Strauss: Craig emerges as 'elite' hitter

2013-02-19T12:15:00Z 2013-05-30T17:03:53Z Strauss: Craig emerges as 'elite' hitterBy JOE STRAUSS

JUPITER, Fla. • Allen Craig is a rare player. He brushes up against unique but settles for remarkable.

Consider the following from last season:

Craig batted .306, sixth among the 60 National League players who made at least the 502 plate appearances needed to qualify for the batting title.

Combine Craig’s slugging percentage and on-base percentage and you get an .876 figure, ninth in the league. Craig produced 92 RBIs, tied for 15th. That is commendable under ordinary circumstances. But consider that because of offseason knee surgery Craig didn’t take his first at-bat last season until May 1, and the feat grows more impressive.

Craig finished 2012 with 469 at-bats. Of the league’s top 16 RBI producers, Craig was one of just four who took fewer than 550 at-bats. He was the only one among the club with fewer than 530 at-bats.

Craig took the second-fewest at-bats among 29 National League hitters who amassed more than 80 RBIs. Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton was the only man who got there in fewer at-bats. Stanton, a 23-year-old, 6-foot-5 Hercules, also ranked second in the NL with 37 home runs.

If the numbers are disorienting, Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday cuts through the statistical haze to describe his teammate.

“To me, Allen is an elite hitter,” said Holliday, a former runner-up as National League most valuable player and accomplished enough that the Cardinals are paying him $120 million over seven years.

Craig didn’t play a game last April yet hit 22 home runs and finished 19th in MVP balloting. He played second base as a youth, shortstop in college and tried third base in the Cardinals’ minor-league system before throwing issues moved him to corner outfield. He inherited first base last season when Lance Berkman collapsed over a damaged right knee. Long before Craig reached St. Louis some within the organization described his best position as “bat.” Craig doesn’t appreciate the description because he wants to be a complete player.

“I’ve never seen that as a problem. I’ve always seen it as a positive to be able to move around a little bit,” Craig insisted after completing Monday’s work behind Roger Dean Stadium. “It’s easy for people to write or talk about how I play a lot of positions and that means they can’t find a spot for me. I’ve always thought of it as a positive, to be honest. If I can play a position maybe someone else can get in the lineup. I’ve always looked to be the best I can be wherever the manager or coach wants me to play.”

If he has been a man for all positions, he is also blessed with one very effective, punishing swing.

“My standard is knowing you’re going to be a consistent force in the lineup,” Craig said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to watch Albert, Matt, Lance and now Carlos. I consider all those guys elite hitters. If I could reach that level someday that would be an achievement.”

Craig’s reference is to Albert Pujols, Holliday, Berkman and Carlos Beltran, Cardinals past and present with 28 combined All-Star Game appearances. Craig became Pujols’ de facto heir at first base last season and eventually migrated to the lineup’s cleanup spot. This happened as Craig for the first time played more than 100 games in a major-league season. He still has yet to reach 500 at-bats during the same.

Craig’s percentages and ratios are a tease. Give him six months healthy and the math becomes intoxicating. Craig returned last May 1 having not faced major-league pitching for six months. He contributed five home runs in his first 10 games, had an RBI in 11 of his first 13 games and batted .404 in his first 14 games.

“He doesn’t give away at-bats,” said Holliday. “He hits to the alleys. He knows himself well. Does he hit tape-measure home runs? Probably not. But if you watch him take at-bats for five or 10 straight days you’ll see him as an elite-level hitter.”

Such words represent high praise for any player.

With Craig, they feed an improbable story.

The Cardinals drafted Craig with the last pick of the eighth round in 2006. The Cardinals chose him as the 256th overall pick after his senior season … in college. One evaluator described him as beefy during his final year at Cal-Berkeley.

Craig reached the major leagues at 25 and turned 26 during his rookie season. Should Craig achieve his first 500 at-bat season this year, he will celebrate as a 29-year-old.

Craig once hit with hands high but lowered them to better handle high-velocity stuff. His swing blankets the plate, enabling him to drive pitches to all fields. Older players remark about an approach that never varies and maturity beyond his experience level.

If only …

Maybe this will be the year injuries release their grip on Craig. A groin strain disabled him in April 2011 before a slide on the Minute Maid Park warning track that June fractured his right knee. Craig returned to finish the season and mash three World Series home runs with a fissure that required insertion of two screws during November surgery. The screws remain as a reminder of what Craig calls “an unlucky injury.”

“I was trying to make a play as a young guy on the team and banged my knee against the wall,” he recalled. “It took a little bit of time to get my body back.”

A .300 hitter in pieces of three major-league seasons, Craig was able to commit this winter to conditioning rather than rehab. He may finally trust his body as he is in his ability.

“I’ve always tried to be someone who hits for average, whether that means a guy who hits .300 with 20 (home runs), whatever. If that means it’s elite, that’s what it means. I’m not going to judge myself on that. I’m just going to go out and play.”

That would be nice. Yes, very nice.

Roger Hensley is the assistant managing editor/sports at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He can be followed on Twitter @stlhensley

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