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:
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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