Matt Cain is coming into tonight’s start against the Texas Rangers as a rising star. His stock around the league is rising, and fans across the nation are starting to know his name.
Yet Cain should not be looked upon as a new arm. After all, he’s compiled almost four full years of major-league service time, and has been playing professionally for the last eight.
But a combination of circumstances, including league-low run support and almost no bullpen help, seemed destined to keep him out of the spotlight, relegating him to a career as a good, but not great pitcher.
The Dothan, Al. native came into the league at a young age, but didn’t have all the hype of a Tim Lincecum or Madison Bumgarner or Stephen Strasburg, who all with plenty of media attention. Instead, he was virtually unknown outside of the Giants system, and even then, not many people thought he’d be where he is today.
His minor-league history was short. After starting as a 17-year-old in rookie league, he was promoted the next year to Single-A Hagerstown (now a Nationals affiliate).
At 19 he split between A+ San Jose and AA Norwich, compiling a 13-5 record and notching 161 strikeouts over 159 innings. At 20 he started out at AAA Fresno and went 10-5 with 176 strikeouts in 145 innings before being called up by San Francisco in August.
The reputation that preceded him painted a picture of a big country boy with an equally big fastball and an explosive slider. Along with it came a demeanor and poise beyond his years, and Cain’s 2005 major league debut at age 20 was one of the youngest in franchise history.
It took him two starts to get comfortable. It took three to get noticed.
His third start was against the Chicago Cubs. Cain wowed Giants and Cubs fans alike with a two-hit complete game, giving up a walk in the first, a tape-measure shot to Derrek Lee in the fourth, and then another hit in the ninth before taking three pitches to retire three batters.
He struck out eight, including Lee the at-bat after his homer, and impressed San Francisco manager Felipe Alou as well as the manager in the opposite dugout, Dusty Baker.
“We heard that he had good stuff, and they weren't lying,” Baker said in an interview with MLB.com’s CJ Bowles. “He threw a really good ballgame. They have a special young man right there."
Cain was special in that game, striking out eight Cubs and posting a 2.33 ERA in his first season, and would live up to that standard at times during his short career. But it seems like a majority of baseball fans outside of San Francisco never noticed those great starts until 2009, and instead focused on his bad fortune and inconsistencies as a young pitcher.
In 2006, it was an up and down season for his first full year in the league. There would be flashes of brilliance, like his complete-game one-hitter against Oakland, and an eight inning, one-hit effort against the Angels that same year.
In contrast, there were games where his inexperience was glaring. His ERA ballooned at one point to 7.04 in early May, and he finished the season on a three-game slide, going 0-3 with an ERA of 8.00. Less than half of his 31 outings were quality starts.
Cain ended the year with an unimpressive 13-12 record, but still finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting. He also held batters to a .222 batting average, and averaged 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings.
His next year in the league was the toughest year for Cain and for San Francisco. The Giants finished the year 20 games under .500, and Cain himself finished 7-16. San Francisco went 9-23 in games that Cain started, including an eight-game losing stretch that spanned the entire month of June.
Contrary to what his record shows, Cain actually rebounded, once the wins and losses are put aside. Almost 70 percent of his starts were quality starts, and he once again held batters to a meager batting average (.231). Yet his record didn’t reflect these numbers, and San Francisco’s paltry offense and the shaky bullpen were held very culpable.
He was second on the team in no decisions (nine), and led the team with eight “tough losses,” which Baseball Reference describes as a loss in which the pitcher throws a quality start.
The offense just couldn’t score for Cain, who only garnered 3.51 runs of support, far behind the league leader Dontrelle Willis, who received over six runs per game. He pitched in four games where the Giants were shutout, and another four where they only scored once.
For instance, Cain threw eight innings of one-run ball against Oakland, but San Francisco was shut out and he picked up the loss. This happened again twice more, against the Padres (1-0) and again at Fenway Park (1-0).
Cain also led the Giants with five “wins lost,” where he left the game in position to pick up a win but the team ended up losing. The bullpen allowed more than half of his inherited runners to score. On August 3, he left the game in the eighth inning ahead 3-0 with two runners on, only to have the bullpen lose that game 4-3.
Although frustrating, 2007 was a year that helped Cain establish a strong base to work off of. His walk totals were still low, his ERA was low, and it looked like just a couple runs of support here and there would help him turn the corner.
But his place in the spotlight as the young stud in the rotation seemed abruptly over before it really began.
On May 6, 2007, Tim Lincecum made his major-league debut after only 13 starts in the minors. He quickly established himself as “The Franchise,” and drew more sympathy than Cain because of his team-leading 12 no-decisions and three wins lost.
