Monday, March 21, 2011


Giants Pitching Preview 2011: DIPS Be Damned

Matt Cain 13-11 3.14 ERA 1.08 WHIP 177 K's 223 IP

Matt Cain looks to thwart the disciples of FIP again in 2011.

There are those in the world today, people who write about and claim to be the guardians of everything baseball, who still live by the law of Cro-Magnon Man. They worship the God that is the won-loss record, and any high-falutin' statistic that can't be deciphered with abacus in hand they dismiss as pure demonry. These writers still populate the game, and while most are easily put in their place by other scribes of immensely superior talent and capacity for abstract thought, they still rear their heads and rattle their sabres in an increasingly futile battle to defend their devotion to the almighty win.

When Matt Cain put up records of 7-16 and 8-14 in 2007 and 2008, respectively, some local writers began to turn a bit on this former star prospect. He wasn't immediately Roger Clemens, which offended them. Anybody who puts up 16 losses in one year just doesn't know how to win, they said. Yes, the offense around him sucks, the argument went, but he should be pitching to the score, like good old Jack Morris. Soon ridiculous articles were being written about how Cain's low-key demeanor was adversely affecting his teammates' ability to hit. We enlightened fans who knew better simply facepalmed at this sudden new sportswriting turn to the batshit idiotic.

Now, in the aftermath of a World Championship, none of these people are making a peep. Flash forward a few years, and suddenly Cain is magically a gamer. Funny how putting up a zero ERA in 21 postseason innings will silent the critics who say you don't have the grit it takes to win on a major league pitcher's mound.

Cain was a legitimately improved pitcher last season, but it wasn't because he was no longer putting up loss totals in the high-double digits. A penchant for walks and occasional forays into pitch count hell plagued him in his first few years in the majors, but last year he slashed his walk rate, put up the best K:BB ratio of his career by far, and had less grueling starts that led to early exits. He looked primed to set a career-best ERA mark as well, until a horrid final start against San Diego shoved his final tally back over three. Despite this, the improved control coupled with his typical stinginess with hits and the home run ball made 2010 Cain's best season yet.

Despite his popularity with Giants fans, one group that Cain continues to baffle is the statheads. Just about every year of his career now, Cain's final season ERA has outperformed his peripheral numbers and his Fielding Independent ERAs substantially (career ERA is 3.45, career FIP is 3.84). Dictated by the number of home runs and walks he allows, and the number of batters he strikes out (i.e. things he can generally control), Cain should not, if you follow DIPS even remotely, be continuously putting up ERAs in the low threes. He's due for an ERA collapse any year now.

Except it never happens.This ability to consistently beat his xFIP and whatnot has become like the Ghost Car for many stat nerds; they see it with their own eyes, yet they can't bring themselves to accept it. I'm a pretty firm believer in the wonders of FIP and SIERA and whatnot, Cain's career provides a large enough sample size to infer that something else is going on here.

Since Cain's line drive rate has consistently stayed relatively low for the entirety of his career, it's likely that even though he's not striking out a ton of batters, he has a heavy fastball that is hard to put good wood on. He's also a fly ball pitcher in a park that is hard to hit home runs in, so put those together and you have a guy who seemingly can pitch to contact but who also has the stuff to bear down and get a whiff when he needs one. Hey, kind of like a pitcher those old-timey writers shed nostalgic tears over.

When you think of star pitchers, you don't immediately think of Matt Cain. Look at it this way, though. He's a horse who has finished in the top ten in ERA twice, the top ten in ERA four times, and who can give your team 200 strong innings without batting an eyelash. These guys don't exactly come bounding off the scrap heap. Concerns about his workload have begun to pop up this spring as he's battled some shoulder inflammation, so while that type of report has the ability to scare the bejeezus out of a fanbase, it should be remembered that he's inherently an injury risk because he's a pitcher. Caution must always be taken but he's weathered the young pitcher breakdown nexus very well thus far.

Cain would be the ace on a lot of major league teams. He's just entering his peak as a pitcher, but I suspect what we saw in 2009 and 2010 is probably what he is: a top-tier, if unspectacular, starting pitcher who could bust out a Cy Young year if everything breaks right. That he's not the best pitcher on the team speaks volumes about the Giants' pitching staff...and Tim Lincecum.

Predicted Cain line: 15-9, 3.33 ERA, 188 Ks  I see Cain suffering a bit of a BABIP backlash in his ERA, but a career high in wins and strikeouts to help offset it.

Actually, Cain may be the Giants ace this year...wait and see...
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