Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Giants Pitching Preview 2006: The Caint-Miss Kid
Like Uma Thurman's frantic escape from the lonely grave of Paula Schultz in Kill Bill Vol. 2, Giants' pitching uberphenom Matt Cain has made an amazing rise through the treacherous, combustible surroundings of the minor leagues. With a blazing fastball, killer curve, and a neck that would make Geoffrey the Giraffe proud, Cain has burst upon the major league scene like the second coming of Doc Gooden, providing one incredibly bright point of light in the Giants' otherwise dismal post-Barry future outlook.
Ever since being drafted in 2003, Cain's name has brought visions of a future stud building a Roger Clemens-esque monopoly on the Cy Young Award. Cain has been heralded as a can't-miss Curt Schilling-type, and was widely regarded as the best pitching prospect outside of Felix Hernandez. The results seemed to back up the hype. Cain was pretty much untouchable as a teenager in the low minors, and last year in AAA, while not quite as impressive, he still managed to whiff 176 batters in 146 innings, all as a 20-year-old facing much stiffer competition.
All that hype and the implosion of the Giants' starting staff earned Cain a trip to The Show, and I'm sure a drunken and jealous Crash Davis hurled a whiskey glass at him upon hearing the news. Cain generally impressed, sporting a shiny 2.33 ERA and holding opponents to a minuscule .151 batting average. Like any 20-year-old on the big stage, he had problems with his command at times, but generally he showed tremendous poise, the kind you'd expect from five-year veterans and that we never, ever saw from Shawn Estes.
Lots of people looked at Cain's ERA and started drooling, expecting a 2006 full of Juan Marichaly dominance. He'll no doubt be good, but he's still got stuff to work on, and I think it's fair to temper expectations a little. Projecting a Mark Prior 2003-esque campaign is a little extreme at this point. First and foremost, he has to iron out his control problems. He walked 73 batters in 146 innings at Fresno. With his nasty stuff, he can generally get away with that without too much damage, but the walks lead to a lot of unnecessary baserunners and huge pitch counts, which is not what you want from your 20-year-old pitching prospect.
Also, Cain's major league numbers were somewhat misleading. He made seven starts, all against teams that certainly couldn't be accused of sporting a good offense. He faced the Diamondbacks twice, the Rockies twice, and the Padres, Nationals, and Cubs once apiece. The best offense of the lot is probably (bizarre enough as it is) the Padres, or maybe the Cubs if you take Derrek Lee into account. Everybody else was garbage, and the Rockies were fielding a lineup that bordered on being AAA-caliber, Coors Field or no (though it must be said that Cain's one start in Colorado's house of horrors was very impressive).
As far as the end results go, Cain looked to be rather "hit-lucky", allowing just 24 hits in 46 1/3 innings. Normally, this kind of stinginess is matched with a great strikeout rate, but Cain only managed 30, and his 30/19 K/BB was unimpressive. It gives us two alternatives: 1)Cain was just so nasty that batters couldn't make solid contact, turning his pitches into easy outs, making the lack of K's moot, or 2)Cain had a four-leafed clover hidden in his pants, and those bloopers and low liners that found holes for other guys were being caught by Giants fielders. Cain's BABIP (batting average on balls in play, for those not familiar with saber-lingo) was .160. The league average is something like .300, so Cain's hit rates are sure to rise next year, especially if he can't whiff more batters. And forgive me for conjuring up the ghosts of Kurt Ainsworth and Trevor Wilson, but we can't forget that he's 20, and young pitchers who rush to the majors tend to make unfortunate trips to the surgery table.
In the interests of being fair, though, it's my job to point out these caveats. Now for the gushing. The low strikeout rates are almost surely a product of Cain's being a young guy getting a first look at major league hitters. You don't fan nearly ten batters per nine in the minors just to turn into Rick Reed in the big leagues. Cain's stuff is already pretty fierce, but once he adds a third quality pitch, like a changeup, he'll be absolutely filthy. He might be in the right organization to do that too, seeing what Dave Righetti did for Jason Schmidt's career by teaching him the change. His control problems are something that will eventually get ironed out; it's not like he's Rick Ankiel or anything. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both had control problems early in their careers. Heck, even Greg Maddux, the paragon of impeccable control, walked 74 batters in 155 innings in his first full season.
The excitement Cain has generated is deserved. Other Giants prospects have been hyped up without much to show for it, guys like William VanLandingham, Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams, and Jesse Foppert, but none of them had the stuff or the dominant minor league record that Cain has, and at such a young age. In projecting Cain's 2006, I'll stay conservative, like a good George Will devotee. I'll go with about 180 innings of an ERA straddling 4.40, as Cain mixes rookie lumps with fits of brilliance. It's a little pessimistic, but there's a very good chance Cain beats the projection, and I don't see any way he fails to match it. After this year, if he can avoid injury, the road to Cy Young stardom should begin. The post-Bonds era Giants is cause for many a sleepless night, but ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a silver lining.
Keep em down and low, Matty...down and low!