a first baseman/outfielder with less and less power as the last three years have progressed. That doesn't mean that Craig is any less of a great hitter. But he is less of a slugging threat than he was when he first arrived on the scene.
Trends are more apt to continue or taper off than they are to reverse. The prognosis for Craig as a power threat is not good. To be sure, this has implications in the fantasy baseball world, but it also affects a bit on how often the Cardinals score and their willingness to play Matt Adams more at first because Adams hits more homers.
This need for more power by the Cardinals weakens the Cardinals' defense. Craig is a better first baseman than Adams and most outfielders are better outfielders than Allen Craig. The Cardinals' need for power due to less provided by Craig means less defense to play them both.
All of this sounds like criticism and it is not. Allen Craig is an elite hitter who, according to the numbers, seems to perform really well in the clutch. But unless trends are undone and Craig changes his approach, the trend for Craig is to hit with less power while his efficiency increases. More power would be nice, but most fans around the country would agree that having Allen Craig on their team's lineup would be mighty tasty.

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