A Vintage Matt Cain Could Make Giants an NL Juggernaut

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 7, 2014

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The San Francisco Giants are really good. Heck, they're so good that it's hard to imagine anything that could make them better.

Save for one thing. And it so happens this one thing teased its arrival Friday night at AT&T Park:

The vintage version of Matt Cain.

Making his first start since May 21 after sitting out a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury, Cain took a perfect game into the fifth and a no-hitter into the sixth against the New York Mets. He ultimately settled for seven innings of two-run ball, allowing only three hits in the process.

Cain didn't factor into the decision, but the Giants offense made sure his performance wasn't for naught. Brandon Crawford provided a game-tying single in the bottom of the seventh that made it 2-2, and Buster Posey launched a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth.

That was the difference, as the Giants won 4-2 to run their National League-best record to 40-21.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Regarding Cain's performance, he wasn't quite at his most overpowering. He struck out only three and induced only three whiffs. Beyond that, yes, he was facing the Mets, they of the tremble-worthy .233 team batting average.

But these numbers don't really do the stuff Cain had Friday night proper justice.

I'll lead us into that discussion with this observation from Bay Area radio personality Marty Lurie:

Especially noticeable was how Cain's fastball had extra zip. Per Brooks Baseball, he was sitting at around 93 miles per hour with both his four-seamer and sinker, a slight uptick from the 91-92 he had been averaging before his injury.

The data also says that Cain had just a little extra lateral movement on his slider and changeup:

Matt Cain Slider and Changeup Horizontal Movement
SplitSlider H-MovChangeup H-Mov
Before 6/61.886.76
On 6/62.337.74
Brooks Baseball

Note: This is in inches.

Extra velocity and extra movement would have been a good enough sign of progress for Cain, who entered the proceedings with a good but not great 3.66 ERA. But the cherry on top is that he really did have good command of his pitches, as he was consistently hitting his spots all evening.

Point being: Yeah, vintage Cain might be back. And if he is, he could turn the Giants into an even bigger juggernaut than the one they already are.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

You might have noticed how I used non-committal terms up there in the words "might" and "could." That was by design, for it behooves us to be honest about Cain and the Giants before we get bold about them.

Regarding Cain, we've only witnessed one good start. He's authored a few of those over the last year-and-a-half yet has struggled to get on a roll after the fact. Maybe the same thing will happen with this latest hot start.

Regarding the Giants, well, I'm not 100 percent sold that there won't still be potential pitfalls even if vintage Cain is now along for the ride.

Chief among the pitfalls is the club's offense. The Giants entered Friday ranked third in the NL in runs, and that can be traced mainly to their power and their performance in the clutch.

The first is reflected in how the Giants entered Friday second in the NL in homers and fourth in slugging. That's out of character for a team that has to play half its games at AT&T Park, so color me skeptical.

The second is reflected in how, as FanGraphs' Blake Murphy noted, the Giants have both created and capitalized on a ridiculous number of high-leverage situations. Since that's hard to keep up, color me skeptical once again.

But since the Giants did add a big power bat in Mike Morse, continue to get power from Brandon Hicks, have a healthy Buster Posey and a (hopefully) healthy Brandon Belt on the way, let's say they can keep up their power production. And since the St. Louis Cardinals showed just last year that insane clutch hitting can be a year-long endeavor, let's say the Giants can also keep up their high-leverage ways.

If so, they'll continue to be the team they've been all season. And in this case, the vintage version of Cain is indeed a missing link.

One thing the Giants used to have that they haven't had this year is elite starting pitching. Theirs has certainly been good, as they entered Friday fifth in the NL in starters' ERA at 3.38, but good is not elite.

You can trace that to how the Giants have really only had two clearly above-average starters in 2014. That's according to the ERA+ metric—which takes ERA, adjusts for parks and leagues and puts everything on a scale where 100 is average—which sees Giants starters like so:

Giants Starters and ERA+ in 2014
Tim Hudson11191
Madison Bumgarner13124
Ryan Vogelsong1298
Tim Lincecum1267
Matt Cain891
Yusmeiro Petit573

For perspective, there are eight teams in the NL that have at least three starters (minimum five starts) with an ERA+ at or over 100. Relative to others, the Giants have been operating with a shallow rotation.

The vintage version of Cain, obviously, has the power to change that.

Cain at his best had an excellent 147 ERA+ in 2009, and he racked up a 129 ERA+ between 2009 and 2012. Though often overlooked, that Matt Cain was one of baseball's best pitchers.

Cain looked like that guy Friday night against the Mets. If that proves to be no tease, then the Giants rotation is going to feature three aces rather than two. That would make Ryan Vogelsong into one of the league's better No. 4s, and it would help render Tim Lincecum's pitching less damaging.

The Giants have already had plenty go right in their superb start to the 2014 season. If their bats find a way to keep it up and the vintage Cain who appeared Friday night sticks around, it's only going to be more apparent that the baseball gods are on their side this year.

And nobody in the National League would be able to stop them.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted/linked.


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