Andre Ethier vs. Carl Crawford, the great debate of the modern era. We have seen Pepsi vs. Coke, Microsoft vs. Apple, The Wire vs. The Sopranos, Edward vs. Jacob, etc. Now, Dodgers fans find themselves wondering: Who should start in LF between Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford? Don Mattingly has made his choice clear for now: It’s Carl Crawford. This should not be the case though, as we have enough evidence to believe Crawford is inferior and should be lower on the depth chart.
Now, before I start I’d like to point out two things. First off, this argument is not about me thinking Andre Ethier is having a great or even good season by any means. Andre Ethier is having a subpar year, in which his poor results are matching the quality of at bats seen. Andre Ethier might start every single game from here on out and still put up poor results but this conversation is more about Carl Crawford showing he isn’t much better and Ethier is the lesser of the two evils. The second point is that it’s easy to end this debate by simply saying: “Just call up Joc!” That’s a tantalizing solution to this problem as the exciting, well-regarded prospect looks like a fantastic option to replace both Carl and Andre. The problem is that it’s not so simple. You can’t just DFA one of Ethier or Carl, or have 3 backup outfielders, and with the trade deadline behind us it’s clear the front office hasn’t found a solution via trade to let go of one of these guys (No, one of them won’t get claimed on waivers). So, with that in mind this is a simple analysis of who is better suited to start in LF.
Let’s start out with the overall season numbers. Carl Crawford on the year is hitting .239/.276/.350 with a .278 wOBA* and wRC+** of 77. Andre Ethier is hitting .246/.312/.371 with a .301 wOBA and wRC+ of 94. Across the board offensively, Ethier is having a superior year. Superior by 7 points of batting average, 36 points of on base percentage, 21 points of slugging percentage, 23 points of wOBA, and 17 in wRC+. The two areas where Crawford is obviously superior is in base running and defense, so the advantage goes to him in that regard, which isn’t something to go unnoticed. Carl’s speed is a valuable asset to him meanwhile a detriment to Ethier, and although Ethier has improved defensively from when he was younger, he still rates inferior to Crawford in that regard. The debate might become focused heavily on how large you believe this gap is and if it is large enough to overcome the inferiority in Crawford’s offense. Advanced defensive and base running metrics are available but do have their flaws. What I will say is that meanwhile Crawford does have a significant advantage in base running, the defensive gap is not that large. Not to mention this base running advantage does not do much good when you are getting on base at a .276 clip.
*wOBA stands for Weighted On Base Average and is based on linear weights to define a hitters overall contribution per plate appearance
**wRC+ is a context neutral stat which uses wOBA to rank a hitters offensive output but neutralizes all park and league factors.
Now, this is a summary of what they have done all year but going into what has happened lately makes Crawford look even worse. Crawford missed all of June being on the disabled list (Surprising, right?) and when he came back he’s been… bad to put it lightly. Very lightly. It’s using bad as lightly as saying Dan Haren has bad problems giving up home runs. In July, Carl Crawford hit .163/.245/.209. That’s a .454 OPS in 49 plate appearances. In his last 53 plate appearances, he has a .418 OPS. Zack Greinke this year has 47 plate appearances and has a .448 OPS. Andre Ethier in July? .239/.364/.370. That’s not exactly lighting the world on fire or anything, especially when seeing that he was red hot in the beginning of July before cooling off a bit. Compared to Carl Crawford though, it’s Hall of Fame worthy. At the very least, a .364 OBP is a very good mark for a hitter. Ethier doesn’t have the power, but it’s unacceptable to have someone like Crawford at the plate who isn’t getting on base and doesn’t have power. Crawford’s best asset is his speed but he can’t steal first base.
Another thing to look at, and to me is the most important and not to be glossed over, is the respective numbers against right handers. At this point, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that neither of these hitters are good against lefties. It isn’t to say we should completely delete their numbers against LHP to analyze, but any time they hit against lefties it is either a mistake or should be in a situation that isn’t crucial to the game at hand, especially with someone like Scott Van Slyke on the bench. Having either of them have any important at bat versus a lefty is a fault on the manager for not knowing what these players are capable of doing. It’s like putting A.J. Ellis at shortstop; you can get mad at Ellis if he makes an error ranging to his left in a crucial spot, but placing him in that situation to begin with is nonsensical.
This year, Crawford is hitting .241/.274/.359 with a .280 wOBA and 79 wRC+ against right handers compared to Andre Ethier hitting .256/.323/.395 with a .315 wOBA and 105 wRC+. Again, Ethier isn’t exactly tearing the ball off against righties like he usually does but the gap between him and Crawford versus righties is massive. The debate between Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier should be between who should get the start against righties, because against lefties it’s quiet easily Scott Van Slyke. As we see, against righties the offensive gap is too large between Ethier and Crawford to suggest Crawford’s speed and defense are superior enough to overcome the offensive deficiencies.
I have no idea why Ethier hasn’t played since the 90’s or whenever it has been. It hasn’t mattered much since the Dodgers were on a hot streak (which included Mattingly hilariously hitting Crawford in front of the red hot Matt Kemp) but it is never good to put out a lineup inferior to one that is available. I was hoping Crawford was going to go on a hot streak but it hasn’t happened yet, so hopefully we see Andre Ethier out there soon. Again, Ethier hasn’t been great and it’s very likely that if he did play every day we’d still be frustrated at what he does at the plate. But maybe he goes on a hot streak to raise those numbers. If he doesn’t, we will at least know it could get worse if it was Carl Crawford out there.