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.
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:
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.