Tuesday, September 20, 2005
NFL "EXPERT" Picks
CRAIN STRIKES OUT
Good Morning! Just a couple of quick thoughts today. Some stuff on the Twins, more on my WCCO appearances yesterday, and the final results of Week 2's NFL "Expert" Picks! Guess who won this week!? But first, I want to talk about a topic that is just baffling to me, the major league career of Jesse Crain.
If you have been checking this site out for the two-plus years that I have been posting, I have been a big fan of Twins reliever Jesse Crain almost since the day that he was drafted by the Twins back in 2002. He was a power reliever through his minor league career and became a rare reliever to reach "top prospect" status not only with the Twins but in the league. But since he came up to the Twins last July, a strange thing happened. He went from a dominating strikeout pitcher to one who is hardly able to strikeout anyone. What happened?
Jesse Crain was born 24 years ago in Toronto. He moved to the States soon after. Following a high school career in which he starred in baseball, football and basketball, he went to San Jacinto (TX) Junior College. He then spent one season at the University of Houston where he was an All-American SS and pitcher. On the mound, he threw 35 innings for the Cougars. His WHIP was just 0.82, and he averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings (44 K).
The Twins drafted him in the 2nd round of the 2002 draft, 61st overall. Only two others from that round were in the majors now, David Bush and Jeremy Reed, and just 15 of 41 first round picks had made a big league appearance. Crain started his career as most collegiate pitchers in the Twins system do, at Elizabethton. In 15.2 innings, he gave up just four hits and seven walks. He struck out eighteen. That amounts to a WHIP of 0.70, and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. That earned him a quick promotion to Quad Cities, the Twins former Low-A affiliate. There, he gave up six hits and four walks in 12 innings. He struck out 11. That's a WHIP of 0.83 and 8.2 K/9. That is a pretty solid season.
In 2003, his first full year of professional baseball, Crain was named the Twins minor league pitcher of the year. His season started at Fort Myers. He stayed there for just 19 innings. He allowed just 10 hits and five walks, and he struck out 25. 0.79 WHIP with 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings. That earned him the promotion to New Britain where he was even better. He stayed there for 39 innings. He gave up just 13 hits and 10 walks while striking out 56 hitters. Those incredible numbers rate to a WHIP of 0.59 and a 12.9 K/9 ratio. That got him the promotion to AAA Rochester where he was still good. In 26 innings, he had a WHIP of 1.31, and he struck out 11.4 per nine innings.
At this point, he was a top pitching prospect. The Twins felt good about him, and he appeared on Baseball America's Top 100 prospect lists. He was touted as having a 98 mph fastball, with a slider and a sharp-breaking curveball.
Heading into the 2004 season, many including myself were saying that the Twins should start the season with Crain as their closer. I mean, at that point, Joe Nathan had never been a closer, and there was a lot of uncertainty following the departure of both Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins. But after a spring training in which he struck out eight in five innings, he was quickly sent down to minor league camp. He set the Rochester record for most Saves in a season (Broken this year by Travis Bowyer). In 50.2 innings, he had a WHIP of 1.08 and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings. Finally, in late July, he earned his promotion to the Twins. He did well in his first big league stint. In 27 innings, his WHIP was 1.07. However, he walked 12 hitters and struck out just 14 (4.7 per nine).
Of course, we had all heard about his 98 mph fastball, and when he got to the big leagues, the coaching staff started tinkering with him right away. I never understood why, and would need someone a lot closer to the situation to explain it to me. His fastball was closer to 90 than to 98, but his slider was still sharp and his slow curve was tough! The assumption was that it was just a small sample, he was likely nervous, and still trying to adjust to big league hitters. Big things would come from him in 2005. In 16 spring training innings, he walked one and struck out 13 (which is at least 7.3 K/9).
And really, he has had an EXCELLENT rookie season. I mean, he is 10-5 with a save and a 2.32 ERA. He has been brought into a lot of tough situations and handled most of them perfectly, inducing a double play, or getting a pop up on a broken bat. He has pitched 73.2 innings in 69 games so far this year. His 1.11 WHIP is certainly above average. His home run rate of 0.49/9 in great. His VORP (Value Over Replacement Pitcher) is 24.3, sixth best among all rookie pitchers, and second to only Huston Street among rookie relievers. Only four non-closer relievers in the AL rank higher than Crain (and just three AL closers). In other words, no matter how you look at his numbers this season, they rank as high as any relief pitcher's in the game of baseball... except one!
