The loss of Pat Neshek earlier this season provided a potentially crippling blow to a bullpen already ripe with concerning questions. You had Juan Rincon with his continually declining performance, Dennys Reyes with his Jekyll-and-Hyde act between 2006 and 2007, Matt Guerrier with his early-season control issues, and Jesse Crain coming off major shoulder surgery and looking a bit shaky early on.
Yet, even with Neshek gone, the Twins bullpen is hanging smack-dab in the middle of the AL with a 3.69 ERA that ranks them seventh in the league. Several of the aforementioned relievers have helped contribute -- Reyes has gotten good results early on and Guerrier has rebounded from those early struggles to with a 2.52 ERA over his past 25 innings of work (though his lack of control still gives cause for concern). The one guy who has really stunned me this season, though, is Crain, and I felt it would be appropriate to spend a day talking about the remarkable season he has been having thus far.
Crain's 2007 season ended after 18 appearances, during which he had posted an ugly 5.51 ERA. Crain had been feeling some soreness in his shoulder, and imaging tests revealed some very grim news: the right-hander had tears in the labrum and rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder. As far as pitching injuries go, this is one of the worst -- arguably more devastating than a torn ligament which requires Tommy John surgery. The prognosis for a guy undergoing surgery on both a labrum and rotator cuff is generally not very good, and the odds of such a player rebounding within a year are particularly low. With this in mind, I set my expectations for Crain in 2008 extremely low. When previewing the Twins bullpen back in April, I said that while Crain had surprised me be likely earning himself a spot on the Opening Day roster, "it's tough to imagine him being overly effective this year." In all honesty, I doubted that Crain would spend much time on the major-league roster this season and even further doubted that he'd be remotely productive.
Crain got off to a slow start this season, posting a 5.59 ERA over his first nine appearances, but what surprised me about him even at that point was his velocity. I initially suspected that it would take him some time to get back into the mid-90s with his fastball, but he was pretty much right there from the beginning of the season. Up to this point, Crain's fastball has registered an average velocity of 94 mph, which is basically right in line with the 93-94 mph average he has posted each season in the past. As the season has progressed, Crain has combined that impressive velocity with increasingly solid control and with a better grasp of his slider.
The improvement is clearly visible in his results. Since starting the season with a 5.59 ERA and 7-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over those first nine appearances, Crain has posted a 1.64 ERA and 17-to-9 strikeout to walk ratio over 25 innings in his past 20 appearances and has perhaps established himself as Ron Gardenhire's go-to eighth-inning setup man in the absence of Neshek. Nothing about Crain's performance screams "spectacular," at least from a peripherals standpoint, but he's giving up less than a hit per inning and striking out batters at a reasonable rate which would actually rank as the best of his major-league career outside of 2006.
There's plenty of season left and it will still be interesting to see how Crain's shoulder holds up the rest of the way, but up to this point it's tough not to be impressed by the way he's been throwing the ball. He's doing many of the things that made him a successful big-league reliever prior to the 2007 season (although it's worth noting that his ground-ball rate is way down from where it has been in the past). If Crain can continue to prove me wrong with his gutsy performances, he'll be a huge factor in softening the blow felt by the bullpen upon losing one of its greatest assets in Neshek.