August 24, 2010

Back on board the Crain train

Back in early June, here is what I wrote in response to a Twitter mailbag question that asked, "Why does Ron Gardenhire stick with miserable Jesse Crain?":

Amusingly, that was sent in before Jesse Crain blew the lead Saturday.

Coming into Saturday's game he actually had a 3.32 ERA and 14-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 19 innings since back-to-back ugly outings in April, but that's the problem with Crain (and why people call him things like "miserable"). He tends to be awful, then pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role, and then immediately be awful again. Crain also has a career xFIP of 4.55, including 4.34 this year, so he just isn't very good.

Since then Crain has thrown 28 innings with a 0.32 ERA and .136 opponents' batting average, which definitely qualifies as "pitch well for long enough to reclaim a prominent late-inning role." In fact, for the past month Crain's average appearance has been in higher-leverage situations than every reliever in the bullpen except closer Matt Capps. He's been unhittable for 10 weeks and Gardenhire is relying on him more and more as the primary setup man.

As for whether Crain will fall back into his aforementioned pattern and "immediately be awful again" following this success ... who knows. He's dominated before only to falter when trusted too much and while my statement that "he just isn't very good" looks awfully silly right now an amazing 28-inning run still leaves his xFIP at 4.07 this year and 4.49 for his career. However, his current stretch of success actually goes back much further than mid-June.

Crain struggled so much at the beginning of last year that the Twins demoted him to Triple-A in mid-June, but since returning in late July he's thrown 87.1 innings with a 2.78 ERA, 77-to-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .215 opponents' batting average, and just three homers allowed. That qualifies as extended dominance, and while I probably should know better by now I'm fully on board the "use Crain in the biggest spots" bandwagon.

As for how Crain is having this success, the answer is actually pretty simple. Despite a mid-90s fastball Crain's most effective pitch has always been his slider. Prior to this year he threw the slider 25 percent of the time while using his fastball 65 percent of the time. This season he's thrown the slider 46 percent of the time while using his fastball 43 percent of the time. So he's gone from throwing nearly three fastballs for every slider to using more sliders than fastballs.

And his slider, which has always been very, very good, has been downright extraordinary this season. According to Fan Graphs his slider has been worth 4.20 runs above average per 100 offerings, which makes it MLB's ninth-most effective pitch. His slider has been so untouchable and he's thrown it so often that it masks the fact that Crain's fastball has been far worse than usual at -2.20 runs per 100 offerings. His fastball has been terrible and he's still dominating.

That's one hell of a slider.

12 Comments »

  1. Crain is finally pitching good now. Do the Twins not go after Randy Flores to replace Mahay? Not sure why he cleared waivers. He has a 2.96 ERA with 5.9 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9 in 27.1 innings for the Rockies. You gotta think about it $150,000 left for this season.

    Comment by darin617 — August 23, 2010 @ 10:44 pm

  2. 5.9 k/9 and 4.3 bb/9 are terrible peripherals. Really bad.

    Comment by Ted k — August 24, 2010 @ 12:55 am

  3. I read/heard some interview with Crain where he said his slider is really unpredictable. Sometimes it breaks like a cutter and other times it looks like a traditional slider. Anyone else know what I’m talking about?

    Comment by MNAggie — August 24, 2010 @ 10:41 am

  4. From “Crainwreck” to “FreightCrain” :)

    Comment by Ryan — August 24, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  5. I used to yell at the TV when Crain came in. Crain has been very good for long enough that I am now relieved when Gardy goes to Crain instead of some of the other options. If the answer to Crain’s earlier problems was so simple, why didn’t it get fixed immediately?

    Off the topic, is there anything less fun than watching your team get (almost) no hit? That was brutal.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — August 24, 2010 @ 11:34 am

  6. Crain always had a very live arm, but he needed a “new” pitch to throw instead of his fastball, and now he has found it.

    Keep in mind that Jesse has evolved a lot over the past couple years. He used to start from a wind up, now he throws exclusively from the set. He used to throw mostly heaters, now he throws mostly breaking pitches.

    But one pitch has really turned things around for Crain. He calls it a cutter, Uncle Bert calls it a slider. Whatever. It’s Crain’s best pitch by far, and he throws it whenever he needs to, which is a lot. Apparently out of his hand it looks just like his fastball, so hitters are out in front of it, but then it arrives slower, bending down and left at least a foot. Batters have been flailing at that cutter/slider as lamely as they flail at Liriano’s slider.

    But wait, there’s more!

    Because Crain has been throwing mostly his cutter and other breaking pitches, that has opened up some choice opportunities for…his heater! Not only that, but Crain’s fastball now appears to be a two-seamer (I’ve seen it bend to the right), and he keeps it low in the zone.

    What this all amounts to is a vastly more effective pitcher, one that looks like he could be…a really good closer. But for the moment, I will settle for one of the best set-up men in MLB. Will Jesse Crain regress? No, not unless he forgets the pitches that are making him successful. I don’t expect him to un-learn what is making him worth millions more dollars than before.

    The New Jesse Crain is here to stay. Enjoy him while the Twins are still able to afford his services.

    Comment by jimbo92107 — August 24, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

  7. In an interview earlier this summer, Crain attributed his better pitching to advice that he received from Rauch. Apparently Rauch told him that he is rushing towards the mound and to maybe slow his approach. He made the adjustment and his hot streak started. Could just be a coincidence, but just repeating what Jesse himself said.

    Comment by Timberhill — August 24, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  8. I have always maintained that Crain pitches horribly in April and May (all Twins fans start hating him). He pitches above average the rest of the year which is why he is back again the following Spring. No one remembers his overall decent season because he disappoints us so early every year. Look at his monthly splits over his career and his pattern this year is nothing new.

    ERA by month:
    April 5.69
    May 4.45
    June 2.05
    July 3.98
    August 2.96
    Sept 1.71

    And he pitches more innings in August & Sept than any other month.

    Comment by Ryan — August 24, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

  9. Funny how ever since Rauch gave Crain that tip, Crain has dominated while Rauch has lost it. I mean, it’s like Costanza-doing-the-opposite funny.

    Comment by Neil — August 24, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

  10. The pf/x on Crain are interesting. The other pitch that has greatly improved is his change up. He is throwing that for strikes up and down in the zone, making the slider and fastball so much more effective. Also, he is throwing his two-seamer with a little off it all over the zone. A great combination. Now if Liriano could improve his change up (get one) and mix up speeds, he’d also improve.

    Comment by brian — August 24, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

  11. The ultimate sign of confidence for a pitcher is to strike out a batter with three change-ups in a row. I wonder if Crain’s change-up is that good…

    Comment by jimbo92107 — August 26, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  12. I was at the Twins -Rangers game last night in the fourth row right behind home plate. Liriano’s slider was coming in at 86-87 mph with nice movement, and while Crain’s was clocking in at 84-85, the downward movement was extreme. Can’t recall whom he fanned, but the guy wasn’t even close, and Crain walked off like he knew he had some untouchable stuff. Not surprised that Crain’s got one of the league’s best pitches after seeing it up close, despite the small sample size, of course.

    Comment by ece — August 27, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

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