Monday, June 23, 2014

The Matt Cain Mystery

These past 1½ years have been a nightmare for Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain.

After steadily improving every year since he broke into the big leagues in 2005, last year, out of nowhere, Cain took a huge step backwards and hasn't yet recovered. 

In 882 innings pitched from 2009 through 2012, Cain was 55-35 with a sparkling 2.93 ERA and a 1.096 WHIP. He allowed just 7.3 H/9 and 0.8 HR/9.

Then everything came crashing down.

In the past two seasons, Cain is 9-15 with a 4.14 ERA and a 1.181 WHIP, and he’s allowed 1.2 HR/9.

Sixty-three National League pitchers have logged at least 60 innings pitched this season. Among them, Cain’s -0.4 WAR is fourth worst and his 4.52 ERA ranks 49th. His 1.55 HR/9 is sixth worst, and four of the five players whose ratios are worse play in Colorado, Milwaukee, or Cincinnati, all notorious hitter-friendly parks.

Before 2013, the highest HR/FB% of Cain’s career was 8.4%. Last year it was 10.8% and this year it’s 15.1%. That’s right—a whopping 15.1% of fly balls Cain’s allowed this year have left the ballpark. That means one out of every 6.62 fly balls has been a home run.

The trouble seems to be a lack of command within the strike zone, not out of it. From 2005-2012, spanning more than 1,500 innings, Cain averaged 3.1 BB/9. These past two seasons, it’s actually been lower, at 2.9 BB/9. So Cain’s problem hasn't involved issuing more walks.

After watching most of his starts these past two seasons, Cain seems to be hanging lots of pitches over the middle of the plate and those pitches are getting crushed. Say he’s ahead in the count 0-2 or 1-2 and he tries try to throw a slider low and away against a right handed hitter. Instead of hitting his spot, he hangs it over the middle of the plate. This used to happen next to never, but now it happens seemingly every start. Cain’s past success was built upon great movement and great command, and the command is what's been missing. 

Unless Cain is injured, he should be able to correct the problem simply by working on his mechanics, thus regaining control of his pitches within the strike zone. It seems unlikely that a healthy, 29-year-old Cain just suddenly loses it and never gets it back. The velocity and movement are still there, so it’s not like the case of Tim Lincecum.

Look for Cain to regain his command this season and re-establish himself as one of the game's most consistent and elite starting pitchers. The Giants will need Cain to regain his All-Star form if they're going to make a serious run at a third World Series title in five seasons.

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