The Astros made another move to bolster a league-worst bullpen today in signing 32 year old reliever Jesse Crain. Crain has been a pretty solid middle reliever over the course of his career. His career ERA is 3.05, and he's posted a positive WAR every year except 2007, based on Baseball Reference. His signing follows the likes of Matt Albers and Chad Qualls, both of whom have posted consistently solid ERAs.
Before he joined the White Sox, Crain was an above-average but not spectacular reliever with decent strikeout rates. After signing a deal with Chicago in 2011, Crain's numbers skyrocketed and he became one of the most middle relief pitchers in the league. His K/9 rose to a career best 9.64 in 2011, and he followed that up with 11.25 in 2012 and 11.29 last year.
Now, we take a step back. Crain only pitched 36.2 innings last year, all before the All-Star break. He went on the disabled list with a right shoulder strain and pitched his last game on July 5. He was traded to the Rays at the deadline and returned from the disabled list before the season ended, but never appeared in a game with the Rays.
Is Crain's injury a concern for the Astros? Crain also pitched in the WBC for Canada in the spring. Maybe his injury be attributed to his live-game workload in the WBC? Who knows. Crain was on pace for a career best season last year and one that would have made him the top setup man in the game if he continued the pace. Was it a 36 game mirage, or a sign of future dominance in the back end of a bulpen?
Crain's 2013 FIP was a miniscule 1.52 to go along with an ERA of 0.74. The next-lowest for his whole career is 3.45 in 2012. As you can see, that's almost a full two runs of difference. However, his 2012 season was impressive as well, with a 2.44 ERA and great strikeout totals. If we get that, I'm sure the Astros are happy. Steamer projects Crain at a 2.82 ERA with a K/9 of 10.44 not far from his 2013 numbers. It's very unlikely that Crain would have kept up his 2013 numbers for the full season, and it's more unlikely that he can replicate them in 2014; but if he can stay healthy, we should still get a very effective pitcher out of the back end of the bullpen, and probably the closer's role.
Where will Crain pitch in 2014? He automatically becomes the most proven and, well, best reliever on the Astros roster. There's nothing in the way of Crain closing games for the Astros next year. It's a role he's never taken on, however; he has only four saves in his career and his batting average against is higher in what fangraphs calls "high leverage" situations than others. For his career, batters hit .242 in high leverage compared to .204 in medium leverage.
To cross-check the leverage situations for Crain, we can look at Jose Veras, another effective relief pitcher who didn't close before coming to Houston. For his career, Veras holds hitters to a .193 average in high leverage. Of course, this includes his solid 2013 where he closed effectively for the Astros. Veras has generally pitched better in high leverage situations, but these must be taken with a "Crain" of salt (*ducks*). High leverage situations occur much less often than other scenarios, so these numbers are usually the victim of small sample size.
Because this article is not about Jose Veras or an explanantion of leverage, let's get back to Jesse Crain. His high strikeout numbers suggest he can be a legitimate closer, even without any ninth-inning experience. It's possible that he won't fare as well in the ninth inning, but his numbers there weren't bad by any means, just not as good as he would be in, say, the seventh inning.
Nevertheless, the Astros will need Crain in the ninth inning next year. Qualls and Albers aren't closers, and Josh Fields is still very hittable. Crain allowed zero home runs last year in his short season. Of course, it's unlikely that will happen again; Crain's HR/FB rate averages out to 7.4% over his career, which is an above-average number.
Still, Crain's home run rates are a possible cause for concern. Last year, he allowed none, and but in 2012 his HR/FB rate was 10.6%, which is considered below-average. Steamer projects his HR/9 to rise to 0.88, very near his career high number of 0.96 in 2011 and a 0.94 in 2012. Crain has become more of a flyball pitcher over time. Though Minute Maid is considered park-neutral, the Crawford Boxes and the short wall in right are prone to flyballs leaving the yard.
Okay, let's go back to Jose Veras one more time. Veras entered the 2013 season with high walk rates for his career. Many thought he wouldn't cut it in the closer's role because he was wild and allowed players to reach base. Well, Veras pitched well, and an interesting theory was this: Hitters get more anxious to put the ball in play for a impactful outcome in the ninth inning of a close game (i.e. a save situation). Because of Veras' erratic control, hitters chased a lot of his pitches. He ended up with a 9.2 K/9 in Houston and career-low walk rates.
Can the same thing happen with Crain? Last year, hitters swung on 32.3% of his pitches outside of the strike zone (called O-Swing%). He's posted O-Swing rates in the 30s consistently in his career., while Jose Veras' number in 2012 was 26.4%. Crain hasn't been as wild as Veras in his career, but he certainly gets hitters to chase his pitches, and could be even more effective than Jose Veras in that regard.
Here's one more tidbit that shows Crain can be an effective closer; his velocity improved last year, even after age 30. According to Brooks Baseball, Crain consistently threw his fourseam fastball at 95 mph last season after sitting at 94 in 2012. If Crain can consistently pump fastballs at 95 or higher, that will limit hard contact and could be partly to explain why he didn't allow any home runs last year.
I expect Crain to start the season as the closer next year. Some people had concerns with Jose Veras in that role and didn't even want him on the team, but he was a pleasant surprise. Crain has the track-record and many other numbers in his favor. It's a good signing on a one-year deal, and money needs to be spend on the bullpen. Hopefully Crain can contribute positively to a bullpen that preserves leads for young starting pitchers and can win the Astros a few more games next season.