Jesse Crain: A big relief investment that paid dividends

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Big arm and a deep bag of tricks allowed Minnesota import to live up to his contract and then some

Jesse Crain joined the White Sox as they worked their way out from under the Scott Linebrink contract.

Linebrink unwittingly became the best argument against a substantial commitment to a setup man. His four-year, $19 million contract was a mistake the moment pen hit paper, and his contract played out exactly the way you'd expect for a declining 31-year-old National League lifer trying to survive in a hitter-friendly ballpark. The first three months were nice, and the next 3½ years were penance.

Kenny Williams finally reconciled the inevitable and treated Linebrink as a sunk cost after his third seson, shipping him to Atlanta in a salary dump on Dec. 3, 2010. And even by those standards, it managed to disappoint, because the Sox had to pay $3.5 million of the $5.5 million owed to him in 2011, while receiving a warm body in return.

(Do you remember who it was? It took me a second).

Seventeen days later, the Sox signed Jesse Crain to a three-year deal. Now, even three years for a non-elite reliever is often a regrettable decision, but the mistakes realized during the Linebrink debacle actually made Crain's contract far more palatable.

Unlike Linebrink, Crain:

  • was on the younger side of 30.
  • spent his entire career in the American League.
  • had just posted a career year.

And on top of that, the Sox were in the middle of their "All In" offseason. They shed Linebrink's salary to re-sign A.J. Pierzynski, then retained Paul Konerko while signing Adam Dunn to a four-year, $56 million contract. At that point, the mild risk of committing to Crain for a year too long wasn't all that scary. In fact, it fit in as ideologically consistent. Given the dramatic proclamations made during the winter meetings, it made no sense to cut corners with Crain.

As it turned out, Crain was the least of our worries over his time on the South Side. Here's what he accomplished over his White Sox career:

Year W L ERA G IP H HR BB SO ERA+ WHIP
2011 8 3 2.62 67 65.1 50 7 31 70 166 1.240
2012 2 3 2.44 51 48.0 29 5 23 60 177 1.083
2013 2 3 0.74 38 36.2 31 0 11 46 592 1.145
CHW (3 yrs) 12 9 2.10 156 150.0 110 12 65 176 207 1.167

He absolutely justified the cost, and unlike his time in Minnesota, I imagine most fans would say his numbers represented his performance. The "Crainwreck" tagged by Twins fans never surfaced in Chicago. He wasn't perfect -- he was on the hook for nine losses over three years -- but he didn't suffer stretches of chronic collapses that demanded a derisive nickname.

It probably helped that he was able to alter his approach every season. In 2011, he was a slider-first pitcher, throwing them nearly half the time. The next year, he flipped the fastball-slider balance, and also mixed in more changes and curves.

This season, he took his performance to unprecedented heights by going back to his curve as a putaway pitch. It was still his third offering in terms of frequency, but when he paired the big 12-6 breaking ball with a high 95-mph fastball, hitters had a hard time knowing which one was going to be a strike out of his hand.

Multiple tricks made him effective against both righties and lefties, and managers could hand him an entire inning or two without concern. It didn't hurt that he was the rare reliever who could keep baserunners honest. His "quick feet" move might've been balky, but he got away with it (five pickoffs, one balk).

So he basically offered everything as a setup man. He just wasn't available for entire seasons, and that turned out to be his only drawback. After a perfectly healthy 2011, Crain went to the disabled list twice in 2012, and had to sit out twice this season, too (he benefited from the super-long spring training more than anybody).

To Crain's credit, he seemed to have a good grasp of when he couldn't go. His trips to the DL weren't preceded by lengthy preludes of iffy performances and worrisome radar-gun readings, and when he came back, he generally picked up where he left off. He might've missed a quarter of the last two seasons, but 75 percent of the time, he was 100 percent every time.

Crain's accurate self-assessments were driven by necessity. He never was the master of efficiency -- he proved he could work with higher-than-normal walk rates in 2011 and 2012, but even when he improved his control in 2013, he somehow needed more pitches per inning. He walked a fine line with his proclivity for deep counts, and he needed to feel up to the task:

"You always want to get in games, test batters and get that adrenaline going because in spring training it's hard to get that adrenaline," Crain said. "But I can tell by playing catch if I'm there or not and how I feel. When I'm out there, I go all out and need to feel right. And for a while, I wasn't able to do that until the very end. You learn that over the years.''

Unfortunately, the maximum amount of maximum-effort outings probably took its toll on Crain. Because so many Sox games were decided by one to three runs, Robin Ventura needed his top men more than he'd like, and Crain was the best of the best. He set a franchise by stringing together 29 consecutive scoreless outings, ranging from April 12 to June 22. While Crain didn't record a single save in 2013, Ventura understood his worth:

"I don't know too many guys in the league that are doing better than him. He comes in for nasty situations. If we're tied or winning, he's in there. He's getting it done. If he doesn't, you'd be shocked. I know you don't get the actual save next to your name but if there's anybody in the league that deserves it, he's been a guy that deserves something. It's a save in our book."

But Crain ended up paying the price for the lack of offense. By the time he went on the DL, he was on pace for 79 appearances (and that was with a couple of breathers built in). While his shoulder soreness sounded familiar and therefore innocuous, he didn't throw another pitch for the Sox after June 29. His last game was an uncharacteristic loss.

Though his 2013 season was abbreviated, both WAR measurements call it his most valuable. This might point to a shortcoming in measuring relievers (especially FanGraphs; FIP never recognized his elevated walk rate as a stylistic choice), but it does represent how devastating he became in this latest incarnation. He hasn't pitched in a month, and he's still tied for fifth in the American League in shutdowns.

Quibble over the specific measurements if you like, but either way, he more than earned his contract during his time in Chicago. Leaving under these circumstances leaves a lot to be desired, not only because the season has been such a disaster, but because his All-Star-level work could've been worth more if he were healthy at the trade deadline. That said, had the rest of his teammates pulled their weight like Crain did, he never would have been traded in the first place.

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