Thursday, December 16, 2010

White Sox Sign Jesse Crain

Seriously Kenny Williams? Seriously?

Ok, first of all, let me say that I really like Jesse Crain as a person and as a baseball player, and I'm going to gush a bit.

As a person, I respect the heck out of him for doing everything his organization have asked of him. I respect him for facing down the two surgeries with the highest washout rates for pitchers in baseball - rotator cuff and labrum - at the same time. And not flinching. Baseball is a game that can be played by anyone, but only a select few can tread the dangerously thin line that separates a Minor Leaguer from a Major Leaguer and tread right. The margin for error is simply too small. So to make it back from both of those injuries is impressive in any regard. That he tackled both at once and succeeded is border-line unbelievable.

As a player, I really like his stuff. He features two very solid offerings - a straight fastball that clocked in at 94.8mph in 2010, and a late-breaking slider with hard bite at 85.5mph. He'll also show hitters the occasional curve at 75.5mph. Those strong pitches allowed him to punch out 8.21 batters per nine in 2010.

While the fastball has good life, it's lack of vertical or horizontal movement makes it a pretty hittable pitch and throughout his career, it's ranked as his most hittable offering and came in at 1.13 runs BELOW average per 100 pitches in 2010. His slider has consistently been his best offering, and came in at 2.91 runs ABOVE average last year.

Where Jesse really struggles however, is in control. It's not that his walk rates are THAT bad - 3.57/9IP in 2010 - but they aren't great either. Worse, he has a tendency to miss IN the strikezone which, paired with generally mediocre ground ball rates - 39.2% in 2010 - leads to his fair share of home runs.

If White Sox fans are thinking that sounds familiar, it's because it is. Indeed, the Sox just traded away a player with strikingly similar peripherals in Scott Linebrink. They did so only to sign Crain to yet another three year deal after watching the one given to Linebrink explode on them to the extent that they had to pay the Braves 3.0m to take him on while getting back a paltry return.

This is where my, "Seriously Kenny..." bit comes in to play.

It's not that either Crain or Linebrink are BAD pitchers. Hardly. They both have above average stuff, both struggle somewhat with their command, and both are somewhat flyball prone. Furthermore, their issues with fly-balls were generally negated to some extent with their previous teams (Twins/Padres) as they played in pitcher friendly stadiums. When Linebrink moved into the hitters paradise that is US Cellular, he started giving up home runs at an astonishing rate.

I'm not projecting the same thing will happen with Crain - his ground ball rates are generally 5-8% better. But Crain also doesn't have nearly the track record of success that the Linebrink does, and a flat fastball like his is going to make him homer prone regardless of where he pitches.

I would've thought that seeing one three year deal for a reliever not work out as hoped would've perhaps highlighted the fact that giving relievers - who are notoriously unreliable - such long deals is ill-advised. Especially when that player has really only had one good year since recovering from multiple career-threatening injuries. But I guess that's why no one can ever guess what Kenny Williams is going to do. Because too often, much of it baffles everyone else. Lots of times in good ways. But I just can't see this being one of them.

I like Jesse Crain, a lot. I think he's a very solid pitcher. I think he'll continue to be a solid pitcher. But I also think White Sox fans are going to dislike him in short order because he's going to be asked to do something he's probably not well-equipped to do. Be a setup man in a ball park that really doesn't fit him. That won't be Jesse's fault of course - a man can't be something other than what he is - but will it lead some to question Williams' free agent strategies?

Kenny is taking a lot of high-risk, high-cost gambles this off season to try and get his club back into the playoffs. But if they don't pan out, he's going to be left with a lot of ugly looking contracts in 2012 and beyond and he'll be leaving his franchise hamstrung.

If Kenny Williams were a poker player I'd say he's got a J-Q off-suit and is hoping to pull a flush. It could work out really nice, or end up costing him a lot.

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