Forget Jonathan Papelbon, Target Jesse Crain

Now that the draft is behind us and we’re only six weeks away from the trade deadline, we’re officially in rumor season. This time of year, we’ll be treated to an almost daily look at which teams might be buying or selling and what players could be changing uniforms before the end of July. The Phillies are probably the most interesting potential seller, because their roster is littered with big name players who would draw headlines if traded. Ruben Amaro has been clear that he does not intend to “blow up” the roster, but that doesn’t rule out making any trades at all, as he even noted that he didn’t think the Red Sox “blew up” their roster last year when they traded three of their most expensive players in one deal.

So, assuming the Phillies fall far enough back in the race to convince Amaro to be a seller, Jonathan Papelbon is probably going to be one of the most talked about trade targets of the summer. Contenders are always looking for bullpen help, and certain contenders — yes, Detroit, we’re talking about you — have glaring holes at the back end of their bullpen that could use a significant upgrade. Papelbon is still a terrific reliever, and his postseason track record will appeal to teams who put a lot of stock in experience in the ninth inning role.

However, I have a suggestion for any team that is considering giving up talent and taking on a good sized chunk of the roughly $34 million left on Papelbon’s deal; trade for Jesse Crain instead.

Crain is probably the single most likely player to change teams this summer. The White Sox aren’t going to be in the playoff picture this year, Crain is a free agent at year’s end, and with Jake Peavy hitting the disabled list, he’s probably their single best trade chip to try and bring back some young talent. Toss in the fact that he’s only making $4.5 million in total this year, and Crain doesn’t come with any of the things that might hold a team back from acquiring Papelbon. And while he might not have the proven closer label, he’s developed into a guy who has earned a shot at a ninth inning gig.

Early in his career, Crain was a pitch-to-contact groundball guy, relying heavily on his fastball and basically becoming the kind of pitcher the Twins have become notorious for. Finally, in his final year in Minnesota in 2010, he cut his fastball rate dramatically and started relying much more heavily on his slider, and his strikeout rate jumped as a result. The White Sox gave him a three year contract as a free agent that winter, and under the tutelage of pitching coach Don Cooper, Crain has continued to develop his secondary stuff and has turned into a strikeout machine. A graph of his career K/9 shows his development.

CrainK

Trading fastballs for breaking balls is great for getting hitters to swing and miss, but it’s not so great for throwing strikes, so some of Crain’s gain in strikeout rate was offset by a rise in his walk rate. It’s better to be a high BB/high K reliever than a low BB/low K reliever, especially in late inning situations where strikeouts can strand runners in ways that balls in play cannot, so overall, Crain’s changes made him a better reliever, but the walks held him back from being a true relief ace.

This year, Crain has cut his walk rate dramatically by swapping out some sliders for an increase in curveball usage. Last year, he threw the curve approximately 6% of the time, while this year it’s up to 15%. The addition of more frequently used second breaking ball has given hitters another pitch to look for besides fastball/slider, and a well placed curveball can be a great way for a pitcher to steal a strike early in the count.

As you can see from the PITCHF/x section of Crain’s player page, hitters are only chasing 55% of the curveballs Crain has thrown in the strike zone this year, down from 65% last year and 75% the year before. As a result, nearly 1-in-3 curveballs that Crain has thrown this year have resulted in a called strike, and Crain has begun to throw first pitch curveballs to left-handed hitters with some regularity.

According to Brooks Baseball’s player card, Crain didn’t throw a single first pitch curve to a left-handed batter last year, as he used it almost exclusively when he was ahead in the count. Like most pitchers, he was fastballs early to get ahead, then breaking balls late to put hitters away, especially against left-handers.