I should also mention that it doesn't matter whether he is throwing against lefties or righties. Righties are hitting .218/.295/.264 against him. Lefties are hitting just .198/.299/.287 against him.
Those strikeouts! What happened to Crain's ability to strikeout hitters? In 73.2 innings this season, he has just 25 strikeouts. That is just 3.1 per nine innings. How is that possible? Let's just take a look at his season strikeout rates:
2002 - 9.4 K/9 (27.2 IP)
2003 - 12.2 K/9 (85 IP)
2004 - 9.0 K/9 (77.2 IP)
2005 - 3.1 K/9 (73.2 IP)
Minor League - 11.5 K/9 (162.1 IP)
Major League - 3.5 K/9 (100.2 IP)
It makes absolutely no sense for a pitcher's K rate to drop that dramatically. Yes, there would be an expected drop just from pitching to more consistently better hitters. But for it to be more than three times less is just not normal. I just don't get it.
Why I don't get it! The main reason for me has nothing to do with numbers themselves. The reason I am so perplexed by these numbers is because I see him pitch most of the time. I see that his fastball is now reaching 95-97 mph in the second half of the season. He is frequently breaking bats at the handle. I see that he has a very sharp slider at 88 or 89 mph. I also see his very sharp slow curveball that comes in at 75 mph. With "stuff" like that, he should 'accidentally' get more strikeouts. The one problem might be his control. Usually he has very good control of his fastball, but when he doesn't, he gets behind in the count and has to throw fastballs. But I have also seen him throw a number a 0-2 or 1-2 sliders just off the outside corner that the hitter somehow lays off.
That leads me to one possible conclusion that, at this point, I don't really know how to explain it. Do you think that it is possible that he is tipping his pitches? I don't know if that is possible because then every other team in the league must know about it, so the Twins must, right? If they knew, you would think that it would have been corrected by now.
Maybe he is tipping pitches. Maybe he throws too many strikes, and like hitters against other Twins pitchers, they are swinging early on Crain too. I have also read that many think that Crain should be traded because such a low K rate does not bode well for any pitcher, particularly a reliever. It is always nice for a pitcher to be able to get a big strikeout from time to time. However, I am still against the idea of trading Jesse Crain. First, he is still just 24 years old. Second, with his 'stuff', I can't help but feel that his strikeouts will increase. His other numbers are excellent. Maybe it is like Carlos Silva? Silva should not be nearly as successful as he has been because he does not strike many out. However, in both cases, they are getting the job done. Let's also not forget that many of the runs that have been credited to Crain were scored after JC Romero was brought in to pitch. However, at this point, I also can't really see him as a future Twins closer either.
What do you think? Why is Jesse Crain able to pitch so well despite such low strikeout totals? Also, why do you think his K rate is where it is? Finally, what should he do to correct it? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Please e-mail me.
If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail me.
I have to be honest, I just could not stay awake through the entire Twins game in Oakland last night. It was long, and well, the A's jumped out to an early big lead which made it even more difficult to watch. Brad Radke started, and we were told that it could very well be his final start of the 2005 season because of his bad shoulder. I am very much curious to see who would fill his spot in the rotation if it is. Anyway, last night he gave up five runs in five innings. He gave up two homers, back to back. Terry Mulholland came in and didn't allow a run despite allowing two hits and a walk. JC Romero imploded again in the 7th, giving up two runs on three hits, a walk, and a throwing error. The offense had just three hits through eight innings. Justin Morneau launched a long homer off of Kiko Calero in the 7th inning. Ricardo Rincon tried to let the Twins back in the game in the top of the 8th, but after falling behind 3-0 to Jacque Jones, he struck out the Twins hitter to end the inning with the bases loaded. If Jacque had done anything, I may have stayed away, but I'm going to bed!
