Who is Aaron Crow?  Who should Aaron Crow be?

It is possible that Crow really is the pitcher who was a top ten pick in 2008, went unsigned, and then was the Royals’ pick in 2009 at number twelve overall.   The guy who had top of the rotation potential and was projected to assume that role sooner rather than later.

It is also possible that Aaron Crow is a back of the bullpen power arm.   The guy we saw in the first half of 2011 who dominated in high leverage situations and earned a berth on the All-Star team.    A future closer with two dynamic plus pitches.

Of course, Aaron Crow could also be the player who was dismal enough in 2010 to be demoted from AA to A ball.  A pitcher who struggled to throw strikes and failed to get enough outs when he did.   It is possible he could be a two pitch starter who cannot master a third pitch.

What we do know about Aaron Crow is that he was an exciting and dominant setup man from April through July for the Royals.  For the season, he struck out more than one batter per inning, gave up less than one hit per inning,  walked a few too many (4.50 batters/9) and uncorked 9 wild pitches.   We also know that Crow nursed an injury for much of the latter half of the season and was used far less frequently, throwing 650 pitches before the All-Star Break and just 357 afterwards.   His average fastball velocity gradually decreased as the season wore:

 

Fastball Velocity - 2011

For the first half of 2011, Crow’s average four seam fastball sizzled in at 95.5 mph and opposing batters whiffed 6.5% of the time.   Post All-Star Break, Aaron’s four seamer was nearly two miles per hour slower and the whiff rate dropped all the way down to just 2.9%.

Despite the decrease in velocity, Crow’s slider still remained a devastating offering.  He threw it a third of the time prior to the break and induced a swing and miss on 25.8% of those pitches.   Despite a slower fastball in the second half (and slower slider for that matter), batters still missed on the slider 25.2% of the time post-break.   That is an encouraging sign if the goal is to have Crow revert back to starting as one would expect he would not throw as hard in that role.  Still having the ability to induce the swing and miss despite throwing a few miles per hour slower is a nice tool to have in the box.

Of course, the issue with Aaron Crow and starting really comes down to mastering a third pitch.   Before the break, only 43 (6.7%) of Crow’s 650 pitches were classified as something other than a fastball or slider.   According to the Pitch F/X data, those were 42 curve balls and 1 changeup.    After the break, 55 (15.4%) of Aaron’s 357 pitches were non-fastballs/sliders and all were classified as curves.

Now, most of the talk surrounding Crow has been the need to develop and master the changeup, so I am wondering if what Pitch F/X is calling a curve might really be more of a changeup?  Or maybe Crow has gone to a curve/slurve pitch in lieu of a changeup?  No matter what the pitch technically is, the ball comes in around 81 mph, breaks from right to left (pitcher’s perspective), down and away from a right handed batter.
Crow 3rd Pitch From Above

Crow 3rd Pitch Movement (Catcher's Perspective)

During the first half of the season, Crow had trouble throwing this pitch for strikes (42.9%) and almost never got a swing and miss (2.4% whiff rate).   In the second half, however, he was much more successful:  a 65% strike rate and 16.4% whiffs.

For whatever reason, despite his slider remaining effective and the curve/change being used more often and more effectively, Crow was not nearly the pitcher in the second half of the 2011 season as he was in the first half.  Now, he had soreness/tightness/fatigue issues and was used less often, not to mention that the league had enough film on him that they had made adjustments as well, so there are a lot of factors in play here.    Truth is, Crow was not awful in August and September, just not dominating and kind of got lost in the ascension of Greg Holland and Louis Coleman as go-to guys in the late innings.  In the scope of young pitchers finding their way in the major leagues, nothing happened to Crow in 2011 that is much different than has happened to hundreds of pitchers in the past.

Of course, and as with many of the young Royals, what happened in 2011 is far less important than what will happen in 2012.  The Royals’ plan for Crow this spring is to ‘give him a long look as a starter’ which makes some sense.  After all, teams seldom spend first round picks on set-up men or even closers for that matter, and blessed with an already deep bullpen, Kansas City can afford to sacrifice some of 2012 to give Crow that long, last look.

Best case, Crow continues to develop that third pitch to compliment his already good fastball and great slider, refines his control and builds his endurance (he did throw 130 innings in 2010) and the Royals find themselves with a number two or three starter ready to go full bore at the start of 2013, if not sooner.

Worst case, Crow flames out as a starter, is ineffective even as the number five guy in Omaha’s rotation and the Royals turn him back into a power reliever.   Sure, you hate to have used a high first round pick on a guy who is going to pitch 60 innings per year that are numbered lower than nine, but Crow could still be a valuable commodity in that role.   While WAR and other metrics really don’t value relievers much, especially non-closers, there is real value to those guys when your team is contending for a title. 

Obviously, Crow becomes a bonafide major league starter and while we can debate whether the Royals’ usage of Aaron in 2011 was wise, I think most of us agree that their plan to give him a chance to be that starter is the correct move this spring.   Barring some monsterous breakout this spring (who among us thought Crow had any chance of breaking camp with KC in 2011?), it would not surprise me to see Crow stay behind in Surprise doing extra instructional work before joining the Omaha rotation sometime in May.  

Whenever he joins the Omaha staff, what happens from there is really anyone’s guess.   I do believe, however, that come Opening Day 2013, Aaron Crow will be a member of the Kansas City Royals’ pitching staff.  I am just not sure whether it will be as starter or a reliever.

xxx