Just three years ago, Matt Cain was the ace of the San Francisco Giants.
Fast forward to the present, and he’s far from it.
In 2012, Cain’s last great season, he posted a 16-5 record, with a 2.79 ERA (126 ERA+) and 1.040 WHIP. In that year, he also pitched a perfect game and led the Giants to another World Series title. But in 2015, despite reassurance from Cain and the front office that he is completely healthy and would thrive with his bone chips in his elbow removed, he is pitching like one of the worst pitchers in the game.
“This is probably the best my arm strength has felt, shoulder-wise and everything,” Cain told CSN Bay Area. “Everything just feels really good.”
Everything is not good. Since coming back from injury this season, he is 2-3 with a 6.05 ERA (60 ERA+) and 1.584 WHIP.
And the odd thing is, his stuff looks good. Of course, pitchers can have great stuff and still flame out (remember Jonathan Sanchez?). Cain is popping the glove at 92-93 miles per hour—about the same velocity as his glory days—and he has good snap on his changeup and slider.
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The problem is, he has no idea where the ball is going.
Even with Cain’s struggles, he has a strikeout-to-walk ratio a little better than 2:1 and is averaging just over six strikeouts every nine innings. That’s not bad, especially when you’re struggling with command.
The command of his offspeed pitches is especially lacking right now. He did seem to have good snap on his slider in Chicago, but it was nowhere near the zone.
His offspeed pitches are falling way off the plate outside, forcing Cain to groove a fastball down the middle of the plate because he’s often behind in the count. And it also allows hitters to sit on one the heater. In Friday’s game against the Washington Nationals, for instance, Cain admitted he tried to pitch carefully to Harper. But instead of dancing around the plate with nasty offspeed stuff (like Santiago Casilla did against Harper in the ninth inning of the clinching game of the NLDS), Cain offered up a meatball right down the heart of the plate.
The result? A three-run shot into the arcade in right-center field that pulled the Nationals within a run.
When Cain was at his best, he was throwing darts—spotting the fastball on the corners and tantalizing hitters with offspeed pitches down in the strike zone. One of his best pitches was that up-and-in fastball hitters would see as a fat pitch at 92 miles per hour but would end up swinging through. In 2015, it’s leaking over the plate.
What’s really worrisome is Cain and the Giants insist everything’s OK. But something is obviously still wrong.
With September fast-approaching, the Giants do not have time to hope Cain finds it. He’s had eight starts to settle in—that’s more than a pitcher gets in spring training.
But Cain has shown some stretches of dominance. Take Friday’s game, where he only gave up one run in the first four innings.
How about the Aug. 3 game against the Braves? No runs in the first five innings.
And on July 22 against San Diego, he went six innings, giving up five hits and one earned run, while striking out six. He outdueled James Shields that day.
But time is running out. Mike Leake is nearing his return and manager Bruce Bochy seems to be losing faith.
If he is only showing flashes of dominance, then the bullpen might be a good fit for him. It would give him more time to sort out his mechanics in lower-pressure situations. Or you might get a surprising super-reliever, a la Tim Lincecum in the 2012 postseason.
Or maybe Dave Righetti can work another miracle and get Cain right. Righetti said Cain had a great bullpen session on Sunday, for what it’s worth.
Or maybe another under-the-radar pickup is in the works. Either way, something’s got to give.