This year, though, Crain is throwing 25% first pitch curveballs to left-handed hitters, and now he’s his using his four seam fastball as a putaway pitch with two strikes. The results? Hitters are staring at early count breaking balls, falling behind in the count, and then chasing out-of-the-zone fastballs for strike three. Basically, Crain has learned how to pitch backwards, and instead of relying on getting ahead of hitters with his mediocre fastball command, he’s getting hitters to chase pitches in locations they wouldn’t have previously chased because they came early in the count.

For reference, here’s Crain O-Swing% on fastballs for each of the last three years:

2011: 25.5%
2012: 22.2%
2013: 36.1%

A 36% O-Swing% on a fastball is pretty remarkable. To bring this full circle, hitters have a 33% O-Swing rate against Jonathan Papelbon’s fastball during the PITCHF/x era, and he’s dominated as a ninth inning ace by getting hitters to chase well located high fastballs. Papelbon still relies heavily on his fastball and his approach still works, but Crain appears to be learning how to emulate Papelbon’s biggest asset without relying on it to the same degree.

Because he throws so many breaking balls, Crain is always going to walk more batters than Papelbon, but the addition of the curveball and his willingness to steal strikes early in the count have made Crain devastatingly effective this year. He’s crushing right-handers as always — they are hitting .180/.234/.233 against him — but is also dominating left-handed hitters, holding them to just a .216/.298/.255 mark. And, despite the fact that his slider is still his best pitch, the White Sox haven’t really used Crain in a situational role this year, so his numbers aren’t wildly inflated by facing primarily right-handed hitters; he’s at 53/47 in terms of RHBs/LHBs faced.

Papelbon’s track record and name recognition are vastly superior to Crain’s, but given their performances over the last few years, its hard to make a case that Crain isn’t at least in the same ballpark in terms of late inning reliever dominance. And yet, unlike Papelbon, Crain isn’t due $13 million in salary each of the next two years, and an acquiring team won’t have to pay the “proven closer” premium that will certainly be attached to Papelbon in trade talks.

Rather than sitting around and waiting for the Phillies to decide to trade to their highly compensated proven closer, teams should be beating down Rick Hahn’s door to acquire Crain sooner than later. Whether its the Tigers or some other contender shopping for bullpen help this summer, the name brand might have the headline drawing appeal, but there’s a generic version in Chicago who might be just as good for a fraction of the price.




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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


61 Responses to “Forget Jonathan Papelbon, Target Jesse Crain”

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  1. LaLoosh says:

    I can top that suggestion in two words – Bobby Parnell. Earning just $1.7M this year and two more years of control!! FIP is a miniscule 2.19 this year after 2.99 a year ago. He’s finally holding down 9th inning duties comfortably. Not only a very good 1 inning P but also cheap and controllable! All of which makes him not only valuable but possibly not available… tho if I’m the Mets I have to take advantage of that value now if he can return a solid position player prospect. Chris Owings?

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    • Gordon Shumway says:

      Mets have stated over and over again this season they will not trade Parnell, there was even a mention of it again today in the Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/baseballinsider/2013/06/source-ny-mets-will-not-shop-closer-bobby-parnell-replacement-yankees-at-it-

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      • Manic M says:

        A man visits a yard sale. While walking past the open garage he sees a pair of skis of a brand he favors. He approaches the homeowner.

        “Hey, how much for the skis in the garage?”
        “Oh, those skis aren’t part of the sale.”
        “I’ll give you $400 for them.”
        “Enjoy your new skis!”

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      • LaLoosh says:

        yeah that was via Andy Martino, so you can take it fwiw. That said, whether or not he ultimately gets traded wasn’t the issue. His value is the issue a a commodity is.

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    • Dan the Mets Fan says:

      Bobby will not come cheap to any team. Remember what the Mets asked for and got for Carlos Beltran. I’m sure they would trade him for the right offer but I’m not sure that any team (and rightfully so) will meet the price.

