When the San Francisco Giants called up Matt Cain in August of 2005, he made his debut as the second youngest pitcher in the major leagues. Now in his seventh season as a big leaguer, Cain is a seasoned veteran with a laundry list of accomplishments to his credit. He finished last year's World Championship season with a 13-11 record with a 3.14 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 177 strikeouts, 61 walks, 223 innings pitched and four complete games (including two shutouts).
In May alone, he pitched into the sixth inning or later in each of his six starts while giving up nine earned runs on 23 hits with 35 strike outs and 18 walks with an 1.81 ERA. He was instrumental in the Giants’ regular season success last year and even more so in their postseason World Series run. Despite his track record of success, he is rarely included in the list of current upper echelon pitchers, and there are five main reasons why.
Cain is calm, cool and collected, a demeanor that simply does not grab headlines. He does not have a quirky nickname (The Freak) or unusual slogan (Fear the Beard). He does not make outrageous appearances on talk shows (Brian Wilson on “Lopez Tonight”), he does not get caught up in drug charges (Tim Lincecum), and he does not model high-end jeans (Barry Zito).
The most excessive thing Cain did last year was let his hair grow out an inch or two longer than normal, allowing his curls peek out from out from under his cap. The new haircut was hardly worth mentioning when the other members of the Giants pitching staff sported various hairstyles including mohawks, shoulder length strands and facial hair of various shapes and hues. He is polite, gracious, dedicated and throws the ball hard, all of which are admirable, none of which particularly newsworthy.
His 58-62 career record is hardly impressive, as elite pitchers have winning, not losing records. But the Giants have been far from prolific offensively in recent years, and Cain has had the misfortune of being stuck with minimal run support. Furthermore, with the exception of last year, the Giants themselves have had mediocre seasons during Cain’s tenure. Especially in 2007 and 2008, he had to pitch nearly perfectly to earn the victory, and Cain’s record makes him easy to be overlooked in the long list of talented and winning pitchers in the major leagues.
It is hard to make a name for oneself with a staff as loaded as the Giants' is. Cain is part of a rotation that includes two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, 2002 Cy Young winner Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez, who has a no-hitter to his name, and Madison Bumgarner, the latest in the San Francisco trend of extraordinary young pitchers. A slew of capable relievers pitch in the late innings before the enigmatic Brian Wilson takes the mound in the ninth. On almost any other team, Cain would be the ace. For the Giants, he is just one peg in the rotation, albeit one of the best of any professional team.
At the ripe age of 26, Cain is the longest-tenured Giant on San Francisco’s roster but far from the typical old and grizzled veteran. On a team composed of a mix of young phenoms and longtime journeymen, Cain is the elder statesman who provides experience, leadership and stability, but his age undermines this reality. On September 25, 2009, Cain was awarded the Willie Mac Award, presented annually to the Giants player who exemplifies the spirit and leadership shown by Willie McCovey during his career as a Giant. Voted on by the players and staff, it is clear his team respects the intangibles that the veteran adds to the team, but for the uninitiated, his age belies his experience.
Last but certainly not least, Cain dominated the 2010 postseason. He compiled a flawless 0.00 ERA through 21 ⅓ innings, and he won Game 2 of the World Series by pitching 7 ⅔ scoreless innings, but it was Tim Lincecum who was named the Postseason Most Valuable Player. Despite excellence in his own right, Cain has always played second fiddle to his flashier counterpart. He became the fifth pitcher in history to pitch at least 20 innings in the postseason without allowing an earned run, and even though Cain’s postseason run is one of the best in the modern era, it is almost entirely ignored.