“What have you done for me lately?”
It’s the mantra of sports fans everywhere, and especially baseball fans. It’s the reason that Twins followers have almost completely forgotten about the earlier struggles of Joe Mauer, who’s hitting at a blistering .442 clip since the All-Star break. It’s the reason that Scott Baker was the most popular odd man out yesterday when I asked readers which of the club’s bottom three starters they would exclude in a playoff rotation. (I can almost guarantee the results would have been different had I posted the article after Baker twirled eight shutout innings against the Rays just two weeks ago.)
It’s also the reason that Jesse Crain has become the relief arm du jour of Twins Territory. Crain has been flat-out spectacular since the beginning of June, having allowed only three earned runs and 17 hits over 30 1/3 innings, good for a 0.89 ERA and .167 BAA.
It’s a great turnaround story, because prior to his resurgence, Twins fans were widely at wit’s end with the right-handed reliever. On May 20, at which point Crain’s fly ball tendencies helped lead him to 7.31 ERA, Aaron Gleeman looked at the reliever’s overall body of work and declared that he “just isn't very good.” Phil Mackey last night penned his apology to Crain for a column he wrote (but didn’t publish) just two days after Gleeman’s article in which Mackey concluded that the struggling Crain might need a fresh start elsewhere. That same week, I’d posted my own Crain rant.
I like to think that Gleeman, Mackey and I are three of the least reactionary Twins writers on the web, but no one could be blamed for being fed up with Crain’s poor early results. I had liked the team’s decision to bring him back at $2M this season, figuring that perhaps his late-season success from ’09 would carry forward into 2010 and even predicting before the season that he’d ultimately steal the closer role from Jon Rauch and wind up as the team leader in saves. But, outside of the occasional strikeout, there was nothing pretty about Crain’s performance over the first couple months of this season.
Just about everything about Crain’s performance has been pretty since then. He’s been nearly unhittable and has only been getting better recently, with just four hits and one run allowed in his past four innings of work. He’s shored up his command and he’s striking out batters with regularity.
Any number of factors might be contributing to Crain’s turnaround. He credits Rauch with helping him refine his approach on the mound and he seems to have developed his slider into a lethal and unpredictable pitch. Furthermore, he’s likely gained increasing confidence as his run has gone on, which would help explain why his performance keeps getting better and better. In addition, a .230 batting average on balls in play since the start of June (as opposed to a .294 mark prior) would suggest that some plain old good fortune has played into Crain’s run. Most likely, it’s a combination of all those things, and more.
Whatever the reason behind it, Crain’s run has been hugely impressive and vital for a bullpen which has experienced its fair share of turmoil recently. If not for the acquisition of Matt Capps (another guy whose recent struggles are causing fans to forget about a long track record of success), my prediction that Crain would finish the season as closer might have actually come true.
For the time being, he’ll have to settle for being the team’s top set-up man and most reliable option in high-leverage situations. He’s come a long way since that week in May when even his staunch defenders were wondering whether a designation for assignment might be beneficial for both him and the team.
Early in the 2009 season, few would have guessed that Crain would be one of the team’s most trustworthy relievers by the time the playoffs rolled around, but sure enough, he was. This season is shaping up the same way. In a game where fans tend to judge a player by his latest appearance, there’s something to be said for Crain’s ability to finish strong.