Allen Craig's 2014 has not gotten off to a rousing start, hitting just .122/.178/.122 in 45 plate appearances. Those numbers alone are not cause for worry. Not passing the eye test is not necessarily indicative of trouble either. What is troublesome at this point in the season is Craig's seeming inability to hit the ball in the air. Craig has put the ball in play 34 times this year and just twice has he hit a fly ball. If he hits fewer fly balls, but hits more line drives like in 2013, he can still be very successful. However, with just four line drives so far this year, Craig keeps on pounding the ball into the ground, completely sapping him of the power that served him extremely well in 2012 and fairly well in 2013.
This is not the first time Craig has opened the season and struggled. Through 31 plate appearances in 2011, Craig hit .250/.323/.286. Last season, Craig did not hit his first home run until May 4th and through 64 plate appearances in 2013, he was hitting just .213/.250/.295. This is also not the first time Craig has gone through a slump. Using the streak finder available at Baseball Reference, in addition to his current slump, he has on five other occasions gone at least eight games (minimum 20 PA) without a multi-hit game, including an eleven game streak last April. He has six in-season homerless streaks longer than his current eleven game stretch, and he has five extra base hitless streaks of at least eight games in his career.
All players go through periods where they struggle to perform well. Craig seems particularly prone to such struggles early in the season. The only season of his four-year career where he started well was in 2012 when he did not get his first plate appearance until May 1st. For his career, he is only a .219/.264/.290 hitter in April with a walk rate of only 4.6%. Thus far this season, Craig has been even worse than his normal, poor, early season numbers. He will get better, but that does not take away from how poorly he has performed early on this season. Take a look at his spray chart.
Craig has been unable to hit the ball with any authority. Craig's 84.4% ground ball rate is leading the majors as is his ground ball to fly ball ratio of 13.5. While his walk rate of 4.5% is not great, he is close to one walk away from his 7.0% career average. His plate discipline has not been an issue. Here are his Pitch f/x swing percentage numbers from Fangraphs.
Craig's overall swing percentage is the same and he is still swinging at the same amount of pitches inside the zone. He is actually going outside the zone at a slightly smaller rate than in his career. At this point in the season, he is making contact with more pitches than he has in the past. Per Fangraphs:
Allen Craig is still seeing the strike zone fairly well, but given the number of ground balls and the inability to drive any pitches, his timing may be slightly off. He has always been a high contact hitter. Only nine players with a wRC+ over 130 from 2011 through 2014 had a higher contact percentage than Craig's 83.1. His ability to make contact may actually be hurting as it could be leading to more weak hits. Craig's early season slump may be just that, a slump, but the projection systems have begun to take notice. Before the season started, ZiPS projected Craig for a .284/.338/.454 season. The updated rest of the season projection (not including what he has done up to this point) is .274/.328/.434. While those are decent hitting numbers, given Craig's limited defensive capabilities, Craig's season would no doubt be a disappointment.
Allen Craig is slumping. He struggled to generate power at 2012 levels last season, and then missed most of September due to injury. It is fair to question what kind of hitter Craig is at this point in his career. Despite those concerns, Craig has been a player who has produced at a high level throughout his career, just never in April. Craig was very good last year after his likely career year in 2012. He is likely to be a very good offensive player through the end of this season, even if his struggles and lack of power are causing concern again in April.