Verlander & Cain: Will They Slump?

According to the New York Daily News and the MLB Network, Matt Cain and Justin Verlander will be the starters for the NL and AL, respectively, in the All-Star Game. That isn’t all too surprising, but how will they hold up?

According to the New York Daily News and the MLB Network, Matt Cain and Justin Verlander will be the starters for the NL and AL, respectively, in the All-Star Game. That isn’t all too surprising. Verlander as AL starter was easier to predict than whether or not Justin Bieber’s new album would ever trend on Twitter. Cain’s only real competition was R.A. Dickey, proving once again, that even when they’re winning, the Mets still can’t catch a break. These are perfectly fine decisions, even if they’re not the ones that we would have made just two days ago.

Now, the important thing for these two is looking forward to the next half of the season. And while it’s next to impossible to accurately predict what these two guys are going to do the rest of the season, numberFire’s bread and butter and Old Bay seasoning (because really, Old Bay makes everything better) is comparing these guys to past players. So let’s do just that! Here’s the top comparisons that numberFire has at the All-Star Break for Justin Verlander and Matt Cain, along with why those comparisons may or may not be a good thing. For Verlander, the numbers strongly point in one direction, while for Cain… let’s just say Gil Meche is involved.

Justin Verlander

Top 5 Comparisons
Player Year Pct Similar
Freddy Garcia 2004 94.92%
Johan Santana 2006 93.86%
Matt Garza 2009 93.69%
Johan Santana 2008 93.61%
Randy Wolf 2002 92.92%

This isn’t too terrible of a list for Mr. Verlander to be compared with, especially when looking at these pitchers’ second half performance. The first name on the list is a bit perplexing, especially when you realize that the 2004 season was the one where Garcia was traded at the deadline from Seattle to the White Sox. However, for Mr. Still Starting This Year For A Team With a $200 Million Payroll (or MSSTYFATWA$200MP for short), that trade made all the difference. While his did ERA go up, Garcia’s strikeout per nine innings average increased every single month of the 2004 season, culminating in a 9.7 Ks/9 average in 5 starts in September and October. Simply put, he was a better pitcher, and had a much higher winning percentage to boot, because he missed more bats in the second half of the season.

As for the rest of the comparisons, Johan Santana won the 2nd of his 2 Cy Youngs in 2006, and to do it, he put on a pitching clinic that Minnesotans would now sacrifice their rhubarb crop for: 10-1 in the second half of the season, 9.4 Ks/9 and 1.8 BBs/9 averages full-season. In 2008, he didn’t have the gaudy strikeout totals (only 7.9 Ks/9), but he did get the wins: a perfect 8-0 record in the second half of the season after starting 8-7 his first season in New York shows that he didn’t wear down under pressure. Matt Garza’s 2-5 second-half record doesn’t scream “Cy Young candidate!”, but his increase of over a strikeout per game to 9.0 Ks/9 in the second half does. And Randy Wolf’s 2002 had him hitting a strikeout-to-walk ratio that more than doubled (from 1.92 to 3.96) in the second half of the season, probably due to fear that the Phillies’ Wolf Pack would come find him in his sleep if he didn’t pitch better. (Seriously, those are actual, presumably somewhat-sane people. I love baseball fans.)

For all of those numbers, the final point is: people that pitch the same way that Verlander is currently pitching tend to do better as the season progresses. Granted, it’s hard to imagine Verlander performing better than his current pace to win the Cy Young. But figure this: his Ks per 9 inning average (8.7) is his lowest average since 2008. While his walks per nine (2.0) and home runs per nine (0.7) numbers are down, that means he actually does have room for improvement. Scary for the rest of the AL, a cause for celebration in Detroit. (Tagline: Verlander, because you never know when the Lions will be terrible again).

Matt Cain

Top 5 Comparisons
Player Year Pct Similar
Jered Weaver 2011 97.03%
Ian Kennedy 2011 94.90%
Jered Weaver 2010 93.73%
Gil Meche 2008 93.21%
Javier Vasquez 2011 93.19%

Sure, they might not be the sexiest media-friendly names like a Felix Hernandez or a Johan Santana or even Cain’s teammate Tim Lincecum, but those first three are some of the best single-season pitching performances of the last twelve years. That is, in the first half of the season. The splits, however, tell a different story. Let’s start with Jered Weaver, who, oh by the way just-in-case-you-didn’t-know, finished in the top five of the AL Cy Young voting both of those years. He probably deserved the award the first half of last season. But then, he started to give up walks: his strikeout/walk ratio dipped from a Cy Young-level 3.87 in half #1 to a not-quite-Charlie-Sheen-in-Major-League-but-still-not-superstardom-level 3.12 in half #2. While his strikeouts dipped only slightly, his walks increased by almost a full walk per nine innings. The 2010 difference was even worse for Weaver: his strikeouts per nine innings dropped from 10.2 Ks/9 in the first half to 8.4 Ks/9 in the second half. His strikeout to walk ratio also dropped in kind by more than a full point as his walks increased by a slight bit. I guess those constantly sunny 80-degree August days in L.A. (of Anaheim) begin to wear on you after a while..

..mostly because the trend unarguably stops with Weaver, and the remaining three pitchers on the list all had a better second half than first half. Last season, Ian Kennedy upped his strikeout total in the second half of the season, averaging 8.8 Ks per 9 innings and increasing his K/BB ratio to a certifiably insane 4.38 over 14 second-half starts. In leading Arizona to the division title down the stretch in September he had a 6.17(?!?!?!) K/BB ratio. But OK, he’s Ian Kennedy and had a breakout year, what about that Gil Meche guy? Well, that Gil Meche guy had one of the best second halfs of anybody in baseball, increasing his Ks per 9 to a Kennedy-esque 9.5 average and helping his Royals finish… well, not in last. (You see that, Kansas City: aspirations!) And Javier Vasquez was a whole new man in the second half of last season in the Florida sunshine: Ks per 9 were up to 9.0 from 6.2, while he issued less than half the walks (16 against 34) in the exact same amount of innings as the first half of the season. Vasquez still hasn’t officially retired, but if so, he went out on top of his game. Plus, his retired status will fit in quite nicely with half of the regulars at Marlins games.

So, in the end, it’s a lot of words to say: Matt Cain’s comparisons don’t really tell much about how he’ll pitch in the second half of this season. He compares strongly with Weaver, who’s a first half guy, but the rest of his comparisons started out slow then came on strong. For the record, Cain’s been pretty consistent over his career, with his strikeouts per 9 innings going slightly down in the second half while his walks per 9 get slightly better. It looks like it’s going to be a wait-and-see game for the Giants with Cain as to whether he’ll be more Weaver or Kennedy in the second half.