Jesse Crain is a bit of an enigma. He’s been frustratingly inconsistent since returning from shoulder surgery in 2008: brilliant in one appearance, then essentially throwing batting practice in the next. Disastrous appearances like the on April 18 against Kansas City, in which he surrendered a three-run homer to Alberto Callaspo, have earned him the unfortunate-but-deserved “Crain Wreck” nickname. But appearances like the one against the Angels on April 8th, in which he struck out all three batters he faced, tease us with the hope that Crain might be a decent reliever someday. So which one is the real Jesse Crain? Let’s examine the data:
Before having shoulder surgery in 2007, Jesse Crain was a lad who killed many a worm. This is typically a good thing, because pitchers who induce a lot of ground balls don’t usually give up a lot of home runs. Strangely, Crain has actually seen his HR/FB rate decrease as he’s become more of a flyball pitcher. That seems counter-intuitive, but it’s probably because he’s relying his fastball a little less and mixing in his secondary stuff a lot more. Crain’s four-seamer has always been his worst pitch. Sure he throws it at 94.5 mph, but it’s also very, very straight. I hate to compare him to Kyle Farnsworth, but the two are living proof that velocity isn’t everything: hitters aren’t going to fan on a 95 mph heater when it’s left out over the plate. With a whiff rate of only 2.4% (compared to 14.9% for his slider and 11.1% for his curveball), he just isn’t blowing his fastball by anybody. Luckily for Crain, relievers can get by without a decent fastball as long as they have good secondary stuff.
This season alone, Crain has thrown his four-seamer only 53.2% of the time, compared to his career average of about 66%. He’s been using his slider (33.1%) and curveball (13.9%) to retire hitters a lot more, and despite his inflated ERA, his peripherals show this approach has been getting results. His strikeout rate is pretty much within his career norms, but his pinpoint 1.64 BB/9 rate is the best it’s ever been. If Crain is surrendering fewer homers, walking fewer batters, while mowing down hitters at a good 7.36 K/9 clip, why does it seem he’s getting hit so hard? Well, his 6.55 ERA probably has a lot more to do with just plain bad luck than anything else: his batting average on balls in play is a bloated .333, while his 17.1% line drive rate is well within career norms. As long as he stays healthy and continues to trust his secondary stuff, I’d put money on Crain finishing the season with an ERA under 3.50.