For the last couple years, my dad and I have kicked around the same uncomfortable conclusion regarding Matt Cain and his lack of offensive support. The gist was, with so many obvious talents at such a young age, perhaps it would be better for the Kid to ply his wares in a more pitcher-friendly environment.
We were not speaking, of course, about the home park because there are few diamonds more hospitable to the guy on the bump than Pac Bell Park (some call it AT&T).
As the resident die-hard Giant fan, I was obviously less enthusiastic about the idea because you never want to see a guy leave your team and explode.
Nonetheless, even I started to acknowledge that Matt Cain deserved better than what the Orange and Black bats were giving him. A lot more since they were giving him precisely squat.
When Cain came up as a 20-year-old starter in 2005, it was immediately clear the franchise had something special. I'm talking movie cliches like when you jerk up and spill your coffee with his first pitch. The next 102 peas he threw in that first start were no less impressive, considering he tossed 66 for strikes with the composure of a gnarled veteran.
About two years removed from high school. In his Major League Baseball debut.
So, yeah, you could say the soft spot in Giants fans' hearts started Aug. 29, 2005 against the Colorado Rockies (a loss). We were head-over-heels in love with Matt Cain after the third start of his career in the Show—a complete game, two-hitter against the Chicago Cubs.
Unfortunately, a tragic (in the baseball sense) theme was developing right alongside our young hurler. Check the final score in both games mentioned—2-1 in favor of the Rox and 2-1 in favor of los Gigantes.
Cain would make seven starts after his August/September call-up. He'd throw 46-1/3 innings, whiff 30 batters, walk 19, surrender a .928 WHIP, and post a 2.33 earned run average. Against the righty, opponents hit .151, reached base at a .240 clip, and slugged an impossibly low .239.
In 2005, Matt Cain won twice. Two games.
The San Francisco offense mustered the following in his seven starts (from first to last): 1 run, 3 runs (his first W), 2 runs (the Cubbie CG), 4 runs, 4 runs, 6 runs, and 3 runs.
Cain allowed more than two earnies only once. That would be a three-run massacre Matt suffered in the last start of his season.
Meanwhile, even when the Giants were scoring runs for him, they really weren't for him. Cain was usually well into his shower by the time they crossed the plate.
Take, for instance, the six-run outburst in Matt's penultimate start. Four of those tallies came in the ninth inning with the score tied at two—he had gone six frames in Colorado that day, allowing a single run on three hits, SF scored six runs in a win, and still no joy.
Voila, the Matt-Cain-No-Decision-Special was born. Its older sibling, the Matt-Cain-Kick-to-the-Groin-Loss, had been conceived in the Kid's pro debut.
Over the next three seasons, the same story was told over and over and over again:
2006—31 starts, 13-12, 4.15 ERA, 190 2/3 IP, 179 Ks, 87 walks, 1.280 WHIP
2007—32 starts, 7-16, 3.64 ERA, 200 IP, 163 Ks, 79 walks, 1.260 WHIP
2008—34 starts, 8-14, 3.76 ERA, 217 2/3 IP, 186 Ks, 91 walks, 1.364 WHIP
As impressive as those numbers are, they don't do the youngster justice. In reality, the pressure of working with an increasing awareness he must be almost perfect to win led to occasional meltdowns. The ensuing crooked innings threw the ratios into disarray such that Matt Cain's actually been better than the stats advertise.
I've been saying it since Tim Lincecum won his Cy Young last year—if Matt Cain had the kind of cushion the Franchise usually enjoyed, you could see the exact same thing from the Kid (with a dash of luck as well).
And that was the problem—how can you keep chucking a fragile young ego to the wolves like that and keep asking him to shake it off? How long before the constant mental assault destroys an otherwise dominant pitcher?
And I do mean pitcher.
Despite an A+ fastball and the ability to put some serious stank on his cheddar, Matt Cain knows the art of pitching—he knew it seemingly from the beginning. Even in his first start, he showed an adeptness at mixing in his good change-up and curveball (he's also got a slider).
Pops' patience was already gone and I had reached my breaking point with the dawn of 2009—if San Francisco couldn't get behind the now-24-year-old, they owed him a run in greener pastures.
Part of the story is still the same.
Fortunately, it's the good part—through 10 starts and 66-1/3 innings, Cain is 6-1 with a 2.31 ERA and a 1.312 WHIP. He's struck out 46 batters against 27 walks.
But the other part is being re-written as we speak. Matt's gotten less than four runs worth of backing only two times and he won one of those games—by throwing six scoreless frames against the New York Mets to avoid a four-game sweep at home, no less.
In the glow of over five runs per game from an otherwise anemic offense, Matt Cain's able to go right after hitters without worrying about being perfect. With a little bit of a net, the fireballer is blossoming and the Giants fans are enjoying the fruits of our long wait.
Probably even more than the Kid himself.
Much about Matt Cain is a contradiction—he is the youngest member of the rotation, but he is the longest tenured Giant on the pitching staff. He is a dominant pitcher and he's only once won more than 10 games in a season. He's arguably as filthy as Tim Lincecum, but he's never received Cy Young votes or been an All-Star.
Matt Cain is one of the best pitchers in baseball and almost nobody notices.
Thankfully, that last one's beginning to change.