The C Word


On Friday’s “Baseball Tonight” podcast, Buster Olney observed that Jesse Crain might be the most talked about player in the majors right now, at least as far as trade targets go. As we creep up on the halfway point of the baseball season, it’s now time for teams to declare themselves “buyers” or “sellers”—to decide whether to mortgage the farm to “go for it” this year, or to dump appealing short term assets in an attempt to get better in the long (or at least medium) term. The addition of the second wild card team added some difficulty to that decision last year, and as MLB inches towards the miserable situation in the NBA and NHL (where more than half the teams make the playoffs), teams that have no good reason to believe they can perform anywhere near playoff level baseball can still justify being buyers based on the Wild Card standings.

Anyhow, this may be the only time in his solid but quiet career that Jesse Crain has been the center of attention for any reason. However, it is with good reason that Crain is the center of trade talks. He plays for the Chicago White Sox, who are finally living down to the preseason projection of mediocrity that they’ve far exceeded in the previous few years. The Sox are going nowhere fast, and with a depleted farm system and a bunch of aging veterans, they would be well advised to trade whomever they can in order to infuse some new talent into the organization. Moreover, at 32, Crain is having a career year. His strikeout rate is up somewhat from last year (which was already a career high), while his walk rate is significantly lower. Even more encouraging, his ERA (0.53), FIP (1.41) and xFIP (2.84) are all easily the best marks of his career. He through less than half a season, he has accumulated 1.9 WAR.

Think about that for a minute: Crain, a set-up man, has piled up almost 2 wins above replacement in 35 appearances. That’s already the highest mark of his career, and by a good  margin. (He reached his previous high, 1.0, in both 2006 and 2011.) He leads all relievers in WAR, with Pirates closer Jason Grilli the only close contender. On the one hand, this indicates that there is room for regression in the second half of the season as Crain’s performance and statistics ease back towards his “true talent” level. But even so, Crain figures to be a valuable piece of some contender’s bullpen down the stretch this year. 

There’s a catch, though. Crain has never been a Closer at the major league level. His career high in saves? One (which he’s notched in four different seasons). There are a number of potential playoff teams who figure to be in the market for a Closer before the trade deadline next month: the Red Sox, whose 9th inning revolving door has most recently featured the disastrous Andrew Bailey; the Tigers, who recently DFAed Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde; the Diamondbacks, who are struggling through Heath Bell while J.J. Putz is on the shelf; and the Indians, who are awaiting the return of Chris Perez from a shoulder injury. (Perez is doubly intriguing, as he and his wife are also facing marijuana charges in Ohio.) There are also some teams who don’t need a Closer but who still need some bullpen help: the Braves, who have a bit of an arm shortage leading up to Craig Kimbrel; the Giants; and the Yankees, who collect players like a 10-year old collects icky bugs.

So the market for Jesse Crain’s services would seem to be large. As Dave Cameron wrote recently, Crain is certainly a better bargain than Jonathan Papelbon (the other reliever whose name has shown up frequently in trade rumors), and he’s likely to also be the more effective pitcher for the rest of the season. But one still wonders to what extent interest in Crain will be hindered by his lack of experience as a Closer.

The problem, of course, is the unbelievable overvaluation of the “Closer” role. The conventional wisdom of baseball holds that there’s something intangible about pitching in a close game in the ninth inning. The numbers, unfortunately, consistently and thoroughly tell a different story. If pitching in the 9th inning with a lead of 3 runs or fewer were truly a skill, then it should show up in the numbers, right? Well, they don’t. I’m not going to rehash this whole argument here, but go to Fangraphs and search for “Closer.” You’ll find some interesting reading. 

The evidence for the Closer idea? Mostly anecdotal, and based on an incredibly small sample. Remember those three blown saves David Robertson had for the Yankees last year? Clearly he’s not Closer material. That handful of blown saves by Matt Thornton to start the 2011 season? He just can’t mentally handle the 9th inning. End of story.

Anyhow, it’s not my business if managers and teams want to consistently misuse their relief pitchers. What do I care if Dusty Baker (one of the most stubbornly ignorant managers in the game today) wants to use his best reliever in the 9th inning, even if his opponent’s best hitters come to bat in the 8th? But this is not simply a matter of teams failing to maximize their chances of winning; these questions also show up in the hefty contracts awarded to “proven Closers,” particularly as compared with the minuscule and short-term deals given to non-closing relievers. Teams pay exorbitant and disproportional salaries to players who have a “proven track record” as a Closer, even though these contracts almost always turn out to be a financial albatross on the team’s books, and even though the idea of the “proven Closer” seems to be defined tautologically with reference to players who have already been awarded these contracts. Again, I don’t terribly care if teams want to fritter away their money in obviously stupid ways. But this frittering dramatically distorts the finances of the game and creates (or at least exacerbates) inequalities between players irrespective of talent.

What will be interesting is to see when Jesse Crain gets dealt, to whom, and (most importantly) what the White Sox get in return. If teams are unwilling to pay premium money for non-closing relievers on the free agent market, it stands to reason that teams will also be reluctant to part with top talent for a reliever with no track record as a Closer—even if that reliever happens to be the best reliever in baseball this season. I hope the White Sox can get a decent return for Crain’s services—not out of any love for the White Sox, but because it might just help to correct the irrationally skewed market for players who have a “skill” that doesn’t actually exist.

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