Understanding Crow

There he is. Maybe he needs to have a beard to be dominating. Does anyone know his splits with and without a beard? Photo Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

At this point in the year, there isn’t much left to write about. Starting pitching? Been done to death. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas? Yeah, been done. Bullpen, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain? Done, done, and done.

Still, there is one player who I don’t think has gotten the attention he deserves: Aaron Crow. It seems like after he disappeared down the home stretch last season, he fell from our collective consciousness like Tila Tequila and voting. I don’t know why. He’s as interesting a player as any, in part because of his Jekyll and Hyde 2011 season and career, and in part because he’s moving back to the rotation.

Admittedly, I too put Crow on the back burner until virtually every other topic was exhausted. But now … every other topic is exhausted, so it’s Crow time.

If you watched the Royals in 2011, you know that Crow had a magical first half, blowing away hitters with burning fastballs in the mid to high 90s and a slider that vanished mid flight. It was terrific to watch a Mizzou product have such success with the Royals. People were jazzed.

Of course, after earning the Royals’ lone All-Star bid (Alex Gordon was robbed!) Crow seemingly disappeared. He was sick for a stretch, then ineffective. And eventually, Greg Holland took over as the young, dominant, setup man.

Many were scratching their heads wondering what to make of Crow, a young player who is as confusing as any after getting drafted in the first round twice, struggling mightily in AA and A ball in 2010, then making the MLB All-Star team in 2011 with a 2.08 ERA, 9.14 K/9, and .197 BAA. In the second half of 2011, he morphed again: 4.34 ERA, .313 BAA, 1.93 WHIP. Who the hell is this guy?

If you watched the games consistently, it was clear why Crow was struggling. He lost his command. Why he lost it is unclear—to me anyway. Maybe it was mechanical. Maybe it was mental. Maybe it was arm fatigue from him being unfamiliar with a relief role. I have no clue, but hopefully Dave Eiland does.

In the first half, Crow walked that fine line between too wild and just wild enough. His walk rate (4.15 BB/9) was low enough to not hurt him, while his monthly BABIP ranged form .208 to .270, all pretty good. These numbers tell me he would occasionally nibble but was pretty good at staying out of the heart of the plate and got weak contact as a reward. In August and September that BABIP ballooned to .500 and .471 respectively. These are from small sample sizes, but those sample sizes are small because he was getting rocked, and the Royals called his number less and less. He also walked nine hitters in 11 innings over that stretch. When he was missing it wasn’t by a nibble it was by chunks, and that caused walks and middle of the plate fastballs.

Now, let’s look at how Crow did as a starter in 2010. As is the common theme of his pro career, he walked a lot of hitters (4.45 BB/9). This makes no sense for Crow, who should have been living in the strike zone against AA hitters with his stuff. He also only struck out 6.79 per nine innings in AA, though we can assume that’s an anomaly since he faired much better against Major League hitters in 2011. Hitters at AA hit .274 off of him, which isn’t bad unless you’re walking hitters as often as Crow does. Interestingly, when he was demoted to high A, his secondary numbers were dynamite: 10.84 K/9, 1.28 BB/9. He was mowing them down and getting relatively unlucky with a .378 BABIP.

I’m going to try to make sense of all this data to give us a comprehensive look at Crow as a starter in 2012. The first thing that should be clear is that he probably needs to start in AAA whether he pitches well in Spring Training or not. The key for Crow will be command, and after analyzing the data, I have to believe that’s as much a mental issue with him as anything. I have a feeling that getting knocked around a bit in AA caused a spiral and the same thing happened in the second half of 2011.

If Crow finds a way to command his fastball, he should be fine. To this point in his career, he has a tendency to let it leak out over the plate and get hit. In 2011 his fastball cost him a run per 100 pitches according to Fangraphs. This graph should illustrate why:

 

courtesy of fangraphs

 

As you can see, his fastball spends too much time over the heart of the plate. If he continues to do that, he’ll never reach his potential. But time in AAA should help him refine his command and understand how to use his fastball and maximize its effectiveness.

Part of that process will be working on his changeup. Those who claim he doesn’t have a third pitch are wrong. He has one; it just isn’t very good. But he has to throw it. It will be a big part of keeping hitters off balance so when he does make a mistake with a fastball, it will be harder for hitters to key it. If he ever gets to the point where he can throw all three pitches for strikes, he’ll be very dangerous.

For 2012, let’s hope for solid progress in AAA, a walk rate under four, a strikeout rate over seven, and refinement of his changeup. If he can do that, he should be in the majors by September at least. If he can’t, he might spend all of 2012 in AAA and wait until next season to get his shot at the rotation. Either way 2012 is a defining year for Crow. This will tell the Royals brass if he can make it as a starter or if he needs to move back to the bullpen, be a two-pitch pitcher, and setup closers for the rest of his career. He’s too old to be seen as a potential starter if he doesn’t make significant progress this season.

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Topics: AL Central, Baseball, Crow, Kansas City, MLB, Pitching, Royals

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  • jim fetterolf

    Agreeable piece. I expect Crow in AAA to start and expect him to be healthy, so he’ll be concentrating on a consistent 3rd pitch and taking a little off the fastball to get some movement. Great fastball pitchers like Justin Verlander, even though they can crank 100mph, usually pitch 92-95mph with motion and the ability to unleash the alto queso as a wake-up call before going back to varying speeds. If Crow can add a change and/or two seamer from the same release point he’ll be fine. If not he can go back to the ‘pen after Broxton is traded at the break.

  • somedevil04

    part of me just doesn’t think that crow is ever going to be a starting pitcher…i tend to think his problems are less mental and more mechanical. specfically the fact that he doesn’t repeat his mechanics. I would love to see him turn into a starter but there are too many things to fix. he needs more consistent mechanics, a better changeup, and to stretch out his arm for more than an inning. Also, i think hitters started laying off the slider a lot the second half of last year because he hardly ever throws it for a strike. its almost always low and outside to righties, which i understand is what he wants to do but if you can’t ever throw it for a strike hitters will just stop swinging at it. this all being said, now is the time to try to make him a starter and i think you have to give it a shot. Here is to him becoming a solid starting pitcher for the 2012 or 2013 year (me raising a symbolic shot glass of “victory” whiskey).

  • mmeade17

    @jim fetterolf Yes, I agree that it’s a great luxury that he can just go back to the pen if he can’t make it as a starter. I don’t know that his fastball doesn’t have movement though. One graph fangraphs provides displays horizontal movement on fastball, and it seems from that, and from watching him pitch, that his FB has enough movement. I think he needs to use that movement better. I can certainly remember instances where he started a fastball on the corner and it tailed right into the heart of the plate. Crow’s average fastball is just over 94, but you’re right if he’s going to be a starter he’ll live around 90-93 I think, just to save his arm for more innings.

  • mmeade17

    @somedevil04 Disagreed with by my own brother. I feel like Julius Caesar (you’re Brutus in this scenario). Let me tell you why I don’t think it’s mechanical. Coming out of college, Crow was touted as extremely polished mechanically, and during his brief stint in A+, he didn’t walk anyone. I think he felt confident that he could dominate A+ and felt comfortable staying in the strike zone. Also, if you look at a graph of his release point, it looks pretty consistent. Maybe not Roy Halladay, but not Jeremy Jeffress either. I think he’s somewhat afraid of catching too much plate against MLB hitters, and this causes him to lose command. Could he tighten up mechanics? Sure almost everyone could, but I think his mind is playing a major part.

    I think you’re right about his slider late in the year, and it will help if he can learn to keep it in the strike zone occasionally to keep hitters from simply recognizing slider and letting it slide (Oh I hot today with puns).

    Good comment … traitor.

  • somedevil04

    @mmeade17

    I don’t know. When I watch him pitch his delivery seems, to quote Milly from Bull Durham, “sorta all over the place.” Which is ultimately where his pitches end up, and I don’t think Susan Suranden or Kevin Costner can fix it. I’m not dismissing the idea that it could be mental. I’m just saying that with his mechanics, a below-average changeup, and not many innings starting, I don’t see him excelling as a starter. I hope I’m wrong. By the way, I’m more like Cain to your Abel because I’m killin you bro, oooooooooh in your face. But really, Bull Durham is an awesome movie, what was I talking about?

  • Kevin Scobee

    @somedevil04 @mmeade17 what exactly about his “mechanics” do you think is bad? That’s a non-definition buzzword that has no specific meaning to the pitching delivery.

  • jim fetterolf

    @Kevin Scobee @somedevil04 @mmeade17 What I hear on Crow is that his release point, like that of Jeffress, varies quite a bit, so the reception point would also tend, like Jeffress, to vary quite a bit.

  • Kevin Scobee

    @jim fetterolf @kevin @somedevil04 @mmeade17 I can agree/see to that. There’s an awful lot of glove side action and step-by-step, rigid, non fluid movement involved with his delivery. Being “polished” in the “he must look like a pitcher” ways that athletes are trained doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. He is very mechanical with his delivery in that everything (seemingly) is point A, point B, point C… and his timing sequences gets thrown off because of the overactions of the glove pull (which is nonsense and should never be taught) and the traditional idea of “mechanics”. It’s like a golf swing – you can have a terrible golf swing be still make solid contact, just your ability to repeat that swing and consistently make solid contact are jeopardized.

  • somedevil04

    @Kevin Scobee @mmeade17

    well i’m no scout but let me try to explain. I think crow tends to open up too early leaving his arm too far behind his front leg which makes for an unintegrated delivery. also, there is a lot of movement with his upper body which i think is a result of having a high effort delivery. The real problem i have is that he he can’t consistently repeat his mechanics. Im fine with his long stride or openning up early or even a lot of movement in his upper body (see Trevor Cahill) these things can be fine if he finds a way to consistently repeat them to throw strikes. I have a hard time believing that a person who pitched as well as he did the first half and made the all-star game struggled mentally to handle the second half. Again, i’m no scout but these are the things i see, or think i see, take that for what u will.