Overshadowed but rarely overmatched: Red Sox OF Allen Craig has made a career of shattering expectations
|08.28.14 at 11:45 am ET|
Jeff Luhnow is leaning against the padded railing at the top of the visiting team’s dugout at Fenway Park, looking on as the Red Sox take batting practice on the field. It’s a Saturday evening in mid-August, and the Astros general manager is in town to watch his team play the third game of a four-game series in Boston.
Within shouting distance is Allen Craig, who is sporting a red jacket with “Red Sox” emblazoned across the chest. Craig quietly works out alone, unnoticed and unbothered. He is testing out the left ankle he tweaked while running over first base in his Red Sox debut Aug. 1. He rounds third base and heads toward home. He begins shuffling down the third base line and back. He’s preparing himself for a short rehab stint in Pawtucket that will begin two days later.
It’s a simple exercise that doesn’t garner attention. But Craig’s obscurity is prominent as Luhnow reflects on arguably one of his greatest discoveries as the Cardinals’ scouting director.
Luhnow recalls a conversation with Mark DeJohn in the summer of 2006. DeJohn then was the manager of the State College Spikes, St Louis’ Class-A short-season affiliate in the New York-Penn League, and had just coached Craig’s first summer as a professional baseball player.
Back then, Craig was a skinny shortstop who had just graduated from the University of California. He was an eighth-round pick who, at 6-foot-2 and still growing, Luhnow said would need to rely on his bat and versatility in the field to make the big leagues.
In the top 10 rounds of the amateur draft, Luhnow said, teams are looking for players who will impact the major league team. But by the eighth round that probability is slim.
Coming off an impressive senior season at Cal, Craig’s first summer in the pros was expectedly unspectacular. He hit .257 for the Spikes with four home runs in 48 games. But DeJohn saw something special in him that at the time took Luhnow by surprise.
“He came into our system without a lot of fanfare as a senior out of college,” Luhnow said. “I remember Mark DeJohn said, ‘This guy is a prospect.’ I said, ‘What makes you think that? He hit [four] home runs.’ He said, ‘This is a hard league and he was tired after a long college season. But this guy is a prospect. Wait until you see what he looks like in the spring.’ ”
Luhnow had first noticed Craig his junior year at Cal, and had him put on the Cardinals’ draft board after scouting him his senior year. But, as DeJohn predicted, he saw the real Craig take form in spring 2007.
Luhnow saw a player who could hit both the inside fastball and outside breaking pitch, and was a nightmare for pitchers with runners in scoring position.
At the same time, Craig was muted and unassuming. “He quietly went about his business and talked with his bat and his glove,” said Mark Budaska, hitting coach of the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate.
Craig was never labeled a potential superstar by scouts. He never provoked excitement amongst fans. But his superb focus and work ethic carried him to success at a stunning pace.
“He made it a lot faster and made a bigger impact than any of us in St. Louis anticipated,” Luhnow said.
Craig breezed through the minor leagues. By the end of 2013, he was a World Series champion, an All-Star and a regular .300 hitter in three-plus seasons with the Cardinals.
For seemingly unknown reasons, 2014 has been different for Craig. Now with the Red Sox, he is in the midst of his worst major league season, sporting career lows in average (.231) and power numbers (eight home runs, 19 doubles). With such underwhelming numbers as well as injury concerns, questions have been raised about whether or not the Red Sox have received damaged goods.
However, it’s not the first time the 30-year-old has been underestimated, and certainly not the first time he’s been asked to shatter expectations.
* * *
Craig has his back toward his locker in the Red Sox clubhouse. He’s stiff, as if he’s been approached by the middle school bully.
He’s visibly uncomfortable talking about himself. But when asked to reflect on his baseball beginnings, he can’t help but crack a shy smile.
His father, Ron Craig, began tossing baseballs to Allen when he was about 3 or 4 years old in their Southern California neighborhood. And once he was old enough to swing a bat, Craig immediately was signed up for tee-ball.
