By Joe Lemire
August 08, 2011

BOSTON -- Nearly two decades ago Little League coach Raymond Bourn took his team to a Houston-area batting cage and asked the attendant to set up the machine for 85-mile-per-hour fastballs. The attendant replied that such a speed for young players would be a waste of his money.

Bourn, as he recalled in a conversation this spring, insisted on the high-speed pitches and convinced the attendant to let two of his players take cuts as a trial. He sent up his son, Michael, then 10, and his other prized player, an 11-year-old named Carl Crawford.

Crawford hit all 15 pitches he saw. Bourn hit 14. The awed attendant kept the machine set at 85 mph.

Those childhood teammates and precocious hitters are now pivotal players on playoff contenders -- Crawford as the Red Sox' leftfielder and Bourn as the Braves' recently acquired centerfielder -- and they recently resembled those Little Leaguers whose swings couldn't miss: Crawford went 9-for-12 as Boston took two of three from the Yankees and Bourn has gone 8-for-25 since Houston traded him to Atlanta, a stretch that included a three-hit game Saturday as the Braves won two of three from the Mets.

The friends' concurrent weekend success notwithstanding, however, their personal performances have gone in opposite directions in the 2011 season.

Bourn, who hit only .265 in Houston last year, is having a career offensive year as a leadoff hitter, which made him a coveted trade-deadline commodity; Crawford, however, has had a career-worst year since signing a mega-free agent contract this offseason that will pay him $142 million over seven years.

Crawford's big weekend could prove to be the turning point for him. He raised his average to a season-high .260, though his on-base percentage (.294) ranks 73rd among 81 qualified AL hitters. He did have one other three-game, nine-hit outburst in late May, which failed to ignite his season, in part because he strained his hamstring and went on the disabled list in June.

"I don't know what it is, really," Crawford told while sitting at his locker before Saturday's game. "I just try to worry about the day that I'm in, you know? Once the bad stuff happened, I just kind of let it go. That's it, pretty much."

Crawford offered tempered praise after Saturday's four-hit game, which included three hits off Yankees ace lefthander CC Sabathia ("Whenever you can get three hits off a pitcher like Sabathia, you feel good about yourself"), and did not address reporters after Sunday's late-night, extra-inning affair.

But no one offered more voracious support of Crawford than Bourn, who said his pal seemed upbeat when the Red Sox played the Astros in early July.

"I'll say this to the end, they've got a great talent over there," Bourn said referring to Crawford. "That's a great, talented player that they've got. I know he doesn't regret and he shouldn't regret what he did [by signing with Boston]. I think he made a good choice. He joined a great team with a lot of great players. Things with him will eventually work themselves out. He's too talented. He's a natural ballplayer."

" . . . Trust me, he's the best player on that team all the way around, besides Adrian Gonzalez. They're probably 1A and 1B."

After some consideration, Bourn added Red Sox centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury's name to the mix, but gave Crawford the edge because he had maintained his high level of play longer. The point remains that playing in such a star-studded lineup -- that also includes Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz -- has undoubtedly assuaged some of the pressure on Crawford.

The 28-year-old Bourn, meanwhile, is having a career year and has joined a Braves team in need of better leadoff production -- their No. 1 hitters rank 24th in the majors with a .312 OBP. He won a Gold Glove and a NL stolen-base title each of the past two season, even netting his first All-Star honor in 2010, but it's his production at the plate that's really jumped to a new level. Bourn's batting average (.304), on-base percentage (.363) and slugging percentage (.401) are all career highs; his 27 doubles tie a personal best and his 41 steals lead not just the NL, but the majors.

"If I had to go, I had to go," he said. "You don't want to leave your hometown, but if you've got to leave it, then you got leave. [The Braves] are known for how they do things. They have a good organization."

Bourn said he didn't revamp his swing or change his approach but has simply been executing better. Crawford, who was enthused about Bourn's success, offered two theories. First, Bourn switched to use his trainer, Lee Fiocchi, and that maybe those offseason workouts boosted his confidence. And, Crawford said, more likely his friend adjusted to his experiences last year.

"I think he struggled last year and learned from it, actually," Crawford said. "I think that's what really happened. He probably went back and worked at areas he could get better in."

Both also continue to be excellent defenders. The two speedsters have multiple stolen-base titles -- Bourn, as noted, has two while Crawford led the AL in steals four out of five years from 2003 to '07 -- and they remain among the fastest players in the majors (The childhood friends have raced only once, about 17 years ago, with the slightly older Crawford winning with a late kick.)

In the four years that both have been full-time starters, Crawford leads all major league players, regardless of position in Ultimate Zone Rating by saving 52.7 runs, primarily by covering a ton of ground. Bourn, meanwhile, is the highest-ranked centerfielder, having saved 25.9 runs.

A new metric developed by statistician John Dewan and his team at Baseball Info Solutions sheds more dramatic light on Bourn's defensive prowess. Its Batted Ball Timer, which will be covered in Fielding Bible, Vol. III next spring, times how long a batted ball is airborne, giving a new perspective on range. Its findings suggest that nearly every ball in the air less than three seconds to the outfield is a sharply hit line drive and almost always a hit; almost every ball with a hang time of five seconds or more is a lazy fly ball that's inevitably caught.

Outfield defense, therefore, is what happens in that two-second interval between three and five, and as rated by the Timer Plus/Minus System, Bourn saved a staggering 26 runs in 2010 alone. The Plus/Minus tool doesn't have much data on the Braves' young centerfielder, Jordan Schafter, but has never rated Atlanta's other centerfield option, Nate McLouth, very favorably, even declaring him the league's worst fielder in the 2008 season for which he won a Gold Glove.

"I'm just trying to get good jumps on the ball, that's the main thing," Bourn said. "I used to watch the centerfielder here back in the day, Andruw Jones, and he used to get good jumps. To me he was great on going back, but from this to this [gestured wide angle in front of him] I ain't never seen anybody better. He used to cut down all line drives and bloop hits."

Bourn acknowledged that he used to just be a reaction fielder but over the past few years -- with a concerted emphasis this season -- has focused on better positioning, studying the flight of balls in batting practice using the location of the catcher's glove to make educated guesses on where the hitter might reasonably hit the ball.

Crawford has taken some time to adjust to playing in front of Fenway's Green Monster on a daily basis, but remains a terror in tracking down balls anywhere else. Baseball Info Solutions noted that he's above-average on balls of shallow (+5) and medium (+9) depth, but poor (-15) on deep balls.

It is a game of adjustments, after all, and Bourn offered an analogy: moving to another team and city, especially when it's a fan and media culture shock like Tampa Bay to Boston, is akin to dating someone new.

"If you had a new woman, you'd have to try to get comfortable with her," Bourn said. "If you've got someone new, it's going to be a little bit different. It might take some time to get comfortable and open up to her. Once you get comfortable, then everything starts rolling."

When Bourn's analogy was relayed to Crawford, Boston's leftfielder said, "I guess so, but it's been five months now, so I should be used to it by now. That's why I'm not really sure what the problem is now. Like I said, I don't really want to just harp on it, on what's been going bad, because I've been doing a good job at just getting ready for the next day."

". . . I'm just happy to know that I'm playing everyday, man. I'm in the lineup. Things are bad for me right now, but I'm just trying to do anything positive that I can."

This past weekend was such a positive, and though Crawford's overall 2011 statistics won't fully recover, there's little doubting that Crawford the player can recover for the season's stretch run. And, who knows, if the Red Sox make the World Series and the Braves get hot at the right time, Crawford and Bourn might see each other again.

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