After three seasons in which he posted wins above replacement totals of 2.4, 2.8, and 2.6 while reaching a wRC+ of 154, 138, and 135, Allen Craig is experiencing an offensive season which could conservatively be described as a struggle. Whether it is his, as of the posting of this, .297 on-base percentage, his 87 wRC+, or his 0.1 WAR, Allen Craig has become the subject of intense criticism among St. Louis Cardinals fans. As such, many are more than willing to see Allen Craig leave St. Louis, either as part of a megadeal for David Price or as part of a much more subtle trade with the Boston Red Sox for veteran starter Jake Peavy.
And this is Allen Craig, a guy who was (ludicrously, but still) cited as an MVP candidate last year. This is a guy whose .454 batting average with runners in scoring position and .378 batting average with runners on base in 2013 earned him adoration from Cardinals fans. And after 364 plate appearances in 2014, there are people who want to trade him for a pitcher who currently holds a 4.64 ERA, a 4.81 FIP, a 4.47 xFIP, a 4.42 SIERA, and a $14.5 million per year salary.
There are already plenty of posts out there, and I’m sure there are many more to be written, about whether or not trading Allen Craig and/or trading for Jake Peavy is a good idea, but that’s not what I find the most fascinating here in regards to Craig. What I find fascinating is how quickly fan opinion changes on even the most beloved of players.
On October 27, 2011, David Freese became the greatest sports hero of my lifetime in a city where a former grocery store stock boy went from unknown backup quarterback to NFL and Super Bowl MVP within a year. His season-saving two-strike triple in the 9th inning and his game-winning walk-off home run in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the World Series, combined with his local roots (you may have heard through the grapevine that Freese went to Lafayette High School in the St. Louis suburb of Wildwood), made him an infallible hero. The next year, he was a National League All-Star. The next year, he was a subject of intense criticism. The next year, he was on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
For a period of time (reasonable people could dispute how long of a period of time this was, but certainly this period of time did exist to some degree), it seemed as though David Freese was the biggest star in the area. I only went to one 2012 St. Louis Cardinals game, in May, and fans applauded Matt Holliday. Fans cheered for Yadier Molina. But fans roared for David Freese. To compare the reactions of fans towards Holliday or Molina to the reactions towards Freese would be like comparing fans of Coldplay to fans of the Grateful Dead. If Coldplay comes to town, fans will rearrange their social calendars for a night to see them. But fans aren’t selling their homes and quitting their jobs to follow Coldplay on tour—they do for the Dead. This was the kind of love Freese got—he was an iconic figure that we were all going to tell our children about.
David Freese was gone from St. Louis by the end of 2013, and most fans weren’t too upset about that. And the only thing Freese did to earn apathy from Cardinals fans was to not play as well as he had played previously.
Baseball fans, but Cardinals fans in particular, give themselves way too much credit for their own sense of loyalty in their fandom. But for the most part, with most players, baseball fans have a rigidly capitalist view—a baseball player is a commodity for use for the sake of winning baseball games. He is nothing more and nothing less—he is loved while he is productive but as soon as he cannot provide for you, it’s over.
And now, it’s Allen Craig’s turn.
Again, I am not going to call this standard unfair, because it’s a standard that we seem to apply across the board. The triumvirate of Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, and Jim Edmonds (ranked in order of my personal affection for the three) were the lifeblood of the early-to-mid 2000s Cardinals that amassed unprecedented levels of annual success. None of the three rode out the remainder of their careers in St. Louis and, for the most part, I stopped caring what they did, beyond very passive and mostly vacuous well wishes. And my guess is that most of you did too, with the possible exception of Albert’s recent run towards 500 career home runs.
Essentially, fans take on the personalities of owners, which is fine because owners more or less have the same incentives as fans. Owners have a profit motive that fans do not, but a quick glance at any Forbes list on franchise value will show that the most financially viable franchises are generally the ones that have the most on-field success. And just as owners can be ruthless and unforgiving and singularly focused on the bottom line, fans can concentrate solely on contemporaneous production. And that is potentially the death knell of the Allen Craig era of good feelings in St. Louis.
It’s amazing what a few hits can do for your popularity.