On Thursday night Jesse Crain faced four batters. After allowing Hideki Matsui to reach on a single he then proceeded to strike out Kendry Morales, Juan Rivera and Howie Kendrick on three sliders that were so indescribably nasty, it was something that even the guys from Jersey Shore wouldn't sleep with.
Since a demotion to Rochester mid-season last year, Crain has re-established himself as a force in the Twins bullpen. After being recalled in July, Crain finished the season throwing 34 innings with a 2.91 ERA and a 30/15 K/BB ratio while not allowing a home run in that duration. This season, armed with several adjustments to his throwing style, the righty has picked up where he left off. In fact, judging from his 2.2 innings where he has allowed just one hit while striking out four in the young season, I'd venture to say he's even better than that - particularly with this improved out-pitch.
Using pitchF/X, we see several differences in Crain's slider from late last year to his first pair of outings this year:
First, Crain has reduced the velocity - shaving off 4-mph and leading to a 10-mph difference from his fastball. Last year's model only gave opponents a 6-mph difference. This differential will not only improve the breaking pitch but also quicken his fastball. Secondly, the current upgrade demonstrated a greater vertical drop with less horizontal movement, potentially incited more missed bats and groundballs.
The chart below, lifted from brooksbaseball.net, shows us how pitchF/X pitches are identified using their vertical and horizontal breaks. The fastballs and changeups have little vertical movement (in fact, with the backspin, fastballs typically rise) while the cutter through the curveball run the spectrum of horizontal and vertical movement:
Using what was identified as Crain's slider from September 1st until the end of the season, we find that his slider fits neatly within the general area accepted to be a slider's spin:
However, when we compare that to the movement of this year's slider, we see that the points do not fall as readily into that area:
The vertical drop bleeds into the area that is typically assigned a curveball yet there is not enough horizontal break to label the pitch a "slurve". The reason it was not categorized as a curveball in Crain's case is because Crain throws his bender at 74-mph.
This is a significant change in his slider. It could be that this speed variance and the break alteration are a byproduct of his reworked mechanics or a result of Crain staying back on more instead of rushing through his motion. Another possibility is that is an a newly introduced hybrid pitch. Whatever explanation the discrepancy between the two versions may be, the results thus far have been terrific.