Monday, August 16, 2010

Sunday's game: One right decision, another questionable

After seven innings without allowing a hit and a comfortable four-run lead, Ron Gardenhire was in the unenviable position of deciding between allowing his starting pitcher to attempt history or risk injury potential.

At that time, Kevin Slowey had amassed 106 pitches, the most since his last start in which he threw 114, and, perhaps not coincidentally, had to be skipped a start due to some discomfort in his elbow. Recognizing that it was in his best interest to protect his pitcher, with Slowey’s health at the forefront of his mind, Gardenhire opted to go to his bullpen. This, of course, was the right decision.
Said the manager:
“I'm not going to let [Slowey] throw 125-130 pitches; it's just not going to happen. If he went back out for one more inning, he'd probably be around 115-120 and be done anyway. There's no way he was going to finish. He's got too big of a career ahead of him."
The interesting part involving the no-hit bid didn’t revolve around pulling Slowey. It was Gardenhire’s choice to use former closer Jon Rauch in the eighth inning.
Admittedly, Rauch had not seen action in five days and was at-risk of growing stale following a toe injury that kept him off the mound for a spell. It was obvious that he needed action. Of course, Rauch also demonstrated that he is the most hittable (10.0 H/9) member of the bullpen and his outing on Sunday reflected that. After getting overmatched rookie Chris Carter to freeze on a big, slow curveball for the inning’s first out, he surrendered back-to-back doubles to Cliff Pennington and Coco Crisp before walking Daric Barton. With the no-hitter gone and now the game very much in peril, Gardenhire called upon Jesse Crain to get his club out of a jam.
Needless to say, Crain has been to hell-and-back on the Twins bullpen hierarchy this season. Back on June 5th, Crain was summoned to solidify Francisco Liriano’s seven-inning, one-run gem in Oakland only to blow the save in the Twins eventual victory. Following that outing, Crain’s ERA was at a portly 5.33. Opponents were slugging .481 off of him, including 15 extra base hits in 25.2 innings of work. Because of his inconsistency, Crain’s high leverage card was revoked. He would be left to prove himself in situations when the game wasn’t on the line.
Crain has always had the raw stuff for the constructs of a successful reliever. He can blast a mid-90s fastball through the zone, which is velocity that over 99% of the Twins’ pitching staff would lust over, yet because it is thrown without much movement, it has proved to be extremely hittable. In the beginning of the season, Crain attempted to lean on his hard stuff too frequently and this got him tagged for 15 extra base hits.
Since that outing in Oakland, Crain has been arguably the most reliable member of the bullpen. In his last 28 outings, he’s allowed just one earned run, whittling his unsightly 5.33 ERA to a tidy 2.92. In that time, opponents have hit just .146 (12-for-82) with a lone extra base hit.
The biggest difference between the two stints is that Crain has since eased up on the throttle. His midseason renewal parallel’s his decision to employ his slider over his fastball:

Crain’s pitch selection:
OPS against
Through June 5th
June 5th through August 14th

To be sure, his slider has been particular devastating on opponents. According to’s sortable stats, Crain’s .092 batting average allowed on his slider is the seventh-lowest in baseball among relievers (and vastly superior to the .224 league average). Additionally, Crain has shown unbelievable confidence in this pitch. Not only will he throw it on the first pitch regularly (44% on 0-0 count), but he will also deploy it over his fastball during a full-count (74% on 3-2 count) with the possibility of a walk at stake.
Not that the manager should have considered putting a milestone ahead of the good of the team - be it by putting Slowey back out on the mound or foregoing the opportunity to allow Rauch to get some work in - but if the Twins had any inkling in exiting the afternoon with Slowey’s no-hitter intact, turning the ball over to Crain from the get-go would have be the most logical move.