There’s little doubt that this has been the slowest MLB offseason in recent memory.
With just about three weeks left until pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training, it’s pretty clear that something is different about this offseason.
It’s fair to say this free agent class lacks the depth of last year or the star power of next year, but it remains puzzling why so many free agents still have not signed the deals they sought at the beginning of the offseason.
Despite the chill in the hot stove, the Padres have finally made the big move that fans have been waiting for. After what has seemed like months of speculation, the Padres have finally made their big first baseman, free agent splash.
Wait, you mean Allen Craig wasn’t the first baseman the Padres were supposed to sign? Eric Hosmer? Forget Eric Hosmer, the Padres have their guy in Craig.
Obviously, I am kidding, but the Padres did make a small move with the addition of Craig on a minor league deal.
Source: Padres sign Allen Craig to a minor-league deal. Ex-Cardinal/Red Sox last appeared in majors in 2015.
— Chris Cotillo (@ChrisCotillo) January 23, 2018
According to Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune, the minor league deal also comes with an invite to spring training. Craig, who has not seen the major leagues since way back in 2015, was released by the Boston Red Sox in the middle of last year after struggling to find success back in Triple-A. Drafted way back in 2006 in the eighth round by the St. Louis Cardinals, Craig consistently put up gaudy stat lines as he progressed through the minor league ladder in the Cardinals’ organization.
After an average debut in the big leagues in 2010, during which Craig slashed .246/.298/.412 with a 90 wRC+, Craig broke out in a huge way in 2011. During that 2011 season, Craig accumulated 219 plate appearances in 75 games, slashing .315/.362/.555 with a 154 wRC+. Craig followed that success with back-to-back seasons of over 100 games with a wRC+ over 130 in both seasons. Despite not being much of a defender or baserunner, Craig hit more than enough to return solid big league value.
In the middle of the next season, Craig was traded to the Red Sox with Joe Kelley for John Lackey. Craig was never able to find his way in Boston, as he struggled in his time at the big league level in 2014 and spent most of his 2015 season back in the minors after sporting a 22 wRC+ in 36 games with the Red Sox. After two mostly lost seasons due to injury and poor performance, Craig was released from his Red Sox contract in the middle of last season.
To better understand what went wrong for Craig, let’s check out his stats over his time in the big leagues between Boston and St. Louis.
Based on those numbers, it’s pretty clear that Craig took a big dive in total overall offensive performance, and at the same time saw a significant rise in his strikeout rate. For our purposes, all these numbers are major league only. But let’s take the data one step further. Here’s where it gets interesting.
Interestingly enough, Craig’s plate discipline really didn’t change much from his success in 2012/2013 to his struggles in 2014/2015. His overall swing percentage was pretty much consistent, including O-Swing and Z-Swing, and his zone percentage and swinging strike percentage were also pretty similar. So what explains the huge step back Craig took from 2013 to 2014? The biggest thing that stands out is the drop in Craig’s O-Contact percentage, which represents a player’s contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. Over his first few seasons, Craig’s O-Contact percentage routinely hung around the upper 60s or lower 70s. By contrast, that number fell to 60-61 percent in 2014 and 2015. Despite having a similar swing percentage and similar contact percentage, Craig was not making as much contact on pitches outside of the strike zone.
Based on this information, it’s hard to really see where things went wrong for Craig. It seems like Craig making less contact on pitches outside of the zone caused him to see his strikeout rate rise and his overall performance decline. Probably the biggest issue for Craig was his complete 180 on fastballs, as Craig went from a great hitter of fastballs to one who couldn’t hit fastballs at all. After seeing fastballs 54-56 percent of the time on average earlier in his career, Craig was seeing fastballs over 60 percent of the time in 2014 and 2015 and struggling to find success against them.
All this may very well come back to Craig’s foot injury in 2014. Based on the underlying stats, it appears that Craig saw a pretty significant decrease in bat speed as well as struggles to hit pitches he used to hit well. It could be that the injury wrecked Craig’s footwork which took his entire swing plane and mechanics with it. However, for all intents and purposes, Craig was healthy in 2017, and he still saw the same struggles at the plate. So who knows what could be causing this change.
It’s unclear whether the 33-year-old can figure it out, but there’s little risk in trying. Given where the Padres are at, a lottery ticket like Craig could pay off big. The bigger issue is finding a spot for Craig to play, as his poor defense means he’s really only capable of passing at first. More likely than not, Craig won’t even make it on the Opening Day roster, barring a huge spring of course. If he does, he’ll probably be more bench bat than consistent, everyday player. But hey, why not?