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      • LaLoosh says:

        that’s purely conjecture. Bobby Parnell is not Carlos Beltran. That said, teams can get irrational at deadline time. It’s also about leverage. I guess Papelbon will be made available tho clearly he’s owed a lot more $ than Parnell (and may be a more reliable option too). The Brewers can make Henderson and/or Axford available. Maybe the Jays make Janssen available. And the Fish prob make Cishek available. Considering what he earns and 2 more yrs of control Parnell should be one of the most attractive options unless I’m forgetting someone.

        and no one thinks Parnell is going to return someone’s top prospect either. A good position prospect but not a #1. I think a guy like Chris Owings makes sense.

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  2. Andrew says:

    Too bad Detroit values the words “experienced” and “proven” over words such as “good” and “cost effective”.

    :(

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    • theroundsquare says:

      Sadly, you’re exactly right.

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    • statsman says:

      In 2009, Detroit signed Brandon Lyon, who was not exactly proven. Then ended up going with Fernando Rodney, who didn’t have much much experience closing.

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  3. Nik says:

    This is RAJ’s final test. If he fails getting value for Papelbon, there is absolutely no hope.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      After Amaro’s string of blunders over the years, failing to get “value” for a 32 year old reliever whose contract is a massive albatross is going to be the final straw?

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      • Tim says:

        Not defending Papelbon’s contract overall but given his performance so far under it and the fact that there are just two years left after this year, it’s hardly as “albatross”

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      • Nik says:

        The contract is expensive, but is justified by his performance.

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        • Sparkles Peterson says:

          2012: Earns $11M, Worth 1.4 WAR and $6.1M (Yeah, sunk, I know)
          2013: Earns $13M, ZiPS (U) 1.1 WAR worth $6.1M

          He’s going to have to get really, really good in his mid 30s to justify that contract.

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        • Nik says:

          Really, using WAR for relievers as your sole criteria? How about that .689 WHIP this season? Looks pretty good for contending teams looking for BP help, doesn’t it?

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        • Sparkles Peterson says:

          It looks pretty good, until you realize that he’s making $13 million a year until he’s 36. It’s a bad contract. Amaro had better hope that Colletti holds onto his job, because he’s the only other GM who might think Papelbon is worth it.

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        • Synovia says:

          WAR is a terrible metric for relievers. Especially late inning guys.

          The leverage of a particular inning is important, and a bad close can cost you 3 or 4 games really quickly.

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        • Sparkles Peterson says:

          WAR incorporates leverage, albeit in a way that very well could be overvaluing or undervaluing it slightly. You may think WAR undervalues closers, but that’s because you overestimate the difficulty of the job.

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        • RC says:

          Its not that the job is more difficult, its that it swings the course of a lot of games. And no, WAR does not incorporate leverage. At all.

          It doesn’t matter that a certain appearance only gives up 1 run, if that 1 run loses the game.

          A Closer can be worth -1 WAR, and lose you a whole lot more than 1 game.

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        • Sparkles Peterson says:

          That completely contradicts what Cameron posted in “WAR and Relievers,” 1-18-2010. He states that reliever WAR gives half of the suggested value for leverage, to account for the fact that an uncertain percentage of the increased leverage wins could be picked up by a lesser reliever in the same bullpen. It’s an unsatisfactory compromise (By necessity, I guess), but I lean more towards it overcounting leverage.

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        • Synovia says:

          WAR is designed to be predictive, not descriptive. The primary way that Closers affect wins is not really predictive, its descriptive.

          Saves and blown Saves clearly aren’t a skill, but they’re highly valuable.

          You can’t lose .1 game.

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        • Sparkles Peterson says:

          Somewhere between “Papelbon has been really valuable by these descriptive statistics, though the predictive stats say he’s not all that valuable” and “Teams should be really excited to acquire Papelbon” is a series of steps that I can’t quite get around to accepting as logical.

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  4. Steve says:

    Please trade for Papelbon.

    Sin,

    Mike Adams

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  5. Eminor3rd says:

    I watch almost every appearance, and I feel like he throws his curveball like 60% of the time. Crazy humbling looking at the numbers. I cannot believe he only threw it 6% last year.

