John Tomase

Kutter Crawford has come out of nowhere to become MLB's best pitcher

The unheralded Red Sox right-hander leads the majors in ERA and WAR.

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The first time Kutter Crawford really landed on anyone's radar was Opening Day in 2022. Yeah, he had made a blink-and-you-missed-it spot start in September of 2021 – Franmil Reyes took him deep and the Indians lit him up – but here he was breaking camp with the big club, and suddenly the Red Sox needed him in Yankee Stadium with nowhere to hide.

They had just failed to score in the top of the 10th, and the ghost runner left Crawford little margin for error. It was a tough spot for a rookie with exactly two big-league innings under his belt, and former MVP Josh Donaldson made him pay, grounding a seeing-eye single up the middle to plate the winning run.

Crawford's career had barely started, and he was already walking off the field a loser.

We've seen similar setbacks at a similar stage – Cla Meredith memorably served up a grand slam to Seattle's Richie Sexson in his big-league debut 19 years ago – and you never know how a young hurler will react. Do they bounce back, or do they never quite get over the shell shock?

In Meredith's case, the Red Sox quickly traded him to the Padres in the ill-fated deal that repatriated catcher Doug Mirabelli to handle Tim Wakefield's knuckleball.

But Crawford endured.

He had his moments in 2022, including an eight-start stretch against the Yankees, Rays, Jays, and Astros when he posted a 3.20 ERA. That season ended with a shoulder impingement. He didn't settle into the rotation last year until June, but his 4.04 ERA led the starting staff.

He had hinted all along at the ability to be more than a swingman, and now comes his breakout. Through five starts, Crawford doesn't just boast the lowest ERA of any starter in baseball (0.66), he also leads the American League in WAR at 1.7. That's higher than Yankees superstar Juan Soto, it's higher than Royals phenom Bobby Witt, and it's higher than former MVPs Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, and Aaron Judge, too.

He's doing it the old-fashioned way, with a multi-pitch mix that includes a mediocre fastball by today's high-octane standards. Unlike the rest of the rotation, which isn't walking anyone – the previously erratic Tanner Houck has yielded just two free passes all season – Crawford will put some guys on base because his ball moves so much, but no one yields weaker contact.

He has allowed only two extra-base hits all year, and his last home run came in September. Whereas he once lived exclusively fastball/cutter, he now features a sweeper, splitter, and occasional knuckle-curve. His short-arm delivery, which evokes former Red Sox closer Keith Foulke, is tough for hitters to pick up, making his 93 mph fastball look much harder.

"I always trusted him since Day 1 when I saw him," Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters, including Ian Browne of "I knew his stuff was really good. When he made the team [two] years ago, we made him a reliever.

"We made him a two-pitch pitcher -- that was wrong from our end. This guy is a starter at the big league level. He's got weapons. We're going to let him pitch. He's learning throughout the process, and we're very proud of him."

Not bad for a 16th-round pick out of Florida Gulf Coast University by Dave Dombrowski in 2017. Crawford developed during the Chaim Bloom regime and has now taken the next step under pitching coach Andrew Bailey, who has upped his sweeper usage and altered his plan of attack with exceptional results.

Five starts do not an All-Star make, but Crawford has already shown the Red Sox that he would not let the experience of trudging off the mound in New York two years ago define him.

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