Why it's cool to be excited about Jesse Crain

Jesse Crain is no different from any other scrap heap reliever at this point in the Spring. There are some distant reasons to be interested in him, but his red flags and roster status are such that there's likely no performance that can put him on the Opening Day roster. He's around because everyone needs to call up a bunch of relievers during the season so you might as well collect as many interesting ones as you can, and really, with his injury history, his recovery is optimistic and hopeful until there's a setback and it's not anymore.

Crain got through another live BP session this past Thursday without issues, and in talking to Dan Hayes, he was gleefully looking forward to live game action; a hill he only briefly crested in all of his previous season with Houston.

I’m more happy today. It was exciting. I felt really close to a place where I haven’t been in a long time. So I’m happy.
— Jesse Crain

It would happen to any reliever who disappears for a year and a half, but Crain's anonymous status is a quick descent from being a smart under-the-radar target last offseason, which was down from a shortlist contender for the best reliever in baseball at the 2013 All-Star Break. A rough outing against Cleveland at the end of June 2013 broke up a 31-game, 31-inning stretch where Crain hadn't allowed a single earned run, struck out 40, and held opponents to a .515 OPS. A lot of live arms have had their hot stretches, but this was a realization that had been waited on for Crain his whole career, and yet that Dominant Crain reality has only ever been a Sox phenomenon.

Crain was a revered closer prospect in the early 2000's, so much so that he cracked Baseball America's top-100 list twice despite never making so much as a single professional start. That promise never really emerged. Beyond floating between mediocre and decent results, Crain's revered curveball went through so much tumult in his early years that he mostly abandoned it for a slider, and was only beginning to shake out how he would make his hay when he hit free agency. In one of his early seasons that the Twins surely didn't begrudge, Crain struck out 25 in 79.2 innings of work. He was in the majors, which is the most you can ask of any prospect, but any exciting pre-draft scouting report about the tools he brought could be trashed.

After 2010, Crain was the prototypical bad free agent signing. He had pushed aside an unremarkable track record with a low 3.04 ERA that wasn't strongly backed up by his secondary numbers, and snagged a three-year commitment despite never consistently posting even an average strikeout rate. Whatever, the Sox were 'all-in,' and we're just hoping the bad breaks of the deal would happen in 2012 and 2013.

It was in Chicago that Crain learned to live upstairs and jam hitters with a fastball that lived in the mid-90's but couldn't get whiffs on his own (Eighth highest infield pop-up rate in MLB from 2011-13). It was in Chicago where he began to trust his stuff regardless of his environment, he worked up in the zone, racked up walks, didn't get groundballs, shamelessly chased whiffs and absolutely thrived. His ERA+ jumped up to 205 on the South Side (his adjusted ERA from 2011-13 was also the eighth-best in baseball for pitchers with more than 100 innings) over the 128 ERA+ mark he accumulated in parts of seven seasons with the Twins, where he never formed a consistent identity.

It's reflex at this point this to credit Don Cooper every time a Sox pitcher does something unexpectedly good, while Felipe Paulino, Mike MacDougal, and other failed projects get pushed into the dustbin. But David Robertson aside, their moves are markedly specific on what they can get out of a pitcher rather than just megalomania. Crain as a wanted commodity in the league the past two years is pretty much due to who he was in Chicago, or better yet, who he became.

Success for Crain probably depends on his shoulder not being screwed up anymore, but it feels right for his return to come with the franchise that maxed him out. Crain was only ever really special here, and is thereby only really special to us: the only fanbase that can get jazzed about an NRI who hasn't pitched since the 2013 All-Star break, and will absolutely not make the Opening Day roster. 


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