NOTE: Allen Craig is out of the lineup tonight versus a left-handed starter, which is crazy because this season he’s been like the CIA in the 1980s: all he can do is hit lefties. Maybe he’s hurt and this is all a moot point. Or maybe Matheny is just going to Matheny and there’s no explanation.
I doubted Allen Craig for a long time. I thought his 2011 was a flash in the pan, a right-handed version of 2006 Chris Duncan, boosting a championship team up on his shoulders when they needed him, before the league could figure him out. Even after 2012, when put together an almost full season slash line of .307/.354/.522, I thought it was only a matter of time until the clock struck twelve and he turned into a couple of mice dragging a pumpkin around the basepaths.
Craig reminded me of so many other players before him. Some people call these guys “quad-A” talent, to indicate that they are too good for the minor leagues but not good enough to hack it in MLB. I’ll put a finer point on it, because there are several types of quad-A players. I’m not talking about the Brad Thompsons or Tyler Greenes but a specific species of player that has tormented fans ever since stats went mainstream.
I’m talking about minor league sluggers. They are usually a year or two older than the competition, either because they were drafted out of college or they’ve been in the organization longer than you remember. You don’t remember when they joined the organization because they weren’t drafted in the first couple rounds or they weren’t highly touted international signings or because they joined as minor league free agents. They don’t play any position very well so they usually end up at first base or right field, but somewhere on their Baseball Reference page they’ve got some minor league innings at 3b or CF because scouts claim their bat won’t carry them at a corner. But those scouts have to be crazy, because these guys are smashing AAA pitching and you just read Moneyball and we’re not here to sell jeans.
I’ll call these guys “Kilas”, after their patron saint and Platonic ideal Kila Ka’aihue, who spent years in the Royals’ Omaha affiliate doing his best Albert Pujols impersonation, seemingly ignored by a Major League team content to give at bats to Ross Gload, Scott Podsednik, and the death rattle of José Guillen. When he finally got his shot at the Majors, Kila struggled to a career .221/.305/.382 line over about 450 plate appearances.
Every team has a Kila at one point or another, and every fan base rallies around him. You can hear them on the radio, you can read them on the message boards, and if you’ve got a co-worker who read some of Baseball Between The Numbers, you’re probably never free of it. “Bring up Kila.” “Have you seen John Rodríguez’s slugging percentage?” “Can’t wait to see what Izzy Alcantera can do in Fenway.” “Cut Tino, bring up John Gall!”
So I thought Allen Craig was a Kila. He had all the warning signs. He was never considered a serious prospect, he didn’t have a position, he isn’t terribly athletic, and his tools were limited to the power/eye combo that doesn’t always translate from the minors. I was wrong. Craig had better plate coverage and contact skills than I expected, allowing him to overcome the problem that faces most Kilas, which is the inability to handle a league (mostly) full of pitchers who can locate their pitches on the corners of the zone. Even once I figured this out, I was stubborn and I kept expecting a crash that never came. By the middle of last season I finally accepted that Craig could be a Major League hitter. I stopped waiting for the crash and let myself enjoy the hits.
I’m not writing all this now, with Craig slumping harder than Nintendo’s marketing department, to say that I was right before. I’m not bragging about being right on Craig, because I’m a Cards fan and I always want to be wrong when I’m doubtful of a player. Rather, I just want to give some background for what I’m about to say:
Allen Craig is going to be fine. He may never be what he appeared to be in 2013, but that shouldn’t come off as a surprise. Anyone evaluating the Cardinals offense should probably treat 2013 like season four of Community and just assume what we think we experienced was just the result of fumes from a gas leak. We’re probably never going to see an entire team hit .330/.402/.463 with RISP again in our lifetime, and we’re certainly never going to see it from a team that hit .236/.297/.356 with the bases empty. Allen Craig was arguably the biggest beneficiary of the 2013 gas leak, putting up a line that looks more Ted Williams than Torty: .454/.500/.638
Craig probably won’t be the same hitter we saw in 2011-2012 either, as his home run power has seen a dramatic drop since his first full season. Whether this is the byproduct of nagging injuries or a conscious attempt to trade fly balls for line drives, I’ll leave up to your imagination. There is no way to know for sure, at least not until Peter Bourjos pulls an Edward Snowden and releases tapes from the batting cages before seeking asylum in Chicago.
So why am I optimistic about Craig? First, his BAbip is floating around .225, a hundred points below his career numbers. A big part of his slump has been terrible luck. So far this season he’s hit 64 balls on the ground and only 8 have squeaked through for hits. That’s only good for a .125 BAbip, when his career numbers on ground balls put him at .258. Twice as many hits on just grounders would go a long way to reversing the slump. Second, and on a related note, Craig is hitting way more grounders in total. His gb/fb rate in 2014 is 1.56, almost twice his career rate and high enough that even Ichiro Suzuki might give a respectful nod.
So Craig is hitting twice as many grounders as would be expected, and grounders are producing half as many hits as would be expected. Unless there is a hidden injury here or Craig suddenly has turned into the Kila I feared, unable to cover the inside corner of the plate, expect his numbers to bounce back. He might not make another All Star game, and it might not be enough to stave off Oscar Tavares, but don’t go writing him off based on a month and a half of bad luck just because it follows a year of the stupidest good luck.