San Francisco Giants

Here's a Thought: Matt Cain Isn't Making Any Progress

SAN FRANCISCO - MAY 02:  Pitcher Matt Cain #18 of the San Francisco Giants reacts after Brad Hawpe #11 of the Colorado Rockies hit a solo home run in the sixth inning on May 2, 2009 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJuly 14, 2009

Entering the year, it seemed that Giants fans were looking for Matt Cain to take a big step forward and join Tim Lincecum as a second ace in the San Francisco rotation.

With a 10-2 record and 2.38 ERA, Cain looks to have blown his 8-14, 3.76 ERA 2008 season out of the water.

But he hasn't.

Now, I have nothing against Matt Cain; I think he may improve somewhere down the line. I'm just telling you what the numbers are telling me.

You know what the best season of Matt Cain's career has been thus far?

2007.

When he went 7-16.

I'm not kidding.

When Matt Cain came up in 2005, big things were expected of the former first-rounder, and he immediately pitched well, putting up a 2.33 ERA in five starts.

Those five starts actually weren't that good.

In a recent article, I looked at Oakland starter Brett Anderson's month-by-month peripheral splits to see if he was improving. He clearly was.

Does Cain show a similar pattern in his yearly peripherals?

Let's take a look.

Year      K/9      BB/9      HR/9     Ranks

2005      5.83    3.69      .78       5, 3, 3
2006      8.45    4.11      .85       1, 5, T-4
2007      7.34    3.56      .63       3, 2, 1
2008      7.69    3.76      .79       2, 4, 3
2009      7.31    3.54      .85       4, 1, T-4

Other than identifying 2007 as Cain's best season, this doesn't really show any sort of trend.

We can see that his strikeout and walk rates are somewhat inversely correlated—when Cain tries to amp his stuff up to strike out more batters, he loses a little bit of control.

Aside from the low K rate in 2005, Cain's peripherals have basically held steady since he came into the league. His K rate is on a slight downward trend and has always been between 7.31 and 8.45. His BB rate has always been between 3.54 and 4.11. His homer rate has always been between .63 and .85.

So what does all this tell us?

Matt Cain isn't making any progress.

The win-loss record is mainly a function of run support—Cain got very little 2007-08 and now the Giants hitters are backing him.

As for the ERA, it stems from a .272 BABIP and wildly lucky 86.5 percent strand rate.

Some of you who are more stat-inclined may point to 2005-2007, where Cain had below-average BABIPs for three straight years, and say the .272 mark isn't a fluke.

Actually, the 2006 and 2007 marks (.279 and .284) weren't fluky at all. But the .272 mark this year is very fluky.

In 2006, 16.7 percent of hits off Cain were liners. In 2007, it was 16.1 percent.

This year, it's 19.4 percent. That means that while Cain's BABIPs in 2006-07 should have been in the .280s, his 2009 mark should be closer to .310-.320.

No, Cain isn't a 2.38 ERA pitcher this year. He actually is a 3.87 FIP pitcher.

Cain's FIPs, by year:

2005: 4.08
2006: 3.96
2007: 3.78
2008: 3.91
2009: 3.87

Again, that's not progress—that's stagnation.

Cain's not a bad pitcher by any means. He's just not an ace.

When Giants fans evaluate their team, they need to realize Cain, though a good third starter, is actually stretched as a No. 2 behind Tim Lincecum.

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