Where Did All the Strikeouts Go?

There’s something wrong with Jesse Crain.

I know it’s hard to believe given his 9-1 record, 2.49 ERA, and .211 opponent’s batting average this season, not to mention his 3-0 record, 2.00 ERA, and .179 opponent’s batting average last season. And trust me, the only reason I haven’t written about this until now is that he’s been doing so damn well. Still, there’s something wrong with Jesse Crain.

After going 4-0 with 10 saves and a 0.00 ERA in 35 innings as the University of Houston’s closer, the Twins took Crain in the second round of the 2002 draft. Unfortunately for Crain, that was right before teams started drafting college closers (Huston Street, Chad Cordero, Ryan Wagner) and rushing them to the majors. In fact, the very next year the Reds drafted Wagner, who replaced Crain as University of Houston’s closer, in the first round and he was in a big-league bullpen within months. Having arrived a year too early for the party, Crain instead began his career like any other draftee would, in rookie-ball.

He posted a 0.57 ERA in 15.2 innings there after signing and then moved up to finish the year at low Single-A, where he had a 1.50 ERA in 12 innings. Crain split the 2003 season between three levels, starting at high Single-A, advancing to Double-A in the middle of the year, and finishing up a step from the big leagues at Triple-A. Combined between the three stops, he had a 1.84 ERA in 84 innings, holding opponents to a .160 batting average and establishing himself as one of the better pitching prospects in baseball (Crain ranked 34th on my top 50 prospects list).

There was some talk about Crain making the Twins out of spring training last season, but he instead began the year back at Triple-A and once again dominated. With 19 saves and a 2.49 ERA in 50.2 innings, Crain successfully convinced the Twins he was done proving himself in the minors. They called him up in early August and he quickly became a crucial part of the bullpen, pitching extremely well down the stretch while appearing in 22 games spread over just two months.

His 2004 performance was enough for me to rank Crain the 34th-best prospect in baseball for 2005, while saying “I expect him to be one of the better middle relievers in the American League this season.” Crain has been exactly that, starting the year 8-0 (and his career 11-0) before finally losing a game, and compiling a 2.49 ERA while pitching in an extremely high-leverage role for the Twins. He ranks fifth among AL middle relievers (or non-closers) in Win Shares, behind only Scot Shields, Cliff Politte, Justin Duchscherer, and Mike Timlin.

Since the moment he was drafted, Crain has been tagged with the “Closer of the Future” label in Minnesota. And while his ERA, won-loss record, and opponent’s batting average in parts of two seasons with the Twins certainly suggest he has closer written all over him, there is something very concerning about his pitching. Basically, he has forgotten how to strike hitters out.

During Crain’s three-year minor-league career, he pitched a total of 162.1 innings with a 1.94 ERA. However, it wasn’t simply the outstanding ERA that made him a top prospect, it was the fact that his strikeout rate (11.5/9) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (207-to-53) were both amazing. Plenty of relievers put up gaudy ERAs in the minors, but the ones who are truly worth getting excited about are the guys who dominate by racking up huge strikeout totals and/or posting outstanding strikeout-to-walk ratios.

Crain was dominant in the minors and there was nothing to suggest it was a fluke or not sustainable in the majors. And, of course, it has been sustainable in the majors. Or it hasn’t, depending on how you want to approach the issue. Crain has kept up his ability to limit runs and hits, but somewhere along the line, between Rochester, New York and Minneapolis, Minnesota, his strikeouts vanished.

First take a look at Crain’s combined numbers over two seasons at Triple-A compared to his combined numbers over two seasons in the majors:

LEVEL           G       IP      ERA      H     HR
Triple-A       64     76.0     2.69     62      5
Majors         70     74.0     2.30     52      5

Nearly identical, right? In fact, Crain has actually been slightly more effective in the majors, with a lower ERA and fewer hits allowed. But now look at how he’s achieved those numbers:

LEVEL            IP     SO     BB     SO/9    K/BB
Triple-A       76.0     97     27     11.5     3.6
Majors         74.0     31     28      3.8     1.1

At Triple-A, Crain had typically dominant numbers for a late-inning reliever, with tons of strikeouts, a low ERA, and few hits allowed. In the majors, he has maintained the low ERA and outstanding opponent’s batting average, but his strikeout rate has fallen off a cliff and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is something from a junk-ball pitcher’s resume.

