PECOTA projections and Jesse Crain's wanton defiance of them

PECOTA projections and Jesse Crain's wanton defiance of them
Jesse Crain and Tyler Flowers discuss the benefits their species offers human society // Phil Velasquez, Chicago Tribune

The first edition of the Baseball Prospectus' esteemed PECOTA player projections for 2012 came out on Wednesday, and well, it's pretty much what you'd expect--The White Sox are noticeably lacking in sure-fire studs.

Projections aren't meant to surprise; that's usually a sign something might be wrong with them.  Kinda like how ESPN's Keith Law's minor league organizational rankings, that were also released Wednesday, aren't meant to surprise either.  A surprise from Law would be jarring.

What?!? Keith Law actually loves the White Sox frugality toward draft spending?!?!? 

Such a shock would need to be followed up by some sort of announcement from ESPN.

Turns out Keith has come down with a nasty case of encephalitis, we wish him the best in his best in his recovery.

Fortunately, Keith and the overriding natural order are fine.  Unfortunately, the White Sox minor league system is not.

Back to the topic of projections, the goal is to remove the noise and random variance, in order to reflect the true talent of the player.  It includes lot of measures and models built to try to predict which types of players will break down or break out, but naturally is not going to be moved by things like how awful Adam Dunn looked last season, are how much fun it is to see Dayan Viciedo in batting practice.

In observing PECOTA's cold rationality, It's discouraging to see Gordon Beckham projected to hit .253/.317/.389 and realize it'd be a significant improvement, and encouraging to see Floyd and Danks return to being above-average starters (3.87 and 3.89 ERAs).

The most interesting cases are when the system has to calculate someone like Jake Peavy, who's coming off three straight lost seasons (144 IP, 3.46 ERA), or Chris Sale making an adjustment from elite reliever to starter (120 IP, 2.79 ERA!!!), or total enigmas like Jesse Crain (71.2 IP, 3.89).

For the past two seasons, Crain has flummoxed his projections, and also his end-of-season peripherals.  The cutoff date of the start of 2010 for the weirdness is obvious--it was the debut of his now familiar slider-saturation approach.  Though "beginning of 2010" isn't the perfect describer.

In 2010, Jon Colosimo noted the disparity:

"When he was having trouble at the start of the season, Crain was throwing his four-seam fastball 48% of the time and his slider 36%, a large difference. Of all the pitches that were put in play that scored a run or didn’t make an out, 86% were on his four-seam. Meanwhile, of all the called or swinging strikes he got, 54% were on his slider while only 22% were on the four-seam. Basically, his fastball was getting hit and his slider wasn’t, but he was using the fastball more.

Maybe that breakdown was eventually noticed by Crain or pitching coach Rich Anderson, because when Crain went on his great stretch from June 10th to August 31st he used his slider 47% of the time and his four-seam only 32%. During that time, 54% of called or swinging strikes were still made on his slider except that, since he was now using it more, he was getting more strikes."

To throw more gas on the fire, Parker Hagerman of Over the Baggy tracked Crain's struggle against lefties that prompted his demotion in 2009, to a decline in slider usage against them.  That's pretty bizarre, considering righties dependent on their hard sliders are typically prone to firm platoon splits.  And ditching a nuanced and time-tested approach and just chasing whiffs wasn't just a very un-Twinsian adjustment, it produced bizarre results.

In the past two seasons, Crain has compiled 133.1 IP, for a burly 8.91 K/9, a decidedly less spiffy 3.91 BB/9, and a downright mortifying 36.4% GB rate, considering half those innings came as a White Sox.

He also sported a .264 BABIP during those innings.  Great BABIP stretches can last entire seasons for starters, let alone a sample as small as Crain's, even if his stretched over 138 career appearances.

Except there's the fact that his career BABIP is .266, which brings us into the territory of over 440 MLB innings, and also leaves out his greatest swindle.

