Of the Cardinals’ multiple conundrums on offense, chief among them is Allen Craig’s sudden inability to hit. With the season more than halfway finished, Craig’s OBP is still below .300 and his SLG is below 400. The Cardinals haven’t had a corner outfielder who qualified for the batting title with those kind of numbers since 1941.
As frustrating to watch Craig perform has been, just as frustrating is trying to figure out why it’s happening. Craig set career highs in on-base percentage last year (.373) and plate appearances (563) and, his late-season left-foot sprain notwithstanding, looked poised to continue his trajectory of success in 2014. But he hasn’t been officially disabled this season, and he has been playing so regularly that he is on pace to set a new high in plate appearances. He has no clear peripheral stats that would indicate extreme bad luck: His batting average on balls in play is down, but that’s in large part because he’s hitting fewer line drives (19.6% LD%) and more ground balls (56.4%), rates for which are divergent from his career norms (22.9% and 46.5%, respectively). His strikeout rate is his highest in four years (though not way out of career rate), but then again he’s also making contact at the highest rate of his career. What’s going on?
Bill Dozier suggested on Twitter that Craig appears to have a slow bat. Bill must have better eyesight than we do, because our naked eye is ill equipped to make such anecdotal observations. Happily, however, we have some resources that can quantify Bill’s scout-like intuition, namely ESPN’s home-run tracker, which among other things displays bat speed for players’ home runs. Although it’s a much smaller sample than we’d like (Craig has seven home runs this year, accounting for only about 8% of his total hits), it’s something, and we can compare his bat speeds with his speeds in prior years. And to protect against league and park biases, we’ll also look at some of his teammates’ speeds.
Indeed, Craig has had a precipitous decline this year in his bat speed, down nearly two miles per hour from his 2012-2013 average. That might not sound like much, but it may be enough to explain why Craig’s slugging percentage is 100 points below his career norm. It also fits with the seemingly strange combination of his increased contact rate and lower on-base percentage. And, as Roger Tobin has found, even modest changes in bat speed can have major effects on production.
If slower bat speed is the problem, whence does it come? Jeff Sullivan recently suggested an increase in inside fastballs. That itself may be the result of teams trying to exploit lingering issues from Craig’s foot injury. That’s a plausible explanation. But if injury were the case, surely by this point the Cardinals would’ve sat Craig for 15 days (or more) rather than endure this level of ineptness for so long. That leaves another, more uncomfortable option in the possibility of a change in training habits, namely performance-enhancing drugs. Surely, anyone taking an objective look at Craig’s situation would have to consider the possibility. (The weekend series with the Brewers and Ryan Braun serves as a reminder that PEDs are far from eradicated in the game.)
Perhaps if the problem is related to Craig’s foot, the coming All-Star break will provide some healing time. If not, however, or if the problem is elsewhere, the Cardinals may have more than simply Yadier Molina’s bat to replace for the rest of the season.