The Oakland A’s picked up Coco Crisp‘s 2011 option today, a no-brainer really. Crisp played only 75 games this year–staying healthy has been a serious challenge to Crisp his entire career–but posted a .779 OPS and stole 32 bases in 35 tries. Oakland loves its strong defense behind a young rotation with hardly any ceiling, and Crisp fits that mold to a tee.
Crisp is a personal favorite for me, a great defender who steals bases efficiently and contributes the old-fashioned way. So when I saw him in the news today, I could not help but think of another player whom many malign, but for whom I have a bit of a soft spot.
I was watching the Brewers play the Twins one day in the summer of 2008, just keeping tabs on the competition to my Cubbies. The game was at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Carlos Gomez stepped to the plate for the Twins, and I perked up a bit. I had not yet gotten to see this kid play, but I knew (as surely all Twins fans know) that he was the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade and therefore of some interest.
Gomez roped a line drive down the third base line, on the ground and all the way into the corner. The ball moved quickly over the artificial turf and Ryan Braun (whose only defensive asset is his arm) got to the ball in good shape, but I was still sure Gomez would reach second for a double. Braun grabbed the ball and fired in to the cutoff man: No play. Gomez was safe… at third base.
Speed like that is good old-fashioned fun. Gomez is also a tremendous defender and finished second in the 2008 Fielding Bible Awards voting in center field.
Other than those two assets, however, Gomez is a liability. He has not posted an OBP above .300 in any big-league season, which is usually an intolerable degree of offensive futility. As such, he has seen his playing time cut from 614 plate appearances in 2008 to 349 in 2009 to 318 last year, and was traded before the 2010 season to Milwaukee. The fact that he even remains in the big leagues is strong evidence of the untapped potential teams see in him.
Much of Gomez’s future is in doubt, for reasons I will get into soon. For the moment, though, let us try to find some way to make his future less opaque–by looking at the similarities between him and Coco Crisp.
2010 Stats (age 24): .247/.298/.357, 318 PA, 18/21 SB
Career: .246/.293/.349, OPS 28 percent worse than league average
Obviously, Gomez’s deficiencies somewhat outweigh his talents at this point. He’ still young, but he has to develop as a hitter to make his defense and speed worth the trade-off. His speed allows him to get to deep balls while playing shallow enough to accommodate his average arm, and he has great base-running instincts that make him very efficient in the running game–an unfortunate lapse in the 2009 playoffs notwithstanding.
There isn’t a lot to mine here: He does keep the ball on the ground and his line-drive rate is decent, but that is not the real problem: Gomez swings at too many bad pitches, striking out four times as often as he walks and making weak contact too often. Still, the tools seem to be there for Gomez to break out yet.
2003 stats (age 23): .266/.302/.353, 347 PA, 15/24 SB
Career through 2003: .264/.305/.360, OPS 21 percent worse than league average
Yes, Crisp’s age 23 season is our basis for comparison. That’s because Crisp broke out with a .790 OPS and 15 homers at the age of 24. Obviously, Gomez is behind that curve a bit. Players progress and develop at different times and in different ways, though, so let us look at how Crisp managed his breakout.
It turns out to have been pretty simple for Crisp: He got luckier. A lot luckier, in fact. Crisp’s home run rate on fly balls quadrupled in 2004, presumably because he got stronger but also a factor of luck. Crisp already made enough contact (his strikeout rate has hovered around 14 percent in his career, considerably lower than Gomez’s) and hit mostly grounders, but he had not benefited from his speed the way one might have expected in his early career: His batting average on balls in play was .295 for his career through 2003. In 2004, that number jumped to .320, which helped Crisp improve his numbers across the board.
In 2010, Gomez had a healthy .313 BABIP. That seems to suggest he has little upward mobility. But wait! Thanks to the Hardball Times, we have a handy new tool for analyzing that BABIP number. It is called xBABIP, and it helps determine, based on a hitter’s profile and skill set, what their expected BABIP ought to have been. For Gomez in 2010, that figure was .326. Thus, he could have easily batted a tick higher across the board, and could make the same sort of forward strides as Crisp once did if he can find a way to put bat on ball more often.
Gomez probably has no place on the 2011 Brewers, after the team acquired Chris Dickerson in August. Lorenzo Cain will start in center, so Gomez could be non-tendered or traded. For the rest of the league, that creates an opportunity: Take a gamble on a defense-first center fielder, and you might just end up with the next Coco Crisp.