Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Bullpen Ace

Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated storylines in this wonderful season for the Twins has been the dramatic turnaround of Jesse Crain. His performance in the early weeks of the season had most Twins fans clamoring for his dismissal, but since seeing his ERA swell to a season-high 7.31 on May 18, Crain has been one of the league's most dominant relievers.

In 46 2/3 innings of work since that date, the right-hander has allowed only 27 hits, including 22 singles and just one home run. He's struck out 46 batters and walked 18. He's been charged with only five earned runs -- good for a 0.96 ERA. I never would have expected to say this back in mid-May, but right now Crain is pretty much automatic.

His season highlight came on Tuesday night. With the Twins seeking to bury the dagger on a White Sox club that would be effectively eliminated from contention with a loss, Crain entered the game in an extremely sticky situation. The Sox, trailing by one in the bottom of the seventh, had put both of their first two hitters on against Matt Guerrier and were heading into the heart of their lineup with nobody out.

Alexei Ramirez moved both runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Crain then walked Alex Rios, loading the bases with one out for Chicago's No. 4 and 5 hitters. It's a nightmare scenario for any pitcher, but Crain employed his devastating slider/fastball combo to strike out both Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez, ending Chicago's threat. The Twins tacked five runs to their lead in the next inning and slammed the door on any realistic postseason hopes for the White Sox.

It's quite clear that Crain is the Twins' best reliever at this point, and that has some folks wondering why the team acquired Matt Capps to fill the closer role when they could have simply had Crain and Jon Rauch swap roles.

It's a fair question, but I tend to think Crain's current role is perfect, and Tuesday night's game illustrated exactly why.

Managers in today's game (and Ron Gardenhire especially) tend to use their closers in a strict, rigid manner. That seventh-inning spot was the perfect time for Gardenhire to call upon his most dominant reliever, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that Gardy never would have gone to his closer in that spot. How many times have we seen Joe Nathan called upon in the seventh inning of a game?

If Crain had been labeled closer, he'd be pigeon-holed into pitching the ninth inning regardless of circumstances. In Tuesday night's game, he may have never gotten the chance to throw a meaningful pitch, because against a lesser reliever (like Rauch, who would have probably been the guy if he and Crain had simply switched duties) the middle of the Sox lineup might have broken the game open in that seventh inning.

It's for that reason that I'm persistently vexed by the way managers tend to limit the impact of their best reliever just because he tends to carry that "closer" label. For now, though, I'll just be glad not to have to worry about it with Crain. He's the bullpen's ace, ready to be called upon when the game is on the line and the opposing team's best hitters are in a position to do damage.

It's in that role that Crain can be most impactful, more so even than Capps, regardless of whether or not he racks up a bunch of saves.


Ed Bast said...

Nick, I'm with you on this. While it's clear Crain is our best reliever, who knows how he'd react as the "closer". Anyway he seems locked in to that 7th/8th inning role, and those can be some of the most important situations anyway - look at how the first 2 games of the Sox series got away from Chicago in those innings. Both games were, what, 0-0 in the 5th? Ended up in blowouts.

In terms of the "closer", though, I'd really like to see Gardy go to Fuentes if a bunch of lefties are due up. Not to over manage the bullpen too much, but if you've got Crain/Mijares/Rauch?/Fuentes/Capps to get you 6-9 outs (or less), that's pretty damn solid.

Anonymous said...

I agree, why limit yourself? If Gardy has an arsenal of good pitchers, why not just mix and match them game to game? That way the opponent will never exactly be sure who might come in as a reliever and who might show up to close the game.

rghrbek said...


Excellent post. I am glad that Gardy has not taken Crain out of his spot as the highest leverage relief dude.

Crain has stunk, for basically the last 2 years. I was totally against bringing him back for 2 mil this last year.

He has saved our season.

How about Gardy's use of the bullpen last night? Clearly Matty G has been overused again this year, so Gardy trots him out again. Why did we bring guys in from AAA when we expanded if we will not use them in non leverage situations? I think we all wanna see Salama more.

Dave said...

How is Matty G's arm still intact after multiple seasons of manager abuse? Just like if you are a starter with Dusty Baker, I would be scared to be a good arm in the pen lest he work me to early retirement.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Crain has been by far the twins best reliver over the past few months, has anyone forgoten when Rauch came out with the bases loaded, one out and up by three and Crain got a shallow feild fly out and a strikeout to get his only save this year, that was against the white sox by the way.

And about Crain being closer, The only time the Twins put him in with a chance to get a save with a one run lead against detriot he gave up the one home run that was talked about in the blog. But with Fuentes, Capps and Crain I don't see why the Twins couldn't use one or two earlier in the game.

Anonymous said...

So nice of you to pat Gardy on his head for managing correctly despite himself.

Anonymous said...

Get back to me after he dominates in the playoffs.

Vice Admiral Vincent Williams

Anonymous said...

I personally think that your team bullpen ERA will be lower if you try to keep guys in established roles. Perhaps this results in you not always using the hottest hand in the highest leverage spots. But overall guys get comfortable and locked in when they know their role and situation.

Or at least that is what the majority of managers believe. What would they know though?

With that said, Crain's role right now seems to be to put him into the highest leverage non-save situations possible. I think this is fine. While Capps isn't an above average closer, he is consistent and totally servicable.

Demoting him for Crain might cause both pitchers to be slightly less effective. While Crain likely would still be the better reliever, they might each lose something from having their roles changed.

Nate said...

Nick, Crain is dominant again just like in the second half of last year. The Twins seem to find the urgency of these second half games and dig a little deeper. Managers using their best reliever in the most pressing situations has always seemed neglected in the big leagues. I can't figure out why. I think there is some truth to the established roles lead to a better result, but would I rather see Joe Nathan go up against some of the best hitters on the opposing team just as they are starting to build their momentum whenever that push may come. A two or three run lead can be maintained by many a reliever especially when the weakest part of their line up is at bat.