His passion for the game was instant. There was nothing he enjoyed more than hitting.
“I loved it. I always loved playing the game and hitting, especially, and just wanted to get better at that part of the game,” he said. “It was a fun thing growing up just to play Little League with my friends, playing travel ball and just the whole deal.”
Craig always was appreciative of the opportunities baseball afforded him, even when he was young. At about 14, he went to Venezuela with his father to represent the United States in the Pan American Games. He played against some of the best young talent in the world in front of large crowds.
Little did he know then that such events were only the beginning of a baseball career loaded with full stadiums and monumental pressure.
“Looking back, experiences like that helped prepare me for where I am today,” Craig said. “It’s funny because you don’t think about it at the time. But looking back it’s pretty cool.”
It was in high school that Craig built his reputation as not just a hard worker, but perhaps the most driven player David Barret, his coach at Chaparral High School in Temecula, California, had ever seen.
Barret would drive by the field late on a given weekend night, and almost every time he’d spot Craig fielding ground balls from his father and taking batting practice.
If Craig felt as if he practiced poorly or wasn’t prepared for the next day’s game, Barret said, he’d stay on the field until he believed he was ready.
“He knew at a young age what it took to be successful,” Barret said. “That’s unusual for a kid to have a goal, have an expectation and a level of play that he’s used to, and knows what it takes to get himself ready for that next game to perform at the highest level possible consistently.”
Craig already was hitting the ball to both fields regularly while playing against what Barret called a “hotbed of baseball talent” in the Southwestern League, which was ranked by MaxPreps.com as the No. 1 high school baseball league in the country.
Barret said Craig reminded him of a right-handed version of Jason Giambi — a player Barret coached against when the former Yankees slugger was in high school – for his smooth stroke and his ability to spread the ball all over the field.
But most importantly, Barret said both players were “tough as nails in the mental toughness category.”
That mental toughness was what made Craig Temecula’s Mr. Clutch.
It was rare for Barret to call up underclassmen to the varsity squad, but Craig made it in the middle of his freshman season and thrived.
Barret highlighted multiple clutch performances in postseason games, including a two-homer effort in the state quarterfinal Craig’s sophomore year and a three-run blast in the first inning of the state championship game his senior year, as well as multiple walkoff home runs. According to Barett, Craig always was Chaparral’s go-to player.
“What set him apart in all the years that I coached, that if it came down to the last inning with the game on the line, the person I would choose would be Allen Craig,” Barret said. “That coolness and calmness that he has at the plate that you hope all the players would have. But it’s really tough to teach, and Allen has that. That’s what I felt he had above everyone else.”
Craig hit .585 with eight home runs as a senior to earn Southwestern League MVP honors. Up next was a four-year stop in Berkeley.
But before he began his college career, Craig had an unforgettable summer ahead of him.
* * *
Looking at the numbers 12 years later, Edgar Soto still couldn’t believe it.
Now the athletic director at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona, Soto coached the United States 18U national team to a bronze medal in the IBAF World Junior Championship in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in the summer of 2002.
It was a U.S. team loaded with big personalities and standout talent. Seven of the 18 players on that team were future first-round draft picks, six of whom came right out of high school a year later.
There was Delmon Young, the boisterous outfielder who launched a tournament-record nine home runs that summer and led the team with a .513 average in eight games. There was Lastings Milledge, the speedster who could hit for power and also was a wizard with his glove. There was Chad Billingsley, the hard-throwing right-hander who went 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in three appearances. There were other future major league cynosures such as Ian Stewart, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ian Kennedy as well.
Then there was Craig, the soft-spoken shortstop destined for college with likely another four years before he’d get his shot at the big leagues. He didn’t hit 400-foot home runs or frighten opponents on the basepaths with blazing speed, but he hit .485 – good for second on the team – and was third on the team with 10 RBIs.
His demeanor was so modest, his approach so workmanlike and his efforts so subtle that his consistently exceptional production sometimes could go unnoticed.
