Season of close games brings out best in Jesse Crain

USA TODAY Sports

White Sox's pitiful offense puts pressure on the pitching staff, and setup man has risen to the challenge

For fans of the comfortable White Sox winner, this season won't register as a favorite. Out of the 67 games played thus far, 54 have been decided by three runs or fewer, including the Sox's 4-2 victory over Houston on Monday.

I've talked about my favorite stat a few times before -- the Sox average fewer runs in victories than any other AL team, and it's not even close. That hasn't changed, and when you also add in the opponents' run totals, it's even sillier.

Here are the average White Sox victories from the last three years. This year, when the White Sox win -- which means we're selecting largely from games that feature their better execution -- the average victory yields a save situation:

  • 2013: 4.48-2.24
  • 2012: 6.27-2.73
  • 2011: 5.58-2.50

The lack of easy nights is hard on uniformed personnel, too. The hitters feel guilty for never being able to give the offense a lead, and the starting pitchers are seldom forgiven for having the temerity to allow a crooked number early in the game.

But there's one group that can emerge from this neverending parade of nail-biters as stars: late-inning relievers. Whether we're talking about more familiar counting stats like saves and holds, or newer ones like leverage index and WPA, there are opportunities abound for resume-building if a reliever can cut it.

That makes Jesse Crain this season's war profiteer -- or rather, a WAR profiteer.

Star-divide

Crain retired all five batters he faced on Monday, good for his 27th consecutive scoreless appearance (tying J.J. Putz for the White Sox franchise record), and his league-leading 18th hold. When it's June 18, and you haven't allowed a run since April 12, your stat line is likely to be wackadoo:


W-L G IP H R ER HR BB K ERA WHIP
Jesse Crain 1-1 33 31.2 22 2 2 0 9 42 0.57 .98

Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron wrote up Crain's case as the most compelling late-inning trade target, and he provides a nice statistical summary of everything we've seen contribute to Crain's success -- using the curve, using it to grab early strikes, and using it to set up the high fastball.

Add it all up, and to use a stat that adds it all up, Crain has been immensely valuable. By FanGraphs' WAR calcuation, Crain accounted for 1.9 WAR after Monday, making him the Sox's third-best player behind Chris Sale and Alex Rios. Baseball-Reference.com's WAR is even more bullish, attributing 2.6 WAR before Monday, which is ahead of everybody but Sale.

But it doesn't take much for a player to distinguish himself on this year's Sox team. Crain's brilliance requires a greater context, and when you stack him up against the rest of the league, he still stands out, and how.

Star-divide

This is where we note that WAR is tricky for pitchers, especially relievers, because FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com's formulas share different philosophies. FanGraphs takes the defense out of it by using FIP, so it weighs strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed heavily. B-Ref bases its formula on runs allowed, which means a pitcher gets credit/punished for how the hits he allows are distributed, and also the quality of the defense behind him.

It usually doesn't result in big differences by the end of the season, but some pitchers can defy the general agreement between the two. Crain is one of those cases, because thanks to his 0.57 ERA and his heavy relief workload, B-Ref calls him one of the 10 most valuable pitchers in the American League:

B-Ref FanGraphs
  1. Clay Buchholz, 4.1
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma, 3.9
  3. Felix Hernandez, 3.8
  4. Chris Sale, 3.6
  5. Yu Darvish, 3.0
  6. JESSE CRAIN, 2.6
  7. Max Scherzer, 2.6
  8. Anibal Sanchez, 2.4
  9. James Shields, 2.3
  10. Hiroki Kuroda, 2.3
  1. Felix Hernandez, 3.2
  2. Anibal Sanchez, 3.1
  3. Max Scherzer, 3.1
  4. Yu Darvish, 3.0
  5. Chris Sale, 2.4

Scherzer will likely jump past Crain after his start on Monday. He beat the Orioles to improve to 10-0 with a 3.08 ERA and 116 strikeouts over 96⅓ innings. That Scherzer would just pass Crain now is the kind of thing that makes WAR hard to embrace. It shouldn't be taken as anything remotely definitive, but it's just a fun thing to use to point out how incredible he's been.

And actually, FanGraphs isn't far behind, calling Crain the 12th-most valuable AL pitcher after Monday, which is still an incredible compliment.

I think that 1.9 WAR is a better number for an "on pace for" number, because since it's based off FIP, there's already some regression accounted for. Even then, Crain is on pace for 4 WAR, which is pretty much unheard of for modern relievers. Hell, even if he "only" produces 3 WAR, he'll be in rare territory. Here's a list of all the relievers to reach that mark in fWAR over the last five years:

This is the kind of performance that would make Crain worth his entire $13 million contract, even if he didn't throw a single inning in 2011 or 2012. And make no mistake -- he easily earned his salary in those seasons, too.

Thoroughly satisfying free-agent experiences are difficult to come by on the South Side, regardless of years, money or position. The wounds from Scott Linebrink's cratering were still fresh when Crain hopped on board, and even Will Ohman, signed in the same offseason for far less money, couldn't deserve his salary in two consecutive seasons.

If the first 67 games are any indication, White Sox fans will have to embrace whatever form success takes. Crain's role may limit the ways he can help the season turn around, and he may not even be long for Chicago by this time next month. Nevertheless, as far as setup men and White Sox free-agent signings go, this is as good as it gets.

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