Here's a Thought: Revisiting Matt Cain

Nathaniel StoltzSenior Analyst IJuly 31, 2009

DENVER - JULY 24:  Starting pitcher Matt Cain #18 of the San Francisco Giants works against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on July 24, 2009 in Denver, Colorado. Cain earned the win as the Giants defeated the Rockies 3-1.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

After I wrote this article on July 14, I caught a ton of heat from Giants fans.

Basically, what I said was that Cain was getting really lucky stranding runners, and that statistically, he was really a high-threes ERA-caliber pitcher, not one with a low-twos ERA.

While the more sabermetrically-inclined folks around Bleacher Report agreed with me, a lot of others didn't. Some may not have understood the stats, and others may have just thought there was something special about Cain to transcend the statistical evidence I was using.

I'm an objective analyst. If the stats show someone's pitching well, I'll report that to everyone. If they say someone's pitching poorly (not that they said Cain was; they just said he wasn't pitching as well as you'd think), I'll report that as well.

Honestly, the real reason I wrote that article was because I had just written a string of positive, "this guy is better than you think!" articles, and I didn't want to be accused of randomly dishing out praise to everyone, so I looked at a stats leaderboard to see whose ERA and FIP differed the most.

No. 1.) J.A. Happ
No. 2.) Matt Cain

I figured something on Cain would get more views than something on Happ, and "Here's a Thought: Matt Cain Isn't Making Any Progress" was born.

Anyway, enough about that. In the words of Mark McGwire, I'm not here to talk about the past.

Given the heated string of 126 comments that ensued from that article, I thought I'd revisit the issue. If I have a whole army of people swearing Matt Cain is an ace, surely I must be missing something.

Perhaps they're missing something as well, but I figured I had to be missing something.

Before I start throwing a bunch of numbers out again, I'd like to call attention to something a little more "scouty."

As you can see in this graph of Cain's average fastball velocity by start, Cain's fastball began the year averaging about 91 mph, going between 87-93. As April turned to May, the average got more in the 92 range, and Cain's velocity has trended steadily upward to the point where he's now averaging 93 mph with a range of 90-96.

Going into the year, Cain's fastball was about the worst it's been in his career, velocity-wise. Now, it's about the best it's been in his career.

That's extremely important.

Statistically, Cain struggled early in the year without his best stuff. He got by because of the defense, as I mentioned before. 

And it wasn't control, either: Cain walked four or more batters in six of his first 12 starts.

The last of those twelve starts was really a low point for Cain statistically. On June 9, facing a poor Arizona offense, Cain walked five batters and allowed two homers in 6-1/3 innings. He was very lucky to only allow four runs in that start, which he actually won.

At that point in the season, Cain was 8-1 with a 2.55 ERA, but the defense was really helping him.

I did notice one thing about Cain's interaction with the defense: he does give up a lot of flies to center, where Gold Glover Aaron Rowand plays, so it makes sense that he has a lower BABIP than you'd expect.

However, the credit for that should go to Rowand, not Cain.

Here's a look at Cain through those first 12 starts:

                   BB/9      K/9      HR/9      FIP
Matt Cain      3.94      6.84     0.93      4.33
MLB average  3.49      6.89     1.04      4.30

(The averages are for the whole year, not just the 12-start period, but it doesn't make a difference.)

So, statistically, for those first twelve starts, Matt Cain was an average pitcher. He walked a few more hitters than average, struck out an average number, and did a slightly-above-average job of keeping the ball in the park.

That gave him an average FIP for that period.

However, after that game, something clicked.

In those first 12 games, Cain had three five-walk games and three four-walk games. In nine starts since, he's had three four-walk games and no five-walk games.

In those first 12 games, Cain struck out seven batters three times, and never struck out eight or more. In his last nine, he's struck out nine twice and eight twice.

Cain's had the steady increase in velocity, and his control has improved as the season has gone on. On top of the improvements, Cain is still getting help from Rowand and the stellar Giants defense, so his ERA for the season has decreased from 2.55 after 12 starts to 2.12 now.

Let's look at Cain's last nine starts, versus the MLB averages:


                   BB/9      K/9      HR/9      FIP
Matt Cain      2.89      7.65     0.58      3.30
MLB average  3.49      6.89     1.04      4.30

It's quite the dramatic change.

Again, the defense is helping him, but if Cain can keep his numbers at this new level, then he'll certainly be headed in the right direction.

Statistically, the Cain of the first 12 starts is a No. 4 starter. The Cain of the whole year combined is a No. 3 starter, as I said in the other article.

However, this Matt Cain is a good No. 2 to Tim Lincecum, and would make for a decent staff ace.

A 3.30 FIP would rank 16th in the majors among qualified pitchers. That's not quite the level his ERA (second) would indicate, but it's also not the level his 3.74 overall FIP (27th) would either.

The defense still deserves a lot of credit for Cain's success--after all, the new 3.30 FIP isn't anywhere near his ERA—but it's clear that Cain, contrary to the title of my old article, is making progress on the statistical front.

It's just that the progress occurred in June, not in the offseason.