“You know what was funny was, with him, at the end of the day you’d say, ‘Hey look, Allen Craig had three hits today,’ or, ‘Allen Craig did this,’ ” Soto said. “The numbers were always there, and that’s how he made the team. You might’ve not seen him because it wasn’t a Delmon Young hit where he hit it to the moon or over a scoreboard, but he got his hits.
“You couldn’t overlook him because when it comes down to it you’d get to his name and say, ‘You know what, that guy had a great game. He did this, he did that.’ You were able to see it. The ones that would stand out would be, ‘Hey, did you see Delmon Young‘s home run over the scoreboard?’ ”
Added Soto: “He was kind of overshadowed by some of the teammates that he had, but man, he was solid, he was consistent.”
Soto said Craig reminded him of Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy, whom he coached in 2000, because both players “never really brought too much attention to themselves. Just humble guys that played hard and that you felt like you can count on all the time.”
Craig, however, said he never felt overshadowed by his teammates. In fact, he called that summer one of his “greatest baseball memories.” That experience taught him the blue-collar approach that he’s employed throughout most of his career.
“My main goal was to focus on the level I was at,” he said. “Not getting too far ahead of myself, just trying to get good at high school baseball, get good in college and then when I got to the pros.”
Soto said he never doubted Craig’s potential. Ken Jacome, the pitching coach on that USA squad, called Craig a “no-brainer big leaguer.”
Both coaches admitted they couldn’t have predicted just how successful he would be. However, neither was surprised by how he got to that point.
“If you look back at that team, he wasn’t one of our high-profile guys,” said Jacome, who’s now an assistant coach at the University of New Mexico. “Allen was going to be a college guy. He was going to go to school, he was going to go play and get a degree and do all that stuff, so I think he was a little overlooked as far as just being that high-profile top prospect. He was that guy that was going to outwork everybody and put his time in in college.”
* * *
David Esquer prides himself in molding an unfinished product into a big league-caliber talent. The Cal coach searches for the hardest-working players, the ones most determined and most capable of seismic improvement.
Craig perfectly fit that billing.
“I knew that he was a good player with the ability to get better,” Esquer said.
Craig’s first two seasons at Cal were unremarkable, but the progress was there. He hit .285 both his freshman and sophomore seasons, upping his power numbers with more at-bats as a second-year player.
The turning point for Craig came midway through his junior year. He hit .304 with 35 RBIs and 40 runs scored in 57 games as a middle-of-the-order-presence in a Pac-10 lineup.
At that point, Esquer said, Craig was talented enough to be drafted into the major leagues. However, neither he nor Craig felt it was smart to make that jump.
“I remember that what he was hearing from some clubs was not going to be good enough for him,” Esquer said. “He made a very mature decision that it would be in his best interest to come back for his senior year.”
Said Craig: “I started off slow my junior year, finished off strong and really had a chance to get drafted, maybe not. But I knew that school was really important to me and it got me closer to graduating. My senior year was important and it just didn’t work out after my junior year. I knew I wanted to have an even better senior year.”
Craig did exactly what he set out to do. He led the team in batting average (.344), slugging percentage (.561), doubles (15) and home runs (11) — the kind of numbers that drew interest from scouts such as Luhnow and the Cardinals.
“You can never underestimate the ability of driving in runs, and that’s what he can do,” Esquer said. “He could hit the breaking ball and he could use the whole field.”
* * *
Luhnow, then-general manager Walt Jocketty and the rest of the Cardinals front office staff had a select group of college seniors on their radar entering the 2006 draft. But those players weren’t the hot commodities. That was reserved for the high school phenoms.
However, drafting an 18-year-old with the expectation that he’ll be an impact big league player in three or four years is a gamble. In 2014, more teams are realizing the value of college players, Luhnow said, because “you let the schools do the weeding-out process on your behalf.” That, in turn, raises the likelihood the college player will succeed.
