Last year, lots of time was spent discussing Alex Gonzalez’s defense…and indeed, in the several decades I’ve been watching Red Sox baseball, I’d never seen a shortstop make so many challenging plays look effortless. (I’m not the most trained viewer, but at times Gonzalez’s grace reminded me a bit of the beauty that was Carlos Beltran when he patrolled center field for the Royals.) A-Gon was, in the field, a sort of anti-Jeter, who should get some kind of lifetime award for making routine plays looking insanely difficult.
Coco Crisp, on the other hand, received a fair amount of criticism for his play. Outside of at least one mind-blowing, game-saving, head-first diving catch, he looked a little lost (which mirrored how he looked at the plate). In late August, Baseball Think Factory rated him dead last among AL center fielders (tied, oddly enough, with Gary Matthews Jr., who also made an all-time highlight reel grab in early July); around the same time, ESPN’s Zone Ratings also had him at the bottom of the heap.
Things have looked different this year. Coco’s been on a bit of a hot streak at the plate — a fact that’s been much discussed. He’s also been on a bit of a hot streak in the field. I’ve seen this mentioned a couple of times in the internetoblogosphere, but it hasn’t gotten much mention elsewhere.
That’s about to change. This morning, Bill James wrote in an email, “It seems to me that the BIGGEST factor in our team’s performance over the last week or so has been that Coco has been just unbelievable in center field…he’s just catching EVERYTHING that looks like it might be trouble. There’s been no gap in right center, no gap in left center, nothing getting over his head and nothing has been landing in front of him.” Want an example? Take the ninth inning of last night’s game. The first batter Papelbon faced was Justin Morneau, who crushed a ball to dead center. It could have headed out…except Crisp made a nice play at the fence. It didn’t look spectacular, but it sure as shit had a huge impact. If Morneau’s ball had been a four-bagger, suddenly Pap’s given up two home runs in his last two outings; Okajima is on ice for the night; and Romero and Donnelly are already out of the game. Oh, and now it’s a one-run game with no outs. (If the Sox had lost the game, that arguably would have been the least of their problems, because the entire region would have been gripped in a frenzy of Papelbon-induced panic. Also, Tim Wakefield might have shot himself in the head due to lack-of-run-support induced insanity.)
As Bill wrote, “It’s not that he’s been making spectacular catches; it’s that he’s been making plays that had me scared shitless look they were no problem.” Sort of like A-Gon did last year. The thing is, nobody expected A-Gon to have anything but a noodle bat. That’s not the case with CC; perhaps that’s why his performance has gotten little-to-no recognition.
At least not from the hoi polloi; the same obviously isn’t true on Yawkey Way. “If Coco had been 11-for-20 with the bat over the last week, everybody would be talking about that,” Bill wrote in his email. “If he’d had a few good games as a reliever, like Okajima, everybody would be talking about that. But he’s just had this unbelievable streak in center field, and…nobody has noticed. Nothing about it in the papers, guys on TV haven’t said anything about it (that I’ve heard), radio guys haven’t said anything that I’ve heard. I tried to find his defense day-by-day to see how many putouts he has had in the last week, and I couldn’t even find THAT, let alone some up-to-date information about how many catches he’s made that were difficult plays that could have killed us.” (Baseball Musings author David Pinto points out that Crisp currently has a centerfield rating of 123 from Baseball Prospective, which translates into Crisp being about 38 runs better than average over the course of a 162-game season.)
It’ll be interesting to watch how this plays out, both on the field (is the first month of the season an accurate indicator of Coco’s true talent level in the field?) and in the press. Stay tuned…