In Crain's first two seasons in the majors, and thus his first 106.2 IP in MLB, he made the transition from dominant minor league closer prospect with double-digit K/9 marks across three levels, to a big league junkballer (so to speak).  He still threw in the mid-90s with a hard slider, but he struck out only 39 batters in this stretch.  He walked 41, yet only allowed 30 earned runs for a 2.53 ERA thanks to a .206 BABIP.  Unfortunately for the exercise, and because he was a Twin at the time, Crain didn't get a chance to be proven a facade.  Save for a 2007 when he was mostly injured, Jesse's strikeouts veered closer to the league average.

There's pretty much no advanced metric--xFIP, SIERA, FRA, tERA--that doesn't think the beginning of Crain's career wasn't full of crap.  Even the most resolute, DIPS theory-defying, crafty pitchers don't get by walking more batters than they strike out.

With Crain's new approach however, the metrics and projection systems are inching closer to giving him credit.  The high swing-and-miss rates he fetches by throwing his slider all the time lends itself to a notion that SIERA factors in, that pitchers who are hard to make contact on are especially harder to make solid contact on.  As such, SIERA has only underestimated Crain's performance by about a half of a run the last two seasons rather than the full run xFIP--which views all contact as having an equal chance to do damage--has been behind Crain's ERA performance.  While his projected ERA is still in the 3.80-range for 2012 according to both the OLIVER and PECOTA projections, PECOTA has at least met Jesse halfway and predicted a .288 BABIP for him.  They're catching on to his habits.

Of course, there's plenty of reason why a reliever could skirt around what's traditionally expected of him.  Being a high strikeout guy, Crain is also often brought in to put out fires, and it's there where some of the mediocrity he's suppose to have rears its head.  His 44 inherited runners in 2011 was a career-high (not by much), and the 32% (also his career mark) that he allowed to score was a below average rate, and was not attributed to his ERA.  Perhaps Crain's luck extends far beyond his defense conspiring to make him look like an ace reliever; his managers could be in on it too.

Until he's found out as a fraud though, Crain's "sliders away" approach could still be a sly approach to batted ball luck.  White Sox fans might as well hope it is, since his closer candidacy is staked on it.


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  • Looking at Viciedo’s PECOTA numbers hurts my heart.

    I would be more excited about Peavy and Sale in the PECOTA projections if they weren't both predictably well short of 200 IP, since this means 90 IP and 15 GS from Zach "1.52 WHIP" Stewart.

    Part of what I enjoy about PECOTA are the goofy stats. For example, Brent Morel has a 13% Breakout Rate, which as far as I can tell is the highest among MLB regulars. I think that's good, but maybe more bad because you want starting players on your baseball team who have already had breakout seasons.

    And because I'm a nerd and I like fun, I also look at comparables. For younger players they often include both former bench warmers and former all stars or hall of famers, reflecting the inexactness and downright absurdity of comparing young ballplayers with very little track record. I like it because the comparables we cling to really reflect the type of person we are. For example, a half-empty kind of person might look at Keenyn Walker and say "Thad Bosley? Crap! I think that guy is more famous for hair treatments for bald men than for playing baseball!" But a half-full person might say "eh, yeah, but Sammy Sosa!" and the half-empty guy might respond, "The Panther?"

    Incidentally, Trayce Thomson's PECOTA comparables are Willie Mays, Adam Jones, and Sammy Sosa (i.e. The Panther, aforementioned). Trayce Thompson just became a can't miss prospect in my book.

  • In reply to Ham N Egger:

    I'm hoping Sale's inning total is hedging on his transition from the bullpen. Peavy's is a lot more health-related. Maaaaybe he pitches 144 dynamite innings to start out the season, his arm explodes like a stomped-on Capri Sun, and a then-ready Nestor Molina takes the reigns?

    Hopefully PECOTA is flummoxed by two different major league stints where Viciedo was a distinctly different player. His thumb was hurt, his thumb was hurt, his thumb was hurt, his thumb was hurt, his thumb was hurt, his thumb was hurt....

    I actually long for a breakout season. I've tired of watching veterans fulfill reasonable expectations.

    I skimmed the comparisons and saw Jake Petricka's top comparable as Lance Broadway, and my head started to throb and spin and spin and spin....

    ...what? Trayce Thompson? It's not the worst comparison in the history of time in terms of tools, I guess..../chokes on vomit.

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