Jesse Crain has spent his entire decade-long career pitching in the same division. There's plenty of familiarity between the 31-year-old right-hander and longtime opponents in the AL Central.
And yet, Crain's had more success in three years with the White Sox than he had in seven with Minnesota. The secret to those numbers -- a 2.38 ERA with 151 strikeouts in 128 1/3 innings -- goes about 72 miles per hour.
When Crain joined the White Sox in 2011 on a three-year, $13 million deal, he featured a prototypical repertoire for a power reliever: A mid-90's fastball and upper-80's slider. He mixed in a curveball, although its average velocity was in the mid-to-upper 70's while with the Twins.
But at the behest of catcher Tyler Flowers, Crain shaved a few miles per hour off his curveball. He threw it like that during his first few years in the league, then put it in his back pocket. With the White Sox, he resurrected the slow curve and threw it more often, and it's paid major dividends for him and the White Sox.
"You seen a lot of the same hitters over and over and over, you need something to kind of trick them once in a while," Crain said. "That curveball's been great."
Crain's average fastball velocity (94 mph) is 22 miles per hour greater than his average curveball velocity (72 mph). No other reliever in baseball boasts a velocity difference that great between his fastball and curveball.
Crain throws the pitch by tucking his thumb under the ball more -- placing it around 6 o'clock instead of around 4 or 5 o'clock, as most pitchers prefer to grip their curveballs. He estimates a "normal" curveball grip would give him about an 80 mph velocity on the pitch. But it's not a slow, loopy curveball -- despite its slow speed, it has a tight, sharp 12-6 break to it.
Flowers cooked up the idea to have Crain throw it again after facing him in spring training -- "which has been unsuccessful by the way," the catcher made sure to quip.
"I don't know if it's because of his arm slot or his height or whatever it may be, fastballs elevated in the zone are very tempting, hard to lay off of but also hard to hit, obviously, because he throws pretty hard, too," Flowers said. "So kind of from that experience I had against him, kind of came up with the idea of using a higher than high pitch with him."
Crain's listed at 6-foot-1, although his motion and short-arm delivery make him appear smaller than that. The curveball stays higher longer than his other pitches, then loops downward at a fairly sharp angle. On average, the pitch starts around eye level of an opposing hitter, then tumbles toward the dirt about halfway to home plate.
But it's the matter of starting the pitch that high and the ability to drop it into the strike zone that makes Crain so dangerous.
"You certainly can't give up on anything that comes out of his hand high," first baseman Paul Konerko observed. "You can't give up on it because it has a chance to be that curveball, and if you have two strikes you have to try to stay engaged on it."
That's a big problem for hitters: Crain's high fastball is already enticing, but when there's a threat that high pitch is actually a curveball and could drop into the strike zone, it makes protecting the strike zone that much more difficult. Not only do hitters have to cover in and out, they have to cover up and down.
While Crain's slider will always be his putaway breaking ball, he's thrown more curveballs than sliders on 0-1, 1-1, 1-2 and 2-2 counts this year (via Texas Leaguers' pitch f/x database). Those curveballs can then set up high fastballs on the next pitch or later in the count. From 2007-2010, opposing hitters swung and missed at about 7 percent of Crain's fastballs. Since joining the White Sox in 2011, that rate has jumped to nearly 13 percent.
It's no coincidence, then, that Crain's on pace to have a career-best strikeout rate in 2013 -- after setting career highs in 2011 and 2012.
"You're always looking for another edge, another thing to get guys out with," Crain said. "It's a pitch that's helped a lot."