The Cardinals projected Craig as a fifth-round pick. Other clubs didn’t feel the same way, though, and St. Louis was able to wait until the eighth round to select him as the first college senior the team picked that year.
“By the eighth round we had enough people saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to lose this guy if we don’t take him right now,’ ” Luhnow said. “We made the right decision.”
* * *
Craig was penciled in to return to Low-A ball in 2007 after a pedestrian showing at State College the previous summer.
But, as DeJohn had anticipated, Craig blew the Cardinals staff away with his bat that spring and wound up on the High-A Palm Beach Cardinals roster.
Playing in what Luhnow called a “very pitcher-friendly league” and ballpark, Craig hit .312 with 21 home runs and 77 RBIs. “He just started mashing,” Luhnow said. “We knew at that point we had something special.”
Craig had similar success the next year for the organization’s Double-A team in Springfield, Missouri, but he never drew the kind of excitement players like Colby Rasmus, Jon Jay or Shelby Miller did.
The players who had fans raving, Luhnow said, were the ones with exceptional scouting tools, the ones with speed, the ones who threw hard and the ones with hulking power.
“Those are the guys that get Baseball America excited,” Luhnow said. “I don’t think Craig was ever a top-100 prospect, yet his major league career is probably going to be better than 95 of those 100 guys on the list when he was not on it.
“It’s really an under-the-radar, just keeping performing and you’ll get the chance.”
The minor leagues weren’t as easy as Craig made them look, however. In fact, he said those years were the most mentally challenging of his baseball life.
Craig was producing at an incredible level. But the goal wasn’t to be a great minor league player. He wanted to excel in the big leagues, where he could travel on charter flights instead of buses and play in front of packed stadiums with passionate fans.
No matter how close Craig got to that goal, it never seemed close enough.
“Sometimes things don’t happen in the timetable that you’d like them to,” he said. “For me it taught me a lesson to be patient and focus on what I’m doing, where I’m at and things will happen in time. But it was challenging. Getting through the minor leagues is tough.”
The most difficult part came in Craig’s first season at Triple-A Memphis in 2009. He hit .268 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs through the first three months of the season. He was abysmal in May, hitting .252/.293/.400 with 30 strikeouts.
The problem was the direction with Craig’s stride, Budaska said. He stepped across his body too much during his swing and had troubling handling inside pitches.
The two spent extra time working on his flaws. Budaska adjusted Craig’s approach and the results were evident. Craig clubbed 10 home runs with an .829 slugging percentage in July and hit .386 over the last 57 games of the season.
Craig credited Budaska for such a drastic turnaround. The teacher lauded his student’s own desire to make the extra effort.
“He was always open-minded and was a good listener,” Budaska said. “He was intelligent enough — he’s a real intelligent player — to listen for information about individuals that had some experience in the game and took a piece of this and a piece of that and applied it and that worked out for him.
“Everything doesn’t work for everybody, so you have to be able to take in information, look at the adjustments, process it and try it to see if it’s going to be right for you and go from there. He was really good at that.”
In 2010, Craig had finally achieved his goal of making the big leagues. He spent much of the year bouncing between Memphis and St. Louis, giving Cardinals fans glimpses of what he could be.
Up to that point, Craig had been overshadowed by star talent on countless occasions.
After the magic he performed in the 2011 World Series, though, he wouldn’t be overlooked in St. Louis again.
* * *
Barret deemed Craig clutch in high school. Soto praised his blue-collar attitude with Team USA. Esquer referred to him as deadly with runners in scoring position.
Cardinals fans got to see those attributes come together over the next three seasons. The world got its first look at it in the 2011 postseason.
At 27 years old, Craig was playing in his first World Series. He didn’t start either of the first two games against Texas, but he capitalized in the way he does best. Just days after ripping a two-run pinch-hit single in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series against Milwaukee, Craig did his best Kirk Gibson impression by turning on a 98 mph Alexi Ogando fastball for the go-ahead pinch-hit single in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the Fall Classic.
