Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Crain optioned to Rochester. What was wrong?

When Jesse Crain rose to prominence in the Twins bullpen in 2005, the 23-year-old right-hander had vultured 12 wins while maintaining a 2.71 ERA despite walking more than he struck out (29/25 BB/K) in 79.2 innings of work also finishing eighth on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot.  The curious thing about Crain's success is that it was based entirely on the fielders behind him.  Thanks to a high percentage of groundballs (46.9 percent) Crain carried a lowly .216 batting average on balls in play helping him keep his ERA sub-3.00 even though he was striking out an underwhelming 2.8 batters per nine innings. 
Crain's biggest weakness was his approach to left-handed batters.  For his pitch selection, Crain used his 93.1-mph fastball (69 pct) and a 73.7-mph curveball (13 pct) when attacking lefties that year. In 130 match-ups against opposed handed batters, Crain walked 15 while striking out 10 but once again managed to get by on avoiding big contact (.212 babip vs LHB).  Even though his strikeout totals were extremely low, Crain's velocity difference (19.4-mph on average) kept hitters at bay and induced a ton of groundballs. 
The following season, Crain's altered his pitch repertoire, specifically to left-handed batters.  Instead of his fastball-curve combination that he had used in 2005, the 24-year-old Crain used his now 94.3-mph fastball (75 pct) and his 86.9-mph slider (14 pct).  In 116 plate appearances, Crain's adjustments lead to more strikeouts and fewer walks (21/8 K/BB) but decrease in velocity difference (now at 7.4-mph) seemed to allow lefties to make better contact as their slugging percentage against rose 53 points.  Overall, Crain's numbers were head and shoulder's better as he was now striking out 7.0 batters per nine innings and appearing to be the closer-in-training the Twins had projected in his developmental days.
After pitching consecutive season of more than 75 innings each and 156.1 combined, Crain's shoulder broke down and needed repair in 2007.  Upon his return to the bullpen in 2008, Crain once again changed his approach to left-handed batters, throwing them a hearty dose of fastballs (70 pct) with a fairly even amount of sliders (13 pct) and curveballs (15 pct).  Even still, Crain appeared to have lefties under control (not to mention that with Dennys Reyes and Craig Breslow in the bullpen, Crain saw fewer lefties total) but the slugging percent rose another 22 points. 
While Crain has managed to keep right-handers at a .240 batting average against this season, he has been nothing short of a hot mess against left-handers.  The 26-year-old has abandoned his slider once again and has been using his fastball far less frequently (64 pct) while the use of his curveball has increased a great deal(22 pct). Unlike the 2005 verison of his curveball, Crain's bender was no longer the big 73-mph loop it had once been.  Now it was closer to 80-mph.  In 29 match-ups this season so far, Crain has walked seven lefties (two intentionally) and struck out just 4 while they are holding a 1.000 slugging percentage thanks to five extra base hits, three of which were home runs.  Without being able to locate his curveball for strikes consistantly, hitters waited on the fastball and feasted on the off-chance it came in the zone.  Two of the three home runs came on 3-2 counts when Crain was forced to throw a fastball for a strike because of little confidence/ability to throw his two other pitches for strikes. 
Crain's demotion is a good thing, both for he and the Twins.  He still has the talent to retire right-handed batters regularly but It provides him the opportunity to rebuild his approach to left-handed batters.    

Crain versus LHB