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  6. Synovia says:

    The reason why teams want Papelbon more than Crain is that Papelbon is more likely to actually be this good.

    Crain’s walk rate is drastically lower this year than it has been at any point in his career, and thats whats driving FIP/xFIP. There’s not a whole lot of reason to believe its real/sustainable at this point. We’re talking about 30 innings.

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    • Eminor3rd says:

      I think the drastic change in strategy (getting ahead with the curveball) makes it more likely that it’s “real,” otherwise I;d agree with you.

      If you haven’t seen his curve, it really is a pretty good and unique pitch. It has very tight 12-6 break and he throws it pretty hard — it seems to come out of his hand straighter than most curves, as in with less immediate “rise.” It’s not totally unhittable, of course, but it’s plenty good enough that hitters are NOT going to swing at it first pitch and is thus good for first pitch strikes so long as he can control it in the zone.

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      • Synovia says:

        Well, a good chunk of that is probably that most of the hitters he’s facing haven’t spent a whole lot of time watching tape of him. Its a relatively recent thing.

        When he playoffs come, that changes. If guys know they’re going to get a first pitch curve, if its up at all, its going to get crushed.

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        • NS says:

          Unlike Papelbon’s fastballs down the middle.

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        • RC says:

          Papelbon has been throwing that fastball for years now, and hes a significantly above average pitcher doing it. There’s nothing for people to suddenly figure out.

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  7. nsacpi says:

    What would you expect from Crain in the second half of 2013? To me that’s the interesting question. Are his 2011-2012 better predictors than the 33 innings he’s pitched so far in 2013?

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    • Synovia says:

      His 2012/2011 FIP is a full 2 points higher than this year (3.7 vs 1.7). If this isn’t real, hes not a particularly valuable reliever.

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      • Jason B says:

        I don’t know how you would weight 2011 vs. 2012 vs. 1st half 2013, but I would assign the least weight to ’11. Maybe something like 20/35/45 or 15/40/45?

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        • Synovia says:

          FIP

          Crain:
          2011: 3.70
          2012: 3.45
          2013: 1.7

          Papelbon:
          2011: 1.53
          2012: 2.83
          2013: 2.61

          Now, Craine might actually be this good, but there’s certainly larger error bars on him. Which is why Papelbon is worth more.

          When you’re at the top of the league, you want to minimize volatility.

          So, same price? I’d take Paps. If Craine was significantly cheaper though….

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        • Jason B says:

          Yeah, what Synovia said. Very well said, kind sir.

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  8. Ivan Grushenko says:

    This is silly. Glen Perkins is your man!

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    • LaLoosh says:

      yeah, Parnell & Perkins should be the two most valuable closers on the market in the next few weeks… tho I think the Twins are prob a little closer (no pun intended) to contention than the Mets are so I can see them hanging on to Perkins. That seems a little more understandable to me than the Mets hanging on to Parnell.

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  9. Bip says:

    The Dodgers believe in the “proven closer.”
    The Dodgers do not care how much players cost.
    The Dodgers have had a terrible time in the 9th inning this year.
    The Dodgers, given how much they’ve spent on the roster, will be very unwilling to concede this season.
    The Dodgers have some outfield depth.

    Welcome to the Dodgeres, Jonathan Papelbon. Enjoy the Phillies, Joc Pederson. Sigh…

    I’m not totally aware of where the Phillies are attempting to add, but they strike me as one of the few teams that kindred to the Dodgers in its love of older players. Could a Papelbon for Ethier deal work? (with the Dodgers eating some of Ethier’s salary of course — I can’t see a deal involving Ethier going down without this.)

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  10. JJ says:

    Should I pick Crain up in my fantasy league?

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  11. Warriors says:

    FanGraphs – FantasyGraphs.

