Jesse Crain’s magic


May 14, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Chicago White Sox relief pitcher Jesse Crain (26) delivers a pitch in the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. The White Sox won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most reckless signing of the offseason leading up to the 2011 season was doling out a three-year commitment to reliever Jesse Crain.

Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski were all aging, Will Ohman was extraneous, but the Jesse Crain deal ran through the most red flags at once. Three-year deals to relievers in general should be limited; signing relievers to three-year deals after their career-best season where the results significantly outstripped the peripherals as well as their other years of work, is the type of boilerplate villainy that R.L. Stine would use to try to explain the Ed Wade era to children.

Four days before Crain signed his three-year, $13 million deal with the White Sox, his Minnesota bullpen-mate Matt Guerrier signed a three-year, $12 million deal with the Dodgers, and has given Los Angeles mediocrity and health problems since. With both in his history, that’s pretty much how Crain’s tenure was supposed to go as well.

Yet this Monday night, Crain tossed 1.1 innings of shutout ball despite not getting a single strikeout and allowing two hits. He got into a jam that threatened the lead in the eighth, but escaped and lowered his season ERA to an unthinkable 0.60. He’s allowed two earned runs in 30 innings this season and while there’s plenty in his statistical profile to suggest that he’s not as good as the work he’s put in, no one becomes a dominant reliever without subverting some of the concepts we use to assess more typical relievers.

Since coming to Chicago, Jesse Crain has posted a 2.13 ERA over 143.1 innings, along with a FIP that thinks he should be a run worse (3.15) and an xFIP that would propose to denigrate him even more (3.55). He’s getting away with crimes against his compatriots this season, having allowed 39% of his inherited runners to score compared to a league average of 31%, but he was one of the best in the business at stranding those same runners last season (21%). It’s the type of thing that can vary beyond a pitcher’s control, which makes it unique, because Jesse Crain has tended to have a strange level of command over the baserunners he allows on personally.

It’s Crain’s one constant; he’s left 87.1% of runners on base since joining the Sox, roughly 15% over the league average over that time span. Since 2011, when runners are on base, Crain still has a 2.92 ERA. For reference, the AL average ERA with runners on base is 7.56. As you can see, situations with runners on base are generally when everyone gives up their runs.

Anecdotally, and ironically, Jesse Crain never comes off a pitcher who gives much of a damn about the situation. He works up in the zone constantly, undeterred by situations where he needs to avoid a sacrifice fly. He throws 3-1 curveballs with the bases juiced. It’s an approach can truly be maddening when his command is off, and draw hot-tempered reactions even from self-appointed bastions of rational thought. 

Crain.fools a lot of people this way, but also walks a fair amount, since that’s what he’s brazenly risking all the time.

It ramps up slightly when there are runners on (11.19 K/9, 4.26 BB/9), as Crain has found that never giving in or throwing get-me-overs or even allowing the ball to put in play is a decent way to avoid the dreaded RBI hit (.165 batting average against in these situations). Strikeout rates are supposed to go down slightly with runners on, Crain’s goes up.

None of which explains how or why Crain has only allowed two home runs with runners on in two-plus seasons. 10 of the 12 home runs he’s allowed as a White Sox have been solo shots. When there are runners on, Crain has given up a home run to 0.7% of the 285  hitters he’s faced. That’s over 74 innings of work, while this season the lowest home run rate of any qualified starter–who are the around that workload so far this season– is Doug Fister with 0.6%.

There’s not really any accounting for this at a certain point. Crain’s generates so many pop-ups (16.9% infield fly rate is reminiscent of the worst Gordon Beckham years) busting guys high-and-hard that his fly ball numbers will always suggest he should give up more home runs than he winds up yielding, but the man has simply avoided damage.

And when teams sign a reliever for three seasons, that’s all that can be asked for. As much care and thought goes into it, it’s a leap of faith and a measure of hope that they can make it through the term without their flaws all collapsing in on them at once.

Not only has Crain done that, his continued defiance of the elements of his game that should hold them back are becoming credentials in their own right. In a bizarre twist, not only have the White Sox emerged from an imprudent free agent gamble scot-free, but in the position to skim moderate extra value. Every team got’s something they’re willing to give up for a reliever.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan