Today was my idea to celebrate Twins reliever Jesse Crain, for one simple reason. Although Nick Punto and Delmon Young (who have both had their own days) had fans split on whether to love or curse, I felt that Crain was the one guy that for his tenure with the team, was likely the most hated player. I’ve been seeing this for several years, and I felt that it was vastly unjustified. Sure, there were some times where he would give up a critical home run, but it never seemed to be with a greater frequency than any other Twins reliever. Nevertheless, the complaints continued.
Sometimes, it may seem like I have a man crush on Crain. It’s not necessarily that extreme, but I do like the guy a lot. First, he’s got a wickedly speedy fastball. Sure, it’s as straight as an airplane runway, but guys that can consistently fire 94+ MPH fastballs are not that common. Just look at the Twins roster. The next 2 guys (both average around 93 MPH) on the roster are Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan (2009 data). That’s right, our little Canadian throws harder than Twitch and F-Bomb. Second, there’s that curveball. When Crain first came up to the major leagues in 2004, he lobbed it towards the plate similar to Roy Oswalt’s slow curve. However, he started adding velocity to it every season until 2007, maxing the average velocity out at 77 MPH. Over the past few years, it’s started to creep back down, into the mid-70s. Crain also has a slider, which never has seemed to have much movement,* but along with his curve, they have been by far his most effective pitches in 2010, according to FanGraphs. Finally, there’s his rare change-up, 2-seam fastball, and supposedly a slurve, but what’s the point of talking about them if he won’t even throw them?
* You know how Bert Blyleven always says about any pitcher, “He throws a slider, almost a little cutter”? Crain is one of the few pitchers who could actually have his slider mistaken for a cutter.
Honestly, I feel like I can point out the origins of the negativity towards the pitcher that would eventually become the Crain Wreck. In Game 1 of the 2006 ALDS, Crain was brought into the 9th inning of a 2-1 deficit versus the Oakland Athletics. Johan Santana started the game, and had pitched 8 masterful innings, with the only damage coming on a Frank Thomas solo homer and Marco Scutaro RBI double. With 107 pitches and Thomas leading off the 9th inning, Santana’s day was clearly done. When Ron Gardenhire made this pitching change, I doubt any fans would have complained with the move, due to Crain’s history of success.
In 2004, Crain made his major league debut. He ended up pitching 27 innings for the Twins, and was virtually unhittable. Although he only struck out about 4.5 hitters per 9 innings, he had an impressive .183 opponent’s batting average. Along with stranding a ton of baserunners, Crain put up a 2.00 ERA in his first major league season.
If the previous season was impressive, then 2005 was phenomenal. We know how Nick Blackburn has a terrible K/9 rate this season (3.15), but Jesse Crain topped that. In 79.2 innings pitched in ’05, Crain had a 2.82 K/9 rate. He actually walked more hitters than he struck out, but armed with more success of being unhittable, he turned in a 12-5 record and 2.71 ERA. If I had been more sabermetrically-inclined when I was only 15, I would have noticed that Crain was having a season that simply should not have happened. Considering that his batting average on balls in play was .216, along with a merely average 4.65 FIP, he should have been hit with a heavy regression during the 2006 season.
Instead, Crain actually got better. He gave up far more hits, his ERA rose nearly a full run, and yet his FIP was over a run lower. How was that possible? Well, in 3 fewer innings pitched, Crain had walked 11 fewer batters and struck out a mind-boggling 35 more hitters. Three fewer innings. Thirty-five more strikeouts. In one season, he went from possibly the worst in strikeouts among relievers to an above-average strikeout artist, and that was while he gave up more hits.
Return back to Game 1. After having an injury-plagued season with the White Sox in ’05, Thomas signed with the Athletics and put up an impressive .270/.381/.545 line with 39 home runs at the age of 38. As I already said, Thomas had homered earlier in the game to give the A’s a 1-0 lead at the time. Crain got to a 1-1 count on Thomas, and then he threw one of the nastiest, most unhittable 2-seam fastballs I had ever seen. The pitch started on the inside corner, knee height, and tailed towards the shins of The Big Hurt. Some hitters with discipline would have taken the pitch for ball two. Some would have swung and missed. A few others would swing and ricochet the ball off one of their lower appendages, then spend the next few seconds wincing in pain. Maybe a handful would have gotten some good wood on the ball and pull it down the left field line, but it would be foul. Well, Frank Thomas was no ordinary hitter, even at 38 years old, and he promptly crushed the ball into the Metrodome’s left field seats for his second solo home run of the game. A manageable 2-1 deficit heading into the bottom of the 9th became a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 score. Jesse Crain had thrown one of the best fastballs any pitcher could throw, and Frank Thomas, as he had done 40 times earlier that year, gave it to a fan in the outfield seats. To many Twins fans, Crain’s three previous seasons went flying out to left field with that home run. One of the best relievers in the Twins bullpen was now a scapegoat.
The next season did nothing to help Crain’s new identity. He started giving up home runs like he never had before. His ERA ballooned up to 5.51, and may have kept rising if it wasn’t for a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder. Now, Crain wasn’t just a bad pitcher, he also was an injured bad pitcher. Despite the injury, Crain returned to the Twins in 2008, and put up a pretty damn good season for a pitcher coming back from a major surgery. The strikeouts stayed up, the home runs stayed down, and he ended the season with an ERA of 3.59, just 0.07 runs higher than his 2006 season. But, it didn’t matter. My friends would provide me with false anecdotes of Crain blowing what seemed like every lead that was ever handed to him. In the games that the Twins were losing, he supposedly widened the deficit. His record was 5-4, he blew only 3 saves the entire year, but those guys would have told me that I was lying until I provided evidence. Jesse Crain had turned in his fourth season in five years with an above-average ERA, and yet he still sucked.
The 2009 season, just like the ’07 season, did not aid Crain’s reputation. He struggled at the beginning of the year and earned a demotion to Triple-A. When he returned, he pitched much better. The story has been very similar this year, but without the visit to Rochester. Sometime within the past year or two, his nickname of Crain Wreck became wildly popular. Jesse does have a 3.93 ERA currently, and his nickname has been gradually disappearing with his success, but I can tell that some people will be more than ready to dust off their trusty rifle the moment danger appears. When people say, “Hey, the Crain Wreck actually pitched well!”, it’s clear that they have not forgiven him yet.
To finish this post, I’m going to show you some selected, yet still important career numbers of two pitchers. Since this is Jesse Crain Day, one pitcher is obviously him, but I won’t tell you which one is him, or who is the other pitcher. One is loved, and Crain… well, I’ve already typed over 1000 words about how I believe that most people would prefer to see him off the major league roster. These numbers will show to you how much a reputation can hurt a pitcher, despite being as good or better than someone that is widely appreciated. Highlight the blanks below to see the answers.
Pitcher A: 3.37 ERA, 4.43 FIP, .251 AVG, 1.26 WHIP, 6.05 K/9, 2.82 BB/9, 1.10 HR/9, 1.8 WAR
Pitcher B: 3.54 ERA, 4.12 FIP, .246 AVG, 1.28 WHIP, 5.97 K/9, 3.26 BB/9, 0.78 HR/9, 2.5 WAR
Pitcher B is Jesse Crain. Pitcher A is Matt Guerrier.