Thursday, May 17, 2007

Crain's Winding Road

A season that looked like another difficult reclamation project became an altogether wasted season this week when Jesse Crain’s shoulder diagnosis turned up a double negative: torn rotator cuff and torn labrum. Crain’s recovery from the injury will likely take us far enough into the future that any projection is more speculation than comprehension. Add to that uncertainty the immense variability in Crain’s performance since reaching the majors, and you have one terribly schizophrenic player on your hands.

Crain’s failings to this point in the 2007 season led many observers to wonder if he was compensating for some sort of injury. His pitches looked flat, and he was not so much inconsistent as he was consistently weak. Torn shoulder muscles mean the fulcrum of the pitcher’s power generator has lost its effectiveness, and the pitcher is relegated to throwing batting practice fastballs. In this respect, shoulder injuries differ from elbow injuries, where pitchers often struggle with command, piling up deep counts and walking too many batters, while not necessarily giving up more hits or more solid contact. Crain’s season has followed that trend to a “t,” as his walk rate has increased from 2.1 per nine last year to 2.2 in 2007, a meaningless difference, while his pitches per plate appearances have risen only slightly, from 3.5 to 3.7. The causal factor behind adding two full runs to his ERA is the fact that he can’t throw the ball by anyone, and opponents’ hits are going farther than ever before. Crain is striking out 24% fewer batters than last year, and when balls are put into play, the batters are slugging an impressive .539 against him, unlike the meager .305 and .378 figures he allowed in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Even more impressive is the explosion of his homerun rate, hovering between .70 and .71 for the last three seasons, shooting up to 2.17 in his limited innings this year, a 206% increase. Perhaps this analysis is as meaningless as saying, “I told you so,” without ever having actually told anyone so, but at very least, the injury cannot be considered surprising.

Part of the reason that many observers dismissed Crain’s early struggles is that he had such similar problems last year, which turned out to be a very solid campaign by seasons’ end. After failing to finish even a single inning for the second straight appearances on May 27, 2006, Crain’s ERA crested at 7.97, a far cry from his 5.51 mark that has plagued the bullpen this year. From that point forward, he kept his ERA at a stellar 1.92, striking out three times more batters than he walked, and holding opponents to an outstanding .276 slugging average. Needless to say, Twins fans hoped for the same sort of rounding into for this year as last, pegging Crain as a slow starter who needs time to find a fell for his pitches rather than blaming the horrendous start on the ulterior factor which wound up being the true culprit. Even more telling is the fact that some of Crain’s most comparable players up to his current age have suffered similar fates, including top comp Antonio Osuna (missed nearly two full years with injuries, including a torn labrum in 2001), and Scott Williamson (a notoriously injury-plagued reliever whose biochemistry stood in the way of some nasty stuff).

The intrigue in Crain’s statistical line does not stop there, however, as every season has been something of a departure from the one before it. In the minors, Crain was a lights-out closer with a dominating fastball that he used to overpower batters on his way to an 11.4 K/9 in his final AAA stint in 2004. With numbers like that, some fans (including me) pegged Crain as the next in line for the closers job with Eddie Guardado’s departure after the 2003 season. Terry Ryan knew better, trading for the then-unheralded Joe Nathan to fill that slot in dominating fashion, and Crain split 2004 between Rochester and Minnesota, piling up those gaudy strikeout numbers for the Red Wings, and finding success in a totally different way for the big club. Crain saw limited action in the majors that year, throwing only 27 innings on top of the 50.2 he threw in AAA. In that time, his strikeout rate went from outstanding to miniscule, as he walked nearly as many batters (12) as he managed to strike out (14). Due to an unusually low batting average on balls in play (.194), Crain sustained a terrific 2.00 ERA and earned himself an invitation to rejoin the big club despite the bipolar nature of his major and minor league numbers.

The following season saw Crain continue his balancing act, striking out even fewer batters than the year before. His strikeout rate fell to 2.8, a level so low that even an insane ground-baller like Chien-Ming Wang would do a double take. His walk rate crept above the strikeout rate, putting an incredible amount of stress on the defense behind him, which rose to the occasion, helping him to a spectacular .222 BABIP and suppressing his ERA to 2.71 over a robust 79.2 innings. The .789 defensive efficiency rate for the fielders behind Crain would have lead the majors that year by leaps and bounds, showing just how much help he got from those behind him. Crain did not even do all that much to make their jobs easier, inducing groundballs on only 46.4% of balls in play, a pretty average number. To be fair, when batters put the ball in the air, Crain managed to pop them up remarkably often- 20.2% of the time- a skill which shows that he was fooling batters, jamming them with tough pitches, or both. I credit some of Crain’s surprising road to success to pitching coach Rick Anderson, who said at the time of Crain’s call-up that he would have to pitch more intelligently in the majors to get hitters out, not falling back on dialing up a blazing fastball as frequently as he did in the minors. Still, Crain’s 2005 was fluky in many ways, and did not seem to be a repeatable task at the time.

Oddly enough, Crain avoided the prophecy in 2006 by becoming a “normal” dominant reliever. After trudging through the aforementioned cold streak, he managed to mix together a lethal combination of strikeouts (7.1 per nine and better than 3 for each walk) and groundballs (up to 55.2% of balls in play). That arsenal actually raised his overall ERA to a more normal 3.52, but the underlying improvement can be seen in the decrease in PERA, which fell from 5.02 to 3.36, a more accurate representation of the pitcher’s contribution to run prevention. Perhaps most importantly, Crain made the improvements throughout the season from a struggling pitcher to a successful one, even if his true ability was never that of a 1.92 ERA pitcher.

Coming into 2007, it seemed that Crain was poised to surpass Juan Rincon and his diminishing ability to miss bats as the Twins’ second most reliable reliever. Instead, his entire season has been a tremendous headache, one which fans hoped would culminate in a return to form sometime around June 1st. Instead, the injury indicates that Crain may have been pitching at or near his true level through 2006, and regressed due to the injury rather than making a habit out of slow starts. With such a major injury, Crain’s performance record to date tells us little about how he will recover and whether he will ever return to elite relief status. If anything, learning the skill of retiring batters without over powering them by placing the fastball (2005) and by utilizing breaking pitches to get outs (2006) should help him recover from the potential loss in velocity. For now, we can only wait for the next surprising twist along the odd career path of Jesse Crain.

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