OK, Travis Bowyer came in to pitch the bottom of the 8th, so I had to stay up for that, right? He hit the first batter, Jason Kendall. Then he got a fly out to deep center. Then Eric Chavez grounded into a double play. Excellent inning for Bowyer.
Well, then it was the 9th inning, so I just had to make it through three more outs. Keiichi Yabu came in for the 38th time this season for the A's. Michael Cuddyer welcomed him with a LONG home run to deep centerfield, his 11th of the year. Justin Morneau then singled to left. Juan Castro hit a triple down the right field line to cut the lead to 7-3 A's. Michael Ryan was announced as a pinch hitter for Jason Bartlett right before Ken Macha brought in Huston Street despite it not being a save situation. Ryan grounded out to 1B, which scored Castro from third. Shannon Stewart grounded out to 3B on the first pitch. Lew Ford kept the game going with a single to right field. Ford went to 2B on defensive indifference, and scored when Joe Mauer singled to right. That brought Terry Tiffee up to the plate as the tying run. Mauer took second on the first pitch. Tiffee pulled another single to right field to score Mauer, and give Jacque Jones a chance off Street. (Nick Punto pinch ran for Tiffee.) On a 2-0 pitch, Jones took an outside pitch and grounded routinely to 2B to end the game. The Twins scored five in the ninth, but they needed six. I am really glad that I stayed up for the end though! (NOW, I'm going to bed!)
By the way, Baseball America is starting to share its Top 20 prospect lists from each minor league. They started with a couple of the rookie leagues, including the Gulf Coast League. The GCL Twins had two players rank in the Top 20 in the league. They were Paul Kelly (12th) and Drew Thompson (17th). Today, they have their Top 20 in the Appalachian League. Although the Twins affiliate in Elizabethton won the league, they got just three players on the Top 20. Juan Portes was #7. Alexander Smit ranked 18th, and Ryan Mullins ranked 19th. Koby Clemens, son of Roger, ranked #16 in the Appy League.
Francisco Liriano will be making his second start tonight. (Before the game, be sure to check below and just take a few looks at his numbers so far, particularly his WHIP and his opponent batting average!) It will be in Oakland against the A's, and I think that it could be a major challenge for the lefty. Why? Well, it isn't that the A's are a strong hitting ball club. Really, a number of their better hitters are left handed (Eric Chavez, Dan Johnson, Nick Swisher), which could help Liriano. My concern is the A's approach to hitting. Everyone knows that they like taking a lot of pitches and making the pitcher really work hard. So far, Liriano has been excellent, but one concern has been the control of his fastball. So far, he has been much more consistent with his slider and even his changeup. The A's are going to make him throw strikes. I can see Liriano doing alright, but it will truly be completely dependent on his ability to control the strike zone. Can he do it? I think so. But he will have to adjust to the major league strike zone, and hitters that will not help him at all by going outside the zone. It will certainly be fun to watch. Also, it will be on TV. Oh, and so will Wednesday afternoon's game when Scott Baker starts! So, my hope is to be able to post Analysis of both of these Twins great pitching prospects the next two days!
Tuesday - 9:05 pm - Francisco Liriano (0-0, 3.86, 0.57, .130) vs Joe Blanton (10-11, 3.57, 1.24, .239)
Wednesday - 3:35 pm - Scott Baker (1-2, 2.87, 1.09, .219) vs Joe Kennedy (7-11, 5.84, 1.70, .258)
Any thoughts on the Twins, A's, the playoffs or anything, please e-mail me.
Did you happen to listen to WCCO Radio yesterday? If you were listening to their news updates at noon, 2:00 or 6:00, you heard some of my thoughts on the Vikings season thus far. I was contacted yesterday morning and asked if I would be interested in answering some questions on the Vikings. So, I called 'CCO's Eric Eskola who interviewed me. He asked me five or six questions on the Vikings. Then I was listening to the radio online, and at noon, I heard one of my responses. I was asked how I felt as a Vikings fan with what we saw yesterday. I actually almost feel bad for what I said. Sure, it was probably honest, but it really seemed to come across as mean. I said (paraphrasing) that the season to date could be called a letdown, or even an embarrassment. We know that the NFC North is considered the weakest division in the NFL, and right now we may have the worst team in the worst division. Is it true? Possibly. Did I feel almost bad having said it? Yeah! But still, it was great to hear my name and my website mentioned on WCCO.
