Carl Crawford's nickname is "The Perfect Storm."
It's also a fitting description of his and his new ballclub's season thus far.
Pretty much every other Boston Red Sox hitter has shown signs of life — Marco Scutaro has an OPS over .800 in his last seven games, or example, and Jacoby Ellsbury has looked good in his last three starts — but Crawford has been terrible at the plate, with an OPS+ of -4. Yes, that's a negative number.
April is historically Crawford's worst month, the only one in which he has a career OPS below .770 — all the way down to .712, in fact. Of course, he's never been this bad in April (I'm pretty sure he's ever been this bad for this long). What's going on?
Crawford has an incredibly low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP). At .167, it's the worst of the starters. His line drive percentage, however is 14 percent, better than Dustin Pedroia's and Adrian Gonzalez's and just 2 percent lower than last year's career year. His strikeout rate is a little high (16.7 percent against 15.8 percent last season), but his walk rate is very low (3.7 percent versus 7.0 in 2010). On the other hand, it appears he's being less aggressive than normal: He's swinging at the first pitch a career-low 26 percent of the time, swinging at just 45 percent of pitches, which would also be a career low. Somehow, he's striking out looking at a career-low pace, as well, while still putting the ball in play more often than he has in years.
So he's run into some bad luck. In fact, quite a lot of it. The handy Hardball Times BABIP calculator allows us to plug in Crawford's numbers (at bats, home runs, strikeouts, line drive percentage, batted ball breakdowns, etc.) and estimate what his BABIP should be. The number it gives us is .312, a huge jump and only slightly lower than his career average of .330. That would give Crawford between 13 and 14 hits, as opposed to the seven he has currently.
If those extra six hits were simply singles, Crawford's line would jump from .137/.185/.157 to .254/.296/.275. Not great, but much more palatable. And in case you wonder whether analysis like this is in any way helpful, I would say it is. We did it once before for another new Red Sox having a terrible April fueled by an extraordinarily low BABIP — Dustin Pedroia.
The other storm for the Red Sox offense is its inability to drive home runners.
The Sox have an abysmal team OPS of .669. With a runner on second and/or third, however, that OPS (entering Saturday's game) drops to .522, worst in baseball (AL average is .733). Here, too, however, bad luck seems to have played an inordinate role.
For one, the Sox have 126 plate appearances with runners in scoring position — better than Texas and the Yankees and one fewer than league average. So they are putting themselves in an ideal run-scoring situation at a decent enough clip. Likewise, the Sox have 11 walks once they get a runner to second base, just two fewer than league average. Their 26 strikeouts are on the high end, though still just four more than the AL average.
So, by and large, the Sox' problems with runners in scoring position are happening on balls in play. And indeed, the Sox have a .253 BABIP in that situation, including .150 with runners on first and second and .150 with a runner on second, the two most common RISP scenarios the Sox have faced this season. Not only that, but of the 84 balls the Red Sox have put in play with runners on at least second or third, an astounding 17 have been classified line drives. That's 20 percent, which means we should expect them to have a BABIP of .324, according to the THT calculator.
Give the Sox a .324 BABIP with runners in scoring position and the horrendous .196/.272/.250 split jumps to .241/.310/.295. Again, that's assuming the five hits the Sox would gain are all singles, which seems unlikely, given the line drive rate. It's not terrific, but it would certainly have led to four or five more runs, and perhaps an extra win or two.
Finally, I'll reiterate this doesn't include Saturday's game, when the Sox went 2 for 12 with runners in scoring position, including at least one line-drive out off the bat of Jacoby Ellsbury. It seems clear that while the Sox as a whole, and Crawford particularly, are clearly slumping in fundamental ways (strikeouts up, walks down, poorer contact than usual), they are also getting incredibly bad luck in key situations. Like Pedroia in 2007, the key for the Sox — and their fans — is patience. Those line drives will start falling soon enough.