Oakland Athletics should temper expectations for Coco Crisp

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The A’s leadoff hitter for most of the past five years has been Coco Crisp, who is commonly referred to as the “spark plug” or the “engine” of the Athletics’ offense. Crisp has been out since Spring training with an elbow injury, but according to the San Francisco Chronicle, Crisp could return to the A’s on Wednesday or Thursday. However he may not provide as big of a boost as the A’s are used to getting from him.

First and foremost, he probably needs some more time to get anywhere close to midseason form. He missed most of spring training and all of April, so a few games with the Stockton Ports probably won’t be enough for him. If it looks like he needs more time, which he probably will, the A’s should give him at least the rest of the week in Stockton.

Also, as I wrote before the season started, Crisp is 35 years old and speed is his greatest asset. That’s a really bad combination. Speedy players don’t normally age well, and Crisp has already showed signs of regression. He stole 49 bases in 2011, and that number has steadily gone down each year after that. His batting average also dropped below .250 last season, which is the lowest it’s ever been in a mostly full season.

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Defensively, his regression is pretty clear as well. Crisp never really had much of an arm, but he was good at making up for it with his incredible speed. Now he’s starting to lose that speed, and his defense has become a liability. Before last year he had totaled 47 defensive runs saved; last year he had -17. The A’s made a good call in spring training when they moved him to left field.

Crisp’s regression started to make itself clear in the second half of last year, when the entire team collapsed. Crisp hit .291 in the first half and just .191 in the second half last year. Granted, that significant drop-off in performance was probably because he was playing through various injuries, including a chronic neck problem.

However I’m not convinced we’ll ever really see a fully healthy Crisp again. He’s had so many injuries throughout his career in basically every part of his body. He’s played in 136 or fewer games in each of the last seven years, and there’s really no reason why that number will go up as he gets older.

Some fans will (unfairly) try to compare Crisp to Rickey Henderson, who basically never aged stole 66 bases when he was 39. It goes without saying that most players aren’t Rickey Henderson, and most speedy players don’t age like he did.

Take for example Michael Bourn. Bourn had a monster year in 2012, stealing 42 bases with an incredible 3.0 dWAR. The Indians signed him to a four year, $48 million contract that offseason. Last year, in just the second year of his contract, he stole 10 bases and had a -0.2 dWAR in 106 games.

Bourn is three years younger than Crisp and his regression is hurting the Indians both this year and next year. Bourn’s experience is more typical for speedy players than Henderson’s. Once their speed goes away, it doesn’t normally come back.

Right now, it looks like the everyday left fielder is Mark Canha, and while he’s been hot lately he’s been inconsistent to start the year. Crisp will probably take over the everyday left field job while Canha can platoon with Ike Davis at first base. Canha’s defense has looked horrendous in left field, so Coco won’t have to do much to be an upgrade in that department.

While Crisp’s return won’t hurt the A’s this year, he is set to make $11 million next season and has a $13 million vesting option for 2017. It’s nice to have a face of the franchise and a fan favorite, but the A’s will probably come to regret that contract soon (if they don’t already).

Next: Swingin A's Podcast Feat. Susan Slusser

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