It is difficult to get too concerned about a guy who has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past year and a half. After all, how much can you really complain about a 24-year-old reliever who is 12-1 with a 2.31 ERA for his career? However, the problem isn’t with how he’s pitched thus far, it’s with how he figures to pitch in the future. Separating those two things can be very tough.

Quite simply, Crain can’t keep his current level of pitching up with the sort of strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio he has had since coming to the majors. It’s not a knock against him as much as a fact of life. Save for a few extremely unique cases, dominant relievers miss bats a high percentage of the time and a big part of their success comes from limiting the numbers of balls that are put in play. A strikeout is a sure out, with no damage done, while a ball put in play may advance a runner or even fall for a hit.

Crain has done a poor job limiting the number of balls put in play against him, but has succeeded thus far by having the defense behind him turn an extraordinary percentage of the balls in play into outs. Minnesota’s Defense Efficiency Ratio (basically the percentage of balls in play turned into outs) with Crain on the mound is an amazing .791. Minnesota’s defense has done an above-average job turning balls in play into outs this season, overall. Their work behind Crain has been spectacular, as you can see by comparing Crain’s defensive support to the other pitchers on the Twins’ staff:

                     DER
Jesse Crain         .791
J.C. Romero         .743
Joe Nathan          .724
Juan Rincon         .718
Matt Guerrier       .718
Terry Mulholland    .716
Brad Radke          .714
Johan Santana       .710
Carlos Silva        .701
Kyle Lohse          .672

Crain blows away the rest of the pitching staff, having balls in play converted into outs over 6% more often than the next guy, J.C. Romero, and nearly 18% more often than Kyle Lohse. And this isn’t just a one-year deal, Crain’s success last year was due to the same thing:

                     DER
Jesse Crain         .813
Johan Santana       .750
Juan Rincon         .742
Joe Nathan          .731
J.C. Romero         .719
Brad Radke          .707
Aaron Fultz         .700
Grant Balfour       .699
Carlos Silva        .682
Kyle Lohse          .679
Joe Roa             .678
Terry Mulholland    .664

Crain’s DER was even more extreme last year, at .813. That was 8% better than the AL Cy Young winner (whose ball-in-play stats were outstanding, relative to anyone but Crain) and 22% better than Old Man Mulholland. Among all AL pitchers with 40 or more innings so far this season, Crain’s DER ranks fourth behind David Riske (.815), Politte (.812), and Mariano Rivera (.792). Among AL pitchers with 25 or more innings pitched in 2004 (a lower cutoff, since Crain only had 27), Crain’s DER ranked second, behind only Scott Williamson (.845).

Regardless of where you side on how much impact pitchers have on balls in play (otherwise known as “the DIPS argument”), the odds of any pitcher maintaining the sort of success Crain has had thus far on balls in play over the long term are extremely small. All of which means Crain’s success thus far has been the result of either luck and/or a small sample size or the presence of a special skill on Crain’s part. Or maybe both, who knows?

Further complicating matters (and making Crain a particularly interesting case) is the fact that he has complained about a loss in fastball velocity this season. That may help explain the drop in strikeout rate, although Crain still throws in the low-90s and has quality breaking stuff. But does it also potentially explain his success on balls in play? Maybe. To help combat his sudden inability to blow hitters away with an upper-90s fastball, Crain has worked to develop a sinker.

With the sinker in his arsenal, Crain has gone from being an extreme fly-ball pitcher who relied on strikeouts to inducing slightly more ground balls than fly balls while pitching to contact. However, as the wildly different DERs of extreme ground-ball pitchers Carlos Silva, Joe Mays, Mulholland, and Romero show, pitching in front of the Twins’ defense and keeping the ball on the ground isn’t necessarily the key to a low batting average on balls in play.

Crain is an extremely interesting player, because he essentially became a completely different pitcher the moment he made it to the majors. His transformation is seemingly a poor one, as his strikeouts have completely dried up and his fastball is several ticks slower, yet the results are almost identical to his significant minor-league success. In the short term, it doesn’t matter how a pitcher gets it done, as long as he gets it done. However, in the long term, I think Crain’s lack of strikeouts and extremely low batting averages on balls in play will catch up with him. He’s walking a very thin line.

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