San Francisco Giants: 5 Lessons Learned from Matt Cain's 1st Half
Buster Olney's statistic really says it all. In 2012, Cain allowed 68 earned runs. In 2013, he has already allowed 60. If I'm a Giants fan, that's a really scary number.
In fact, almost all his stats are down. Some of those would be ERA, WHIP, home run rate and walk rate. And I could have named quite a few more.
Could this be the start of the end for Matt Cain? Or is that way premature? Let's start with some takeaways from his season thus far.
Numbers Never Lie
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This year, Giants fans have become very familiar with the image above: a frustrated Cain turning over the ball to manager Bruce Bochy.
This specific snapshot is from Cain's most recent outing on July 5. He didn't even get to the fourth inning while allowing eight earned runs and walking six.
Some people might say they saw this regression coming. And those people would probably be from the advanced statistics community.
For a few years now, Cain's real statistics and advanced statistics haven't lined up. We'll run through a couple by looking at Cain's FanGraphs page.
His xFIP, a FanGraphs measurement that is supposed to try and eliminate luck from pitching performance, has been almost a run higher for two years now.
His career home run rate is 7.1 percent, when league average is normally around 10 percent. His batting average on balls in play, or BABIP, is also extraordinarily low. League average is around .300, but Cain normally pitches around .260.
Statistics guys will say this is Cain's regression to the mean. In other words, this was bound to happen. He couldn't escape the underlying numbers much longer, and really his luck has just run out.
In other words, the lesson here is that advanced stats can be a good indicator of whether a streak is a fluke or for real.
Or Maybe They Do
In the last slide I mentioned some advanced statistics and gave relatively quick explanations. If you're looking for a bit more about them, check out the above video on BABIP and this one on FIP.
In that same previous slide, I went through all the irregularities with Matt Cain's pitching statistics. Especially how his numbers seem lucky when compared to league averages.
But there's one thing that might make all those irregularities make sense. It's the fact that Matt Cain has had those irregularities for his entire career.
Again looking at Cain's FanGraphs profile, we can see that his abnormally low BABIP has been that way for five years. In fact, the highest it has been since 2009 is .263.
And looking at his ERA and xFIP differential, it again has been remarkably consistent. Dating back to 2007 this time, his ERA has always been at least .70 lower than his xFIP.
What we're seeing here is a pitcher who has made a career out of "beating the odds." Looking at Cain's advanced stats for this year would tell you that he is due for a regression. But when they are looked at as part of a bigger picture, they would tell you that everything is going normally. This is what he does.
Advanced statistics can be helpful, but they don't always tell the whole story.
He's Missing His Spots
Bruce Jenkins, a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, noticed that as well in this tweet. Cain's inability to be as accurate as in the past is a huge problem going forward for the 28-year-old.
Need some visual proof? That weird-looking graph thing at the top is a cool invention that FanGraphs provides which shows where a pitcher's specific pitches are being thrown. Yellow is more and red is less.
Now Cain is known to be a guy who throws a lot of strikes, but look at where his fastball is being located against right-handed batters. That would be right down the middle. I think that might be a problem.
If you look at his other fastball graphs from previous years, he isn't nearly as bad at throwing down the middle.
The other thing you might notice are the startling amounts of pitches that are balls. For a guy who normally throws strikes, there are an awful lot of pitches outside the strike zone.
This is where Cain needs to start if he wants to fix his problems this year. The command needs to improve.
Be Careful with Big Contracts
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Now what on earth does that have to do with Matt Cain? Well, there's the part where the Giants signed him to a six-year, $127.5 million deal just a year ago. That makes him the 12th-highest paid player in baseball.
And the company he's joining isn't all that great. Vernon Wells, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Howard all make as much if not more than him. Of the top 20 highest-paid players, the only ones with superstar production this year are Felix Hernandez, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Cliff Lee.
A large majority of the guys on this list of 20 have underperformed. Even the seemingly untouchable Justin Verlander has looked mortal this year.
So bringing this back to Cain, the lesson to learn is to be careful when handing out massive deals. Cain seemed like a sure thing before this year, but lo and behold, he is underperforming.
Am I saying don't hand out blockbuster contracts? Of course not. Just be extra careful. Signing guys like Teixeira till he's 36 or Rodriguez till he's 41 are the kind of moves that really kill owners' wallets and fans' pride in a team come the end of those deals.
Don't Freak Out
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Just look to the stoic Bochy for guidance. He's not worried in this press conference about Cain, and neither should we be.
Let's go back to Cain's FanGraphs page one last time.
There are some numbers that really jump out. Specifically Cain's home run rate, his strand rate and his ERA to xFIP ratio.
First, the home run rate. His career average home run-per-fly-ball rate is about 7 percent, but this year it's a monstrous 12.8 percent. This adds up to a whopping 16 home runs allowed, good for third in the NL.
Then his left-on-base percentage. Normally it's in the mid-to-high 70s. This year it's 64.5 percent. Is that bad? It's certainly not good.
Also his xFIP hasn't really deviated in comparison to other years. This year it's 3.85, which is negligibly higher than the last two years. The fact that his ERA is a full run higher tells us that he's actually getting unlucky.
Finally, thanks to Chris Jaffe of FanGraphs for pointing this last bit out. Cain has been horrible with men on base. Batters are hitting .308 against him with men on, which is .78 higher than his career average of .230.
Bringing it all together, Matt Cain will be fine. He had a rough first half. He isn't the first and won't be the last baseball player to have a putrid stretch of games.
His underlying numbers look fine. He's way off some key career numbers, so look for those to regress back toward what he does on a year-in, year-out basis. Take a deep breath, and trust in Bochy and Cain. They got this.