In our site's first look at Jesse Crain, Ian provided an excellent breakdown of Crain's assortment of pitches. For those that haven't had an opportunity to read it yet, I highly recommend giving it a glance. Crain has the stuff of an elite reliever, and reading the piece will provide an understanding of what to expect if he returns to full health.
So far, the reaction to the acquisition of Crain has been positive. The general take it that the Rays added an elite reliever for what appears to be a minimal cost. For a team that could use a quality right-handed flame throwing reliever to cover the middle and late innings, Crain seems like a logical, obvious fit.
What interests me is Crain's unquestioned reputation as a very good reliever. So far this year, the numbers certainly support that claim, as he is sporting a 0.74 ERA in 36.2 innings. While his FIP isn't quite as good, at 1.52, it is most certainly a very strong figure.
But for his career, Crain's numbers are far less impressive. Over 532 innings, he has a 3.05 ERA (very nice), but a 3.77 FIP and a 4.19 xFIP. For some, the sample size is large enough to conclude that he probably is better than his FIP and xFIP, but I am wary of taking that opinion considering that he hasn't consistently beaten his defense independent statistics year in and year out.
But let's skip ahead to the more important aspect of this debate: why is Jesse Crain pitching so well this year? For me to be fully convinced that Crain is better than just a solid middle reliever going forward, I wanted to see some evidence of a change in the way that he has pitched. The major change, besides improved control, was instantly clear after a quick look at his pitch usage.
One of the keys to Jesse Crain's new-found success this year has been his curve ball. After using it modestly from 2010-2012, Crain has thrown his curve ball 15.92% of the time this year, up nearly 10% from last year. What has changed with the pitch to make him throw it more often?
Though the horizontal and vertical movement for the pitch is similar to what it has been in the past, the above chart shows that he has been throwing the pitch significantly slower. For a guy with a fastball in the mid-90s, a curve ball in the low-70s is a major change of pace.
When the velocity of the pitch went down, its performance, as well as Crain's overall performance, instantly improved.
Jesse Crain may not be a massive addition to the team, but if the last two years are any indication of his true talent level, then he fills the role of a hard throwing right handed reliever with an effective three pitch mix. With Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Alex Torres already in the fold, the addition (assuming good health) gives the Rays a lethal back end of the bullpen.