Coco Crisp is a fantastic player. He’s basically the one player the A’s have remained loyal to over the years, the one player that they think is too valuable to give up. They gave him an extension, which is crazypants for the A's. The front office obviously loves him, and A’s fans should too.
I felt the need to preface this article with that, because I'm worried this is going to be mean. And I really love Coco, don’t get me wrong.
Coco Crisp is not a center fielder anymore.
I know, I know. He hasn’t played anywhere else since 2012. He’s the face of the franchise, a guy who sees himself as a center fielder. He’s still fast, he still has range. So what’s his deal? Well, he’s just old. The inevitable march of time comes for us all.
There’s a reason players get moved down the defensive spectrum as they age. They lose a step, their reaction time starts to get slower. Speed is one of the first things to go, and Crisp’s speed is slowly going. He stole 19 bases last year, his lowest total since 2009. He played in 49 games in 2009. The last full season he stole fewer than 19 bases was the 15 he stole in 2005. Fangraphs' SPD score paints a picture of a player on the decline -- obviously, higher is better and 0 is average:
SPD combines stolen base numbers, extra bases taken, and tag-ups to find exactly how speedy a player is. Coco Crisp just doesn’t have the same fire he has when he was younger.
The reason this is so concerning is that this is impacting his defense to an insane degree. Coco’s never been exactly a great defender since he’s been here — his comical noodle arm offset his elite CF ranging abilities. But he’s been servicable, until last year. Something about last year just caused a massive drop-off in his defense. It might’ve been his injury problems, it might’ve been that he reached a point of no return in terms of his loss of speed. But it got bad. Bad.
There were two CFs in the MLB that were worse defenders: Dexter Fowler, who’s never been a good defender, and Matt Kemp, who is so constantly injured he’s more machine than man now. The arm continued to get worse, and his range absolutely dropped off a cliff. His zone rating dropped by 13.8 runs from 2013, which is incredible and ridiculous and absurd.
My first thought when seeing those numbers were that there had to be some sort of mistake. Defensive stats are notoriously finicky in small sample sizes, and are really prone to some crazy swings. But, man, it kind of matches the eye test, right? He didn’t look good out there last year. He looked like a man in a lot of pain. Balls he would’ve gotten to even in 2013 dropped well in front of him. It just was not a good look for him.
It’s not like he’s uncomfortable in LF, either — he’s played there a few times in his career, and graded out really well. You have to assume those ratings will drop for the same reasons, but his range should work there just about perfectly.
Craig Gentry is really good.
Oh man, can we just talk about how good the Choice/Gentry trade was? Absolutely fantastic. Even at the time, when Choice was a hot prospect and Gentry was merely the best 4th OF in baseball, it seemed like a bit of a steal. Then 2014 happened, when Gentry may have disappointed but Choice turned into the worst player in baseball. He’s still 25 and could still make me look dumb, but his .182/.250/.320 line was not a good look for anyone.
Gentry, on the other hand, may be the most underrated player in baseball. His lack of pop and basically below-average offensive capabilities have shoehorned him into the 4th OF role, which I find bitterly unfair. He’s the type of player who will be lucky to hit one HR in a complete MLB season, but he also hit .280/.373/.386 as recently as 2013. His .254/.319/.289 line this year does not inspire confidence, but if you chalk at least some of that up to injury and to some unluckiness, he suddenly starts to look enormously valuable.
How does a hitter who maybe hits one dinger per year end up so danged good? Defense, man. Defense. Oh my god, Craig Gentry’s defense. By the stats, he’s probably second only to Juan Lagares in the entire MLB. He’s the type of player who can carry a sub-.300 slugging percentage purely on the strength of his defense. Think, better than peak-Coco Crisp, except with a functional arm. And the guy has a cannon.
Here’s some back of the envelope math with some advanced stats: give him 500 PAs as a center fielder at 25 UZR/150 and an 85 wRC+ — both rough 3 year averages. That’s a 4 WAR player. For context, that’s the second best player on the 2014 A’s. That’s an excellent starter on a contending team. The team would do well to finally take care of second base in order to carry the offensive dead weight that would be Gentry every day, but man, he could be good. He could be really, really good.
The current A’s roster assumes a Sam Fuld/Craig Gentry platoon in LF. That would be an absolute waste of talent -- why would you stick your best center fielders in left? Why would you possibly do that?
Put Coco in LF — his current range fits better there, his arm won’t do too much more damage, and maybe he stays healthier in a less challenging position. Craig Gentry as an every day CF is really the only way this roster makes sense.