12 July 2010
Jesse Crain is a polarizing figure among Minnesota fans. Outside of Nick Punto, there perhaps isn't a player who so divides Twins Territory. Either you want to give the flame-throwing right-hander a second chance or you want him cut.
Back when he first came to be with the Twins, Crain was a ground-ball machine, relying almost solely on his blazing fastball. After he recovered from rotator cuff and labrum surgery, though, Crain was a different pitcher. The velocity of his fastball was still excellent, but he was extremely hitable.
While still relying on his fastball the vast majority of the time, Crain saw his ERA and home run rate go sky-high. Crain was even demoted to Rochester for a few weeks last year, putting Minnesota's Crain Experiment in jeopardy of an abrupt end.
Minnesota gave Crain an extension for the 2010 season, though, giving the 28-year old former second-round pick one more year to stick in the Big Leagues. It was an ultimatum, of sorts. If Crain didn't prove to be a useful reliever in 2010, the Twins would need to pull the plug. The pieces were in place for a World Series run, and the team simply doesn't have time to invest in developmental projects.
Judging from his results so far this season, Crain apparently got the message.
Through 34.1 innings, Crain has an acceptable 3.93 ERA with a healthy strikeout-to-walk ratio. He's certainly not pitching like the guy who finished 8th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2005, but Crain has escaped the danger of being cut – at least for now.
How is the young right-hander succeeding after so many years of being known as the “Crain Wreck?” Increased reliance on off-speed pitches.
Through his career, nearly 65 percent of Crain's offerings have been fastballs. Someone must have told him that those fastballs, while fast, are simply too straight to fool opposing batters, as that number is down to 48.2 percent in 2010. His fastballs are being utilized less, and Crain's slider is being thrown much more often.
According to FanGraphs, Crain's slider – thrown 207 times this year – is the 10th-best among relievers with at least 30 innings pitched. His curveball – tossed 58 times – is the best in the major leagues, according to FanGraph's algorithm.
Now, there are flaws with FanGraph's pitch value stat, it puts far too much value on the deciding pitch in an at-bat, but it is clear that Crain's off-speed pitches have been excellent this year. His success has largely been due to a decreased reliance in his fastball and an increase in his off-speed offerings.
If Crain can keep up this success and continue fooling opposing batters, he will solidify his place in a Minnesota bullpen in need of a reliable late-inning option.
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