Kutter Crawford is a lot like my ability to force a simile to fit my needs — better than you’d think. Crawford is sometimes unfairly associated with the pitching woes of the 2022 Red Sox, when he was called upon before he was probably ready because the team was desperate for functioning arms. 2022 was mostly rocky for Crawford, but there was a stretch last summer where he looked like a very capable major league pitcher, highlighted by a six-inning, one-run performance in Houston. Even this season, Crawford’s numbers look fairly pedestrian — a 4.42 ERA in 18.1 innings pitched — but the underlying potential is there. Take a look at his BaseballSavant page.
That’s a whole lot of red. Without getting too far into the weeds, there’s a lot to like here. It’s a small sample and not the end-all-be-all of evaluating a player, but it’s a good starting point. Let’s take a look under the hood and see what Crawford is doing and where he can go from here.
Forget About the Curveball, Give ‘Em the Heater
In short, Crawford’s arsenal is really what sets him apart from other pitchers. His fastball and cutter are his go-to pitches, combining for about 60% of total pitches this season, for good reason. Here’s an at-bat from Saturday’s relief appearance against Milwaukee.
The first pitch is a free strike with Perkins taking all the way, nice. He follows it up with a cutter up and in for a foul ball and then puts him away with a high fastball.
The cutter isn’t a perfect tunnel for his four-seamer, but it does have a similar spin axis which makes it difficult for hitters to pick up on. It also has some deviation between the spin and movement direction, giving it that “late life” effect you always hear about. It’s not a swing-and-miss pitch, but he can throw it inside to lefties to get weak contact, and outside to righties for called strikes.
The cutter is a great offering, but the real money pitch for Crawford is the four-seam fastball. His four-seamer has elite vertical movement, making it nearly impossible to hit at the top of the zone. The third pitch to Perkins in the video above is perfectly placed. To the hitter, it appears to be rising, generating tons of whiffs and pop-ups as they swing right underneath the ball. It’s early, but the pitch has returned a 31.5% whiff percentage this season, which ranks among the best of the best.
Those two pitches alone are enough to make Kutter a quality relief arm at worst. He wouldn’t be the first reliever to deploy a fastball/cutter combo. He might be the best though.
But Wait, There’s More
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The first pitch I want to talk about is the curveball. Here’s a look:
It’s a pretty standard curveball with good vertical movement. It only comes in at about 82 MPH, meaning it probably isn’t going to get a lot of chases, but that’s not how he’s using it. For the most part, Crawford is using the pitch to steal called strikes. The pitch works not because of the movement, but because it’s a perfect mirror for the fastball, with almost the exact opposite spin axis. Curveballs at the bottom of the zone for called strikes help set up that high four-seamer I talked about earlier.
Hold the phone, I’m being told by the sales department that we have yet another great offer — a changeup — that can be yours if you order today.
The changeup is greatly improved this year and Crawford is throwing it more frequently. In a very small sample this year, he’s getting almost a 40% whiff rate with the slow ball. He altered the pitch from last season, giving it some additional movement to further separate it from his fastball. Out of his hand, it has almost the same spin, but it has less rise, and slight horizontal movement as well. Not the best pitch in terms of shape, but it works well given his elite fastball movement. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more changeups as the season progresses.
And because I’ve had you on the phone for so long, we’ll throw in a slider for free. He probably doesn’t have a great feel for it based on how often he throws it, but it does a decent job of getting whiffs. An elite slider would be great, but that’s just being greedy; you’re already robbing us blind. Don’t wait, buy today!
Location, Location, Location
If you only read the last 600 words, you’d think Crawford was a highly touted prospect who’s in the running for the Cy Young Award year after year, not someone who was optioned to Worcester for roughly an hour. Unfortunately for Crawford and the Red Sox, there’s more to pitching than movement. Location matters just as much, and that’s where the righty gets into trouble.
Those are all of the pitches Crawford has thrown that have been “barrelled” by hitters this season. Outside of that four-seamer towards the top of the zone, those are some meatballs. He has the arsenal to get batters out regularly. Good stuff can make up for poor command, but he’ll need to limit his mistakes to stick in a major league rotation. Hopefully, with time and experience, Crawford can hit his spots more consistently and limit big innings.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you he’s a future Cy Young Award winner, he isn’t. He does, however, deserve a spot in the rotation and can be a meaningful contributor in some capacity. He also scored a run last week. What an athlete.