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Is It Too Early to Worry about San Francisco Giants Ace Matt Cain?

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Is It Too Early to Worry about San Francisco Giants Ace Matt Cain?
Brian Kersey/Getty Images

And now for an understatement: Matt Cain has not gotten off to the best of starts this season.

But don't worry, San Francisco Giants fans, it's not time to panic just yet. Some of you probably want to, but you're going to have to hear me out on this one.

It certainly hasn't been pretty. Cain made his fourth start of the season against the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday afternoon and got hammered to the tune of seven earned runs in six innings. He gave up three long balls, including one to his opposite number: Brewers righty Yovani Gallardo.

The Giants lost 7-2, giving Cain his second loss of the season. The Giants, meanwhile, are winless in all four of his starts. Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com noticed something about that:

That's not the kind of result you want when you're paying a guy close to $21 million to be your ace. The days Cain pitches are supposed to be win days, not...well, this.

Cain's struggles through his first four starts this season are all the more distressing because it's not like we're talking about a guy who has a history of struggling in April. Cain went into his Thursday start with a 3.43 career ERA in April outings, and he's been a solid April performer over the last four seasons.

Here are Cain's ERAs through four starts from 2009 to 2012:

  • 2009: 2.08 ERA
  • 2010: 3.80 ERA
  • 2011: 3.42 ERA
  • 2012: 2.37 ERA

Cain's ERA through four starts this year? That would be 7.15, which is very un-Cain.

But now for the good news: Bad Aprils are discouraging, but they don't automatically herald season-long peril.

The most important thing to note is that Cain appears to be healthy. Only he knows how healthy he really is, but we don't appear to be looking at a Roy Halladay situation. Cain's stuff is right about where it should be.

Tom Lynn/Getty Images
Cain's velocity isn't quite there yet, but we've seen low velocity from him in April before.

Baseball Info Solutions, via FanGraphs, has Cain's average fastball so far this season at 90.5 miles per hour. That's down from an average of 91.2 miles per hour in 2012 and in 2011, but it's right about where Cain was around this time of year last season.

Last April, Cain's average fastball was 90.7 miles per hour. He built velocity as the year went along to get to that full-season average of 91.2 miles per hour, so don't think his lack of his usual fastball zip so far this season is a sign of things to come. It wasn't last year.

As to the other bad stuff, the three words to keep in mind are "small," "sample" and "size."

When it comes to the numbers that provide a window into how Cain has actually pitched, some of them don't look so good:

Year K% K/BB GB% LD% FB%
2012 22.0 3.78 37.4 20.9 41.7
2013 20.2 4.00 31.0 23.9 45.1

*2013 numbers courtesy live stat updates on FanGraphs.

The strikeout-to-walk rate is fine, but Cain's not striking guys out at the rate he was last year and both his line-drive and fly-ball rates are up.

That's discouraging, as fewer strikeouts means more balls in play, and more balls in play mean more things that can go wrong. In Cain's case, the balls that are going in play off him aren't being hit on the ground, where the odds of major damage being done are much slimmer.

The point: Cain's not pitching like himself.

But it's too soon to assume that there's more where this is coming from. FanGraphs has noted that strikeout rates, ground-ball rates and line-drive rates don't become reliable until a pitcher has faced 150 batters. Fly-ball rates don't become reliable until a pitcher has faced 200 batters.

In his 22.2 innings, Cain has faced 99 batters. He still has a ways to go before the numbers get legitimately scary, and that means he still has time to turn things around.

That's a comforting thought, and so is this: Cain should have some good luck coming his way.

 

Tom Lynn/Getty Images
Should probably lay off throwing gopherballs to pitchers, though.

One thing that stands out about Cain's struggles is that he's compiled a .299 BABIP so far. That's a high mark for a guy who has a .265 career BABIP and has consistently been in the .250-.260 range since 2009. Given Cain's track record, it's likely that the hits are going to stop falling eventually.

There's also the reality that the assorted ERA estimators don't think Cain has been as bad as his 7.15 ERA would indicate.

For starters, there's Fielding Independent Pitching. In the words of FanGraphs, FIP assesses "a pitcher’s talent level by looking at results a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, and home runs."

Cain's FIP is 5.11, about two runs lower than his ERA.

Then there's xFIP, which is a version of FIP that replaces a pitcher's home run total with an estimate of how many homers he should have allowed.

Cain's xFIP is 4.17, about three runs lower than his ERA.

There's also SIERA, which stands for Skill Interactive ERA. It's an ERA estimator like FIP and xFIP, but much more complex. It's essentially more interested in the actual process of pitching.

Cain's SIERA is 3.88, right about where his ERA was through four starts in 2010. He ended that season with a 3.14 ERA, a figure the Giants will gladly take from Cain again this year if they can get it.

Feel better, Giants fans?

You should, because the big picture is this: Cain appears to be more out of whack than broken. We have numbers that say it's too soon to panic, and we have even more numbers that say he's likely to turn things around in the near future.

So whatever you do, don't push this:

Photo from TheMaineWire.com

 

Note: Stats from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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