Craig did it again in another pinch-hit situation in Game 2, driving a 96 mph heater from Ogando to right field to break a scoreless tie.
Craig joined Amos Otis and Duke Snider — whose grandson, Brandon Snider, played with Craig at Chaparral — as the only players to drive in go-ahead runs in the sixth inning or later in consecutive World Series games.
“I met him a couple of times,” Craig said of the elder Snider at the time. ‘”To read that was special to me. I know it’s not the all-time home run record or anything like that, but it’s special to me to be in the same sentence as Duke. That was pretty cool.”
Craig then hit home runs in Games 3, 6 and the decisive Game 7 to help the Cardinals win the World Series. He didn’t just energize all of St. Louis, he was a hero back home, too, where Chaparral would retire his high school jersey number months later.
“All of Temecula and Chaparral was thrilled to see him get those pinch hits in the World Series,” Barret said.
It was the type of performance that made those who first saw his big league potential proud as well.
“When you get a guy that can help you win a World Series like he did in 2011, that’s all the return you ever want,” Luhnow said. “To think that I played a part in selecting him and he played a part in delivering that championship in St. Louis, that’s all the return I ever needed.”
Craig continued that kind of production over the next two seasons. Just as in 2011, he was at his best in the most important moments. He hit .407 with runners in scoring position and .483 with the bases loaded from 2011-13. He was an All-Star selection in 2013.
After missing most of September and October last season with a Lisfranc injury, Craig was back in time for the World Series against the Red Sox. Although he is most remembered in Boston for his role as the baserunner in the obstruction call that ended Game 3 at Busch Stadium, he posted a team-high .375 batting average over the course of the series with an .849 OPS.
Craig finally appeared to be nearing his peak.
* * *
It’s Aug. 21 and Craig’s name appears on the lineup sheet to the right of the entrance to the Red Sox clubhouse for the first time since his debut. Once the media is allowed in, Craig is approached one by one by reporters seeking comment on his health and his return to the lineup.
On this day, he won’t be ignored.
For all the glory that came with Craig’s last three seasons, 2014 has bordered on disastrous. Poor numbers, falling victim to the trade deadline, health concerns and a logjam in the Red Sox outfield has left Craig with plenty of uncertainty going forward.
However, Craig said he doesn’t concern himself with the future. Whether it’s learning new positions after college — he’s primarily a right fielder for the Red Sox — or revamping his swing, Craig has had a knack for making the right adjustments and thriving.
His baseball journey has been unconventional, and frankly a little hectic. But in that time he’s adopted the kind of values — such as his work ethic, patience and quiet confidence — that make a great athlete.
It’s enough where he believes he can once again catch people by surprise.
“I guess you could say that I was a little bit of an underdog, but I’ve always been confident in my abilities and that’s not something that’s ever left me,” he said. “I never looked at things like that, like I was an underdog. I just tried to focus on what I needed to do, play the game and get better, and that’s that.
“This year has been a little bit difficult, but I understand baseball is a tough game and things don’t always go the way you want them to and sometimes you need to learn from experiences, and the first half of this year was definitely a learning experience. I feel like I’m better for it. I’ve been going through a little bit of a struggle, but I feel good now.”
Whether his own confidence is convincing or not, he undoubtedly has the backing of those who helped shape him as a player.
“The game of baseball is hard and you’re always constantly making adjustments, and he made those adjustments while he was here. It’s just the nature of the game of baseball,” Esquer said. “Seeing how he started and went through his career here and ended up with his best season, he was able to make those adjustments. So I have no doubt he can make those adjustments.”
Said Soto: “Whether good or bad, he always seemed to have short-term memory. He was always on to the next at-bat, the next play, so I think that’s helped him along the way. I’ve never seen him overreact on anything. He was always kind of an even-keeled person.”
Added Budaska: “I think he’s going to continue to have a long and successful career, and this happens to be over in Boston now.”
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