American League Left Fielders Can’t Hit at All This Year

Carl Crawford, the left fielder who signed a $142 million contract with the Boston Red Sox in December, went 4 for 4 with a home run and a double last night. That raised his batting average to .229 and his on-base plus slugging percentage— OPS , the simplest all-purpose measure of a hitter’s production—to .599.

For comparison, fading 39-year-old Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, who got into a public dispute with team management over the prospect of being dropped to the bottom of the batting order, has an OPS of .664. Rickey Henderson, ending his major-league career in a short stint with the Dodgers at the age of 44, had an OPS of .627 .

But if Henderson could put up those numbers today, he might be able to hold down a job. (Note to general managers: he’s only 52, and he’s almost certainly willing .) Crawford is only the most expensive and visible example of the fact that American League left fielders have been incomprehensibly bad this year.

Left field is supposed to be a hitters’ position. On Bill James’ defensive spectrum , which ranks the positions by the relative importance of bat work to glove work for each, left fielders come just after first basemen and designated hitters.

Yet in the 2011 batting tables, AL left fielders are below even catchers and second basemen. Far below them. The average AL left fielder is batting .227 with no patience and no power, on pace for about 13 home runs and 65 RBI, with 52 walks and 138 strikeouts. In 2,615 at-bats, left fielders have a collective .637 OPS. That puts them more or less in a tie with third basemen—that is, third basemen in 1968 , the notorious Year of the Pitcher .