Will the Real Matt Cain Please Stand Up?
Three certifiably true stats, one of which I certainly did not make up:
- Matt Cain has finished in the Top 12 of Cy Young voting in each of the past three seasons
- Matt Cain currently holds the third-highest ERA of the 38 MLB pitchers that have started at least six games
- Matt Cain gained the power to win 55 games over the past four seasons by stealing Barry Zito's soul and injecting it directly into his spleen
OK, maybe I did make one up. I'm sorry to make it so easy. Anybody who accepts $126 million and pitches that poorly without breaking down crying on the mound never had a soul to begin with.
But that means the other two must be true, and indeed, Cain holds a higher ERA than all of those other top-of-the-rotation starters barring Roy Halladay and Brandon McCarthy. Everyone knew Roy's been getting older and not much was expected from McCarthy, but Cain? The kid's supposed to be a superstar.
And we think he'll get back there. Despite his current 0-2 record and 6.49 ERA, he's not actually pitching that badly. Other than one key statistic, he's the same Cain that Giants fans know and love. He's just getting unlucky.
What's Gone Wrong?
Through six starts, Cain has allowed opposing batters to reach base at a .311 clip. That's not bad considering the .329 OBP average in the majors over Cain's career, but it's certainly not at the Grade A level he was previously pitching at. Cain hasn't allowed an average OBP above .300 since 2008; his highest average OBP allowed from the past three seasons sits at .279 in 2011.
So where is that increase coming from? It's not the poor play of his defense - his .265 batting average on balls in play is directly in line with his past two seasons. It's not a poor strikeout rate - his 21.2 percent rate of total plate appearances is actually one percent above his career average. He's not giving up more walks - his 6.6 percent walk rate is the second-lowest of his career. There must be something I'm missing...
Oh. Right. That home run thing.
In 151 plate appearances against him this season, Matt Cain has allowed nine homeruns; that equals out to an incredibly high six percent of all plate appearances. In 2011, Cain allowed nine homeruns all season in 907 opposing plate appearance.
The problem is that the ball is simply travelling further this season, which means Cain's getting a bit unlucky. The percentage of fly balls allowed by Cain that has traveled out of the ballpark sits at 15.5 percent. Cain's career average sits at 5.8 percent, and his previous career high was last season at 6.8 percent. The MLB average over his career is 7.8 percent of fly balls going for homeruns. Cain has just about doubled that mark so far this season.
And that's been the main killer to both his on-base percentage and his ERA. Cain has allowed 65 percent of opposing plate appearances to be hit into play - slightly under average - with that similar BAbip. But when an additional nine hits (25.7 percent of his total hits allowed) fly out of the ballpark, the runs are going to come in droves.
Luckily for Cain, that homerun figure is highly unsustainable. He's not going to have given up the second-most homeruns in the majors (Marco Estrada has allowed ten) at the end of the season. Given regression to the mean, he's more likely to give up homeruns closer to 2.1 percent of his plate appearances the rest of the way, possibly near the 2.6 percent MLB average. And that will place him back in line with the rest of the league.
If you're waiting for Matt Cain to make a comeback, our numbers say it could happen soon. Here's what we have projected for Cain for the total season, including the six games he has already pitched:
I don't think "11 wins" and "4.13 ERA" were exactly at the top of Cain's expectations list entering the season, but as of now, I think he'd take it. We expect his strikeout and walk rates to remain the same throughout the season, and we expect his homerun rate to be somewhere around 2.9 percent the rest of the way. That would give him the highest homerun rate of his career by far at 3.4 percent total, but that would still be miles better than his current 6.0 percent rate.
Given his nF Score, Cain still expects to save the Giants around 2.95 runs per 27 outs over the average replacement-level pitcher. The Giants might need every last one of them: Madison Bumgarner (8.88) and Sergio Romo (4.27) are the only two Giants pitchers who hold a higher nF score. Tim Lincecum comes in slightly lower at 2.42.
Cain's next two expected starts are against the Dodgers and Braves, so Giants fans may be waiting a tiny bit before Cain gets fully back on track. But given the stats, it's hard to imagine Cain's pitching continuing to be this bad going forward. It's just not statistically likely given his previous production.