Some may look at Jesse Crain’s 2010 season and think that he had a good year. He finished with a 3.04 ERA and an 8.21 K/9 ratio in 68 innings (71 games). In realty, Crain had an amazing half-season and a brutal half-season. All players have good and bad stretches during a season, but Crain’s was more pronounced than usual.
The amazing part of Crain’s season took place from June 10th to August 31st. In that period he pitched 31.2 innings in 35 games and gave up only one earned run. That resulted in a fantastic 0.28 ERA with a 0.90 WHIP. Those are lights-out numbers.
The problem with Crain’s 2010 season is that it was book-ended by two brutal stints. From the start of the season (April 5th) until June 5th, Crain pitched 24.2 innings in 25 games, giving up 15 ER. In that period he had a 5.47 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP. Crain also ended the season with similarly awful numbers. From September 1st to October 1st, he pitched 11.2 innings in 11 games, giving up 7 ER, for an ERA of 5.40 and a WHIP of 1.69. If you combine the bookends, you get 36.1 innings pitched in 28 games, a 5.45 ERA, and a 1.47 WHIP. Those are terrible numbers for a reliever.
So what could cause such an up and down, Jekyll and Hyde type of a season for Crain? Pitch selection appears to be a major contributor.
Crain’s main two pitches are the four-seam fastball and the slider. Overall for the season he threw the four-seam 41% of the time and the slider 40%. Although it looks like he used both pitches the same amount for the entire season, it actually varied quite significantly during the year and did play a role in his successes and struggles.
When he was having trouble at the start of the season, Crain was throwing his four-seam fastball 48% of the time and his slider 36%, a large difference. Of all the pitches that were put in play that scored a run or didn’t make an out, 86% were on his four-seam. Meanwhile, of all the called or swinging strikes he got, 54% were on his slider while only 22% were on the four-seam. Basically, his fastball was getting hit and his slider wasn’t, but he was using the fastball more.
Maybe that breakdown was eventually noticed by Crain or pitching coach Rich Anderson, because when Crain went on his great stretch from June 10th to August 31st he used his slider 47% of the time and his four-seam only 32%. During that time, 54% of called or swinging strikes were still made on his slider except that, since he was now using it more, he was getting more strikes.
It’s the knowledge of a simple measure like pitch selection breakdown that makes the end of Crain’s season so frustrating. In his second brutal stretch from September 1st to October 1st, he reverted back to using his fastball more often (47%) than his slider (34%). So, of course, he gave up more hits. To be fair, of the called or swinging strikes he got, 44% were four-seams and 42% were sliders during that time. But given the success that he had with the slider for most of the year, you’d like to believe that he would’ve given it more of a chance. Instead, he struggled.
One final note about Crain’s usage of the four-seam fastball. During the bad stretches that book-ended the season he was using the fastball more often, thus requiring him to beat the hitter with it more often. The problem with that is that it appears Crain tried to overthrow the ball, causing to run straighter and making it easier to hit.
At the start of the season, the movement on his four-seam was 112.6 with a spin rate of 2102 rpm and velocity of 94.5 mph. Once he started using the slider more he started getting more hitters ours, allowing him to relax a bit with the fastball. For this reason, he generated more movement (93.9) and lower spin rate (1910 rpm) but with the same velocity (94.9 mph). Once he hit September and went back to throwing the four-seam most often, he again lost movement (104.7) and spin (2018 rpm) but without increasing velocity (94.9 mph). It looks like the more that Crain uses his four-seam, the worse it gets.
For 2011, the Twins need to determine what they’re going to get from Jesse before re-signing him to another contract. Obviously there needs to be a focus put on him using the slider more often in order to get outs. In terms of contract, in 2010 they paid him $2 million and probably got good value. However, he also posted his lowest ERA and WHIP since 2005 and the highest K/9 of his career, and I’m not optimistic he’ll be able to post those numbers again next year. I’m betting that you’ll likely see his numbers move closer to his career averages. That said, I’m not sure that Crain pitching at his career averages is worth more than the $2M the Twins paid him in 2010.