When Will Matt Cain Be Matt Cain Again?
Tonight, Matt Cain will take the bump for the San Francisco Giants as they take on the Rockies in Coors Field. That should be a good thing, right? If there's someone who isn't Madison Bumgarner pitching, shouldn't Cain be the next-best-thing?
Then why exactly do I feel a sense of impending doom surrounding the Giants tonight?
Cain hasn't exactly lit up the world this season considering his 2-2 record and his sad 5.04 ERA. Among Giants starters, the stars have been Bumgarner and, no seriously, Barry Zito. Ryan Vogelsong is the only pitcher on the staff with a higher ERA, and he's been serving up hits on platters like they're Crazy Crab'z sandwiches.
It's not too tough to imagine that Cain will fix his woes soon. But what exactly are those woes, and what should you be on the lookout for to make sure they're fixed? We decided to delve deeper into the rabbit hole of Cain's sad stats to find out.
Let's start with the stat that makes absolutely zero sense - Cain's 10 homeruns allowed so far this year in 50 innings pitched. By comparison, Cain allowed just nine bombs in 2011 and had averaged just 17.9 homeruns per season since becoming a full-time Giants starter in 2006.
Those ten homeruns correspond to 4.8 percent of opponents' plate appearances; the MLB average amount sits at 2.7 percent. Among qualified pitchers, only Marco Estrada, teammate Vogelsong, Mark Buehrle, and Jeremy Guthrie have allowed a larger percentage. That's not a good sign.
The issue doesn't come with the percentage of fly balls that are going for homeruns. Yes, a high 12.5 percent of fly balls have traveled out of the ballpark, but that figure sits only 5.7 percent above last season's mark and places Cain in only 13th-highest among qualified pitchers. Instead, the main issue comes with how many fly balls he's allowing in general.
Cain's never been a ground-ball master overall; his ground ball to fly ball ratio has never been above 0.74. He's all about those fly balls. But this season represents even more fly balls by even Cain's standards - his 0.59 GB/FB ratio sits 0.02 below his career average and 96th among 105 qualified pitchers. That's right - Cain is in the top ten of pitchers with the highest ratio of fly balls allowed.
That means that when those hitters get going and start hitting balls deeper, it's going to spell a bad time for Cain. The number of homeruns may change, but those fly balls won't. He just needs to keep them in the ballpark at a higher rate.
Just One More Double-Play?
It's kind of hard to blame the defense for Cain's failures when his .237 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is an absurdly low figure. In general, Cain has actually had pretty good luck when balls are hit to where his fielders have a chance. That's not his main issue.
Those fielders, though, do have a tiny bit of trouble getting out just more than one batter at a time. The Giants have had 27 double-play opportunities with Cain on the mound so far this season. They have converted exactly one. A. Single. Opportunity.
Granted, I just spent a tiny bit of time discussing how Cain is a fly ball pitcher. My 23-year-old amnesia isn't that poor. But even with his history of fly balls, Cain has never converted less than six percent of double-play opportunities before this season. For his career, the pitcher holds an eight percent conversion rate.
And that sad figure places Cain near the bottom of all starters once more. 122 MLB pitchers have seen at least 25 double-play opportunities so far this season. Only six (Matt Moore, Kyle Kendrick, Wade LeBlanc, Alexi Ogando, Justin Grimm, and C.J. Wilson) have a lower conversion rate than Cain's four percent. And each one of those guys also only have one DP turned, just in more opportunities.
The Next Step
Through his first 210 batters faced this season, 65 percent of Cain's first pitches have been strikes. That's a good thing, right? I figure that the more strikes you have, the more successful you are. They taught me that at the Bobby V school of pitching good and stuff.
So why is it that Cain can't get to an 0-2 count to save his life? Only 45 of the batters he's faced, or 21 percent, have gotten to an 0-2 count. Last season, that number was 24 percent. For his career, that number is 26 percent. Three seasons ago, that number was 30 percent.
Couple that with a low success rate on those few opportunities - only 40 percent of pitches thrown on 0-2 counts have been strikes - and Cain just doesn't have the count advantage like he used to. His strikeout rate may still be a solid 20.6 percent, but he's having to deal with tougher pitchers counts in order to get there.
All of these problems are easily fixable and should turn around in time. In the present, though, Cain has been a bit of a headache for Giants fans. It's nothing they can't overcome, and they are first in the NL West, after all. But watching out for Cain may be an important storyline as the season turns into the stretch.