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  12. Darren says:

    Blue Jays have tons of good bullpen depth for cheap – target them

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  13. Matt says:

    Start dealing Mr. Hahn. Thornton too.

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  14. chasfh711 says:

    Granting that Dave’s analysis is 100% valid, I don’t think the Tigers and White Sox would make this trade. If I’m the White Sox, I want to guy out of my division so he doesn’t come back and bite me in the ass.

    So if the Tigers come calling, I’m charging them a premium over what I ask from anyone else, and the conversation basically starts with Smyly or Porcello or Jackson, and none of that is happening, because the Tigers dont want those guys to bite them in the ass, either. And the Tigers ain’t gonna pry away Crain with Garcia, Rondon, Vazquez or Thompson, and everyone below that is basically flotsam.

    I think the Tigers end up with Papelbon, and as a Tiger fan, I don’t like that any better than any other Tiger fan for 2014 or 15.

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    • statsman says:

      It seems to me that the Tigers don’t really have much of a bullpen problem, when they have Smyly and Benoit sharing 9th inning duties. They are certainly capable enough.

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      • hk says:

        The problem is if the manager insists on using a proven “closer” in the 9th inning instead of Benoit and Smyly.

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        • statsman says:

          Have you checked out the last few games? where those 2 guys got the saves. Already this season, Benoit has 4 saves, while Smyly has 2. So it’s not like the manager is insisting on anything. Seems that Valverde has lost his closers job, and that it’s being delegated on a game to game basis.

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    • hk says:

      How would Crain bite them in the ass? He’s a free agent after this season.

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      • chasfh says:

        Nobody likes to trade a good player to a division rival and see him come back and bet him that season, and since they play each other 12 times after July 31, that’s a not unlikely proposition.

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      • ToddM says:

        It’s hard to be bitten when you’re already playing for next year, which seems pretty likely for the Sox. That said, if they’re planning on trying to resign Crain, letting him get comfortable somewhere else isn’t a good idea.

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      • hk says:

        If they concede that they are out of it and the return that they get for Crain is sufficient, it’s worth it, even if he (a) helps Detroit beat them in their games the remainder of the season and (b) gets comfortable in Detroit. If the Sox want to re-sign him after the season, he’ll most likely go to the highest bidder.

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    • ToddM says:

      A Tigers fan that thinks Avasail Garcia is flotsam? I wouldn’t give up Garcia for Crain. I know he has some work to do in terms of strike zone control and power, but guys that come up at 21 and hold their own in the bigs generally aren’t traded for career setup men of average value.

      Rondon, sure. That guy’s a mess.

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      • ToddM says:

        Sorry, misread your post. Still think the ChiSox would be crazy to turn down that kind of offer.

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    • Matt says:

      Agree here that I don’t see the ChiSox trading within the division unless it nets them over market value in return. If Detroit is willing to deal Smyly, jump all over it, obviously, but that’s highly unlikely.

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      • chasfh says:

        I don’t think it’s unlikely that the Tigers deal Smyly–just unlikely that they deal him for Crain.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          who would they deal Smyly for? another stick if VMart doesn’t come around?

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        • ToddM says:

          Actually, I think it’s very unlikely the Tigers deal Smyly. At some point, every team hits a payroll limit. Verlander gets PAID, Sanchez got paid, and Fister and Scherzer are going to get paid soon as well. Even Porcello’s running out of reasonably priced years.

          I’d expect Smyly in the rotation no later than next April, because someone in there needs to make less than 10 million a year.

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        • chasfh says:

          That’s a good point, Todd. They will probably shop Porcello because now is the time to do it, while he is hot. Smyly is controlled for a longer period of time.

          My early prediction here is that Porcello and others go for Papelbon. Porcello can slot right into that rotation to replace any one of the three mopes they have pitching there now. I just hope that the Tigers are not so besotted with Papelbon that the package includes Andy Dirks or Matt Tuiasosopo and not Avisail Garcia.

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