Lincecum’s catapulting delivery, his slender frame, boyish face, and blazing 97 MPH fastball sapped up all the media attention, and the new kid on the block became the centerpiece of the Giants team.
It’s easy for a young player to get frustrated by an event like that. With all the hype around the new face, it would have been very easy for Cain to point out that he is actually three and a half months younger than Lincecum.
Or that he was the youngest player to debut for the Giants in 21 years. Or that the bullpen blew more of his leads, and didn’t give him any run support.
It would have been easy for a young player only two years removed from high school. But acting his age never fit Matt Cain’s style.
The season would continue on as it did before Lincecum came around. The interviews were the same, absent of any frustration with the bullpen or envy of the media attention surrounding The Freak. The body language on the field was the same, with bursts of positive emotion, but a total lack of negative energy.
The years in the minors helped Cain reach this plane of serenity. While Lincecum hit a couple rough spots in his rookie year, Cain was able to pitch a veteran’s persistence. He outranked Lincecum in the experience department with almost three years of major league time, and also facing professional hitters at the minor league level.
After the 2007 season, however, it became apparent that the two young hurlers were going to share the spotlight. Barry Bonds didn’t return to the Giants, and the focus going forward was one that highlighted the young pitching corps, built around three homegrown products in Cain, Lincecum and Noah Lowry.
But 2008 proved to be just as hard as 2007 was, if not harder. Cain again led the team in no-decisions (12), tough losses (6), and was second in wins-lost (3). He also received futile run support, with the offense only posting up an NL-low 3.1 runs per game.
In contrast, Lincecum went 18-4 and won the Cy Young award. He received 4.6 runs per game in support, and probably would have had even better numbers if not for his 11 no-decisions and six wins-lost.
The murmuring started to begin. Cain just couldn’t get run support, no matter how well he pitched. Even the games he won were close: a 1-0 shutout against the Nationals in July; an eight-inning, two-hit, shutout effort against the Cubs that the Giants won 2-1.
Cain found himself involved in close, stressful games, and it seemed that the dominoes never fell in his direction.
During the 2008 offseason, trade rumors started circulating. It almost looked like he was jinxed in a San Francisco uniform, and the only way to ever win games was to get out before it was too late.
But the front office knew that they had a special pitcher. The knew that when they signed him to his four-year, $9 million deal in March of 2007, locking him up through his arbitration years and providing a rotation fixture for the future. They knew that, given his numbers, sans Win-Loss record, the tide would have to change some time in the future.
That time is now.
Matt Cain is making his case to be the Giants representative at the All-Star Game this year in St. Louis. He’s also pushing to be the starter on the hill for the National League.
Heading into tomorrow’s start, Cain is leading the NL in wins (nine), complete games (three), and is third in ERA (2.39). His .900 winning percentage is the second-best in the majors, and he’s holding batters to a .241 average against him.
Nine of his 13 starts have been quality starts, and his three complete games have been dominating performances, giving up one run against both Seattle and Oakland, and getting a rain-shortened complete game against Florida.
The Giants offense is finally giving him all the run support he deserves (5.0 runs/game), and his lower ERA is allowing him to reap the benefits. San Francisco has won the last eight games that Cain has pitched, and he has seven wins in his last seven decisions.
Some writers have noted that Cain’s velocity is down from previous years. But this is just evidence of his evolution as a pitcher.
Cain came up throwing 95-97, consistently, but this year is usually cruising along at 93-94. Last weekend against Oakland, he showed fans that the “old” Matt Cain is still there, striking out nine batters, and eight on fastballs. All of those were 93 MPH or higher, with three at 95, one at 96, and one at 97.
But now he’s throwing pitches with purpose, not just because he can. The Oakland game was good evidence that he can still hump up when he has to, but his pitching this year has shown so much growth that only experience can give you.
He’s mixing speeds, moving in and out, using different pitches in different scenarios, and, as always, is keeping that confidence as his primary attitude. There is absolutely no fazing Matt Cain. He’s got ice in his veins, and a lot of that is due to his history of tough experiences.
He’s seen it all. Leads blown, great games gone to waste, no run support. When it comes down to it, there’s just nothing else that can happen to him. There are only so many quality starts that can be lost, and one-hitters gone by the wayside, and waiting for his luck to turn.
This year, we’re seeing a Matt Cain that isn’t leaving anything up to his teammates. Of course, he trusts his defense, and still has faith in the Giants, but he has a certain demeanor about him that exudes self-control.
When he takes the mound, he’s going to make sure that one run doesn’t score. He’s going to keep runners off the bases. He’s going to be so dominant that there is no hope for victory. Nothing is left up to chance.
Forget luck. It’s time to win.