Then at 2:00, the news came on and they mentioned my name and website again, and this time, they used the question about if I felt that there should be any changes. I said that I thought maybe Offensive Coordinator Steve Loney should move up into the press box, and then I mentioned, as I did on the site yesterday, that as I was watching the game, I couldn't help but wonder if Mike Tice might be fired on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, next week, or might somehow make it through the season. That is what aired that time. My comments were followed by Ziggy Wilf saying that it is just two games into the season and that it is a 16 week season.
And then on their six o'clock news, they re-aired those first comments. No, the whole interview wasn't aired, and really, that is completely fine with me. The biggest radio station in the Upper Midwest said my name and aired my thoughts on the Vikings multiple times throughout the day. Believe me, I am very happy about that! I would just be very interested to hear from anyone who happened to be listening to that on the radio or online and have come to the site for the first time. If so, please e-mail me and say hi!
NFL "EXPERT" PICKS
Alright, so Week 1 was not good for any of our panelists. Week 2 proved to be just as bad! Horrible, might be the best way to describe it! But it is still fun, right? But, I guess I am still happy with my picks. I'll take 10 out of 16 on a week like this. If you look at how we, as a group collectively, picked the games, we were 7-8-1, which is not good. But in the end, I am happy to report that Grant Balfour and I tied for the best record of the week. Trevor Born and Mike Brasel remain tied in the overall standings for the week! By the way, Balfour tells me that yesterday was his first day of throwing since having his Tommy John surgery in April. He says that it went well, which for Twins fans, is obviously great news! And quickly, Mr. Slowey, there are still 15 weeks left in the season!! Plenty of time to catch up! For more NFL "Expert" Picks information, click here.
Final Standings Total Week 2 Over All Name Site
L Win% W L Win % Grant Balfour Twins Relief Pitcher 10 6 62.5% 18 14 56.3% Seth Stohs SethSpeaks.net 10 6 62.5% 18 14 56.3% Mike Brasel Fantasy FB Guru 9 7 56.3% 19 13 59.4% Trevor Born Twins Junkie 9 7 56.3% 19 13 59.4% Cory Hepola KTVH-TV Sports 9 7 56.3% 18 14 56.3% Melissa Lien SethSpeaks.net 8 8 50.0% 17 15 53.1% Aaron Gleeman Aaron's BB Blog 8 8 50.0% 16 16 50.0% Stick & Ball Guy Stick & Ball Guy 8 8 50.0% 16 16 50.0% SethSpeaks Panel 7 8 46.7% 16 15 51.6% Brent Hanson BrentNet 7 9 43.8% 15 17 46.9% Ben Jacobs Hardball Times 7 9 43.8% 14 18 43.8% Will Young Will's Twins Blog 5 11 31.3% 14 18 43.8% Kevin Slowey Twins Pitching Prospect 5 11 31.3% 12 20 37.5%
Looking at the selections of the 12 panelists, here is who the collective "We" thought would win each game:
Baltimore @ Tennessee - Ravens 12-0
Detroit @ Chicago - Lions 8-4
Minnesota @ Cincinnati - Tie 6-6
San Francisco @ Philadelphia - Eagles 12-0
St. Louis @ Arizona - Cardinals 8-4
Miami @ NY Jets - Jets 11-1
Kansas City @ Oakland - Chiefs 8-4
Buffalo @ Tampa Bay - Buccs 9-3
Jacksonville @ Indianapolis - Colts 11-1
New England @ Carolina - Patriots 10-2
Pittsburgh @ Houston - Steelers 12-0
Atlanta @ Seattle - Falcons 10-2
Cleveland @ Green Bay - Packers 11-1
San Diego @ Denver - Chargers 7-5
NY Giants @ New Orleans (@NYG) - Giants 7-5
Washington @ Dallas - Cowboys 11-1
And on that note, I will call it a day and say, "Have a great day!" I certainly hope that you have found plenty of things worth reading. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail me.
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