San Francisco Giants: Can Matt Cain Continue Early Success?

Jul 20, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain (18) pitches during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 20, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain (18) pitches during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

The San Francisco Giants have provided us with a fair share of surprises so far in 2017. Some good, and some bad. Although a majority of the still young 2017 season has been frustrating, the resurgence of Matt Cain has been a pleasant surprise. The only question I have is, can he pitch this well all season?

Cain has been a workhorse for the San Francisco Giants ever since he burst onto the scene as a 20-year-old rookie back in 2005. It is crazy to me that he has already been in the big leagues for 12 years and he is only 32.

His career has been one of the more intriguing career’s, in terms of current Giants players, that I can think of — one that the surface level statistics may not truly reflect how great he has been.

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When I say “surface level statistics” I am talking about wins and losses. Many people have this idea that a pitcher’s skill level is dependent on their win/loss record, which is not always an accurate measurement, and Matt Cain is the epitome of this logic.

See, the average baseball fan may look at Cain’s stats and see that he has a career record of 103-107, and think to themselves that he is an average pitcher at best.

This is not an accurate representation of how great of a major league pitcher Cain has been, in fact he has actually been one of the best in franchise history.

I am basing this claim strictly by looking at his WAR. Cain has a career WAR of 31.8, which ranks him ninth in franchise history–better than Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner. The eight former Giants pitchers that rank ahead of Cain in WAR are all in the Hall of Fame, just to put it into perspective.

One of the main factors that separates Cain from some of the historical Giants greats is he played for some awful teams, and fell victim to a ton of bad luck.

I am sure somewhere down the line you have heard the term of getting “Cain’d,” which basically means that although Cain would pitch excellent, the team could not score any runs for him.

Looking at his stats, it is crazy to see how much trouble the Giants had scoring runs for Cain over the years.

In 2007 Cain’s record was 7-16, which many would think signifies a pretty terrible year, but his ERA was only 3.65, which is pretty good. It is not a Cy Young caliber ERA by any means, but certainly deserving of a much better record than 7-16. When I think of a pitcher with that kind of record, I think of someone with an ERA well over four.

The bad luck for Cain does not end there. In 2011, one of his best years statistically, Cain had a modest record of 12-11, despite throwing over 200 innings, an ERA of 2.88, a FIP of 2.91, a WHIP of 1.08, and an All-Star appearance. Aside from his 16-5 record in 2012, Cain’s win/loss record for his career does not accurately reflect how good he truly was.

What I am getting at is Matt Cain was a darn good pitcher until about 2013 when the injuries started piling up. Until 2013, Cain threw at least 200 innings in each of the six previous seasons, which can be extremely taxing on the arm–and it was.

In 2013, Cain went 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA and pitched 184.1 innings. It was the start of a rapid decline for the former ace.

Since the 2013 season, Cain has yet to even crack the 100 inning threshold and has been tough to watch. Injuries and age had gotten the best of Cain.

His fastball velocity had decreased from the mid-to-high 90’s to low 90’s and his location had been suspect. He could no longer blow it by guys or set up weak contact on a fastball up and in.

It has been pretty rough to watch because he has been an instrumental part of the Giants success over the years. Instead, Cain had to learn how to pitch and work with what was left in the tank, which had not gone to plan.

All of that has changed so far in 2017. Although it is still early in the season, Cain has seemed to have figured it all out on the mound. His velocity is still down, as expected with the arm injuries he has endured, and his age, but he has been able to induce a lot of weak contact, which has been difficult for him over the last few seasons.

A big reason for this is that Cain is throwing a two-seamed fastball more frequently. A two-seamed fastball may be one-to-two MPH slower than a four-seamed fastball, but what makes it deceptive is the movement it has, especially Cain’s.

I have always found Cain’s off speed pitches to have quite a bit of movement, which makes it easier for pitchers who do not throw as hard anymore to adapt.

Now that he has found a reliable fastball to compliment his off speed pitches, he has endured quite a bit of success so far in 2017.

He is locating all of his pitches well, which is necessary for a pitcher who does not throw particularly hard. Of course, hitting your spot is always critical, but a pitcher throwing 97 is more likely to get away with a mistake than a pitcher barely topping 90.

A prime example of not being able to hit their spots and suffering from it is Tim Lincecum (sorry Timmy).

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Cain’s ability to become a pitcher, rather than a thrower, has revitalized his career … at least for now. Heading into last night’s start against the Reds, he was 2-0 with a 2.30 ERA in 27.1 innings, and an ERA+ of 181. His FIP was 3.84, which is not the greatest considering his ERA in 2.30, but I do not think FIP tells the whole story. I am a big fan of measuring ERA and ERA+, which both show that Cain has pitched really well. The average ERA+ is 100, and Cain’s was 181, which is well above average.

However, in his latest start against the Reds, Cain seemed eerily similar to the Matt Cain Giants fans have been accustomed to seeing over the past few years.

He struggled mightily, allowing 10 hits, 6 walks, and 9 earned runs in only 3.1 innings. It was really tough to watch him struggle so much, especially since Matt Moore also gave up 9 runs just two games prior.

Now Cain sits at 2-1 on the year with a 4.70 ERA, an ERA+ of 81, and a BB/9 of 4.4, which would be a career high. It is still early in the season, so one really bad start like last night can quickly inflate a pitcher’s numbers.

I do not want to make excuses for Cain’s performance, but it was a strange day for baseball. The weather was an issue and the game was delayed for over an hour. I am not saying that is the reason he did not pitch well, because Bronson Arroyo pitched just fine, but I am wondering if the rain contributed to Cain’s lack of control, which he is dependent on now-a-days.

A decent amount of the contact Cain induced was not particularly hard. There were a lot of ground ball’s that just found holes, and when you mix that in with all the walks, it’s never a good sign.

My only question regarding Matt Cain and his success so far in 2017 is, can he keep up some of his early success or will we see more of the version he showed against the Reds?

He has battled numerous injuries in each of the last three seasons and already had an injury scare in 2017 when he left a start early against the Dodgers with hamstring tightness. He made his next start against the Padres and pitched well, which was a relief.

I am just skeptical of him coming down with the injury bug again sometime this year. I am also worried about starts like the one against the Reds where he misses his spots, leaving pitches up in the zone. Cain’s last start is indicative of how important control is for him in this stage of his career.

I hope he doesn’t get injured, because I really like Matt Cain and am rooting for his ultimate success. His bounce back year has been a bright spot in an otherwise difficult season for the Giants.

If he can continue locating all his pitches, and mix them up well enough, I feel he will have a serviceable 2017 season.

I am not expecting a season where he has a 2.30 ERA, nor do I think he will get lit up for nine runs every time. Instead, I believe he can remain a reliable back end of the rotation starter.

Next: Giants vs. Reds Preview

Matt Cain will be back on the mound on May 10th against the New York Mets. It will be interesting to see which version of him we will get. I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt, as all pitchers have a bad start every once in awhile.