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The Wonderful Consistency in the Career of Matt Cain

October 1, 2010

Can you name the current Giant that has been on the team the longest? It is indeed 26-year old Matthew Thomas Cain, former first round pick and farm boy from Alabama. As a Giants fan, I am biased when it comes to valuing Cain. He might be one of the most underrated pitchers in the game ever since he made his debut in 2006 at age 20. He has ranked 7th, 5th, 13th and 15th to last in run support the past few seasons. Using a qualifier of at least 1000 innings, Cain ranks 44th all-time in adjusted ERA+. While ERA doesn’t tell the whole story, that gives us a pretty good baseline on which to judge Cain. Any way you put it, he has been a very, very good pitcher.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media has yet to fully adapt to new ways in which baseball players should be evaluated. He has a 57-61 career record in the majors, and so, those who live by the old methods of evaluating baseball players can’t look past that below .500 record. It never helped that Cain’s first full season was on the worst Giants team that San Francisco had seen in over a decade in 2006. It also didn’t help with the presence of Barry Bonds looming over this young, stud pitching prospect. Then, when Cain was finally ready to become the “ace” of the staff, future pitching phenom Tim Lincecum arrived in 2007, just as the Bonds era was ending. Cain continued to be undervalued, and continued to be the victim of poor run support piling up season after season with below average win-loss records. It was hard to watch as a fan, as the kid seemed to lose several 1-0 games every season.

Yet, Matt Cain has never complained once. Going back to May 22nd this season in Oakland, Cain pitched a complete game loss in which Gio Gonzalez shut the Giants down for a 1-0 victory. Yes, Cain went 8 innings, allowed one unearned run, five hits, one walk and four strikeouts. And Cain responded after the game saying “It was definitely a tough loss. It just came down to one situation and it worked out in their favor.” There have been many other moments like this, where Cain took the loss upon himself in games where he made maybe one mistake, a solo homerun. Not once, did he ever blame the offense, the bullpen, the defense or anything. He just talked about what he could have done better. From a professional standpoint, Cain would be the ideal role model for any person in my view. He holds himself accountable, never blames another party, and always looks to improve on and learn from his mistakes. And that hasn’t changed in six seasons. I don’t get caught up in intangibles too much, as they are simply too difficult to measure. But Matt Cain may be the the most unselfish athlete I’ve ever watched, and he perfectly exemplifies the game of baseball and why we watch it.

After the feel-good story, let’s look at the numbers. Here are his ERA, FIP, tRA, IP and WAR totals in his impressive yet still young career:

Year ERA FIP tRA IP WAR
2005 2.33 4.08 4.15 46.1 0.6
2006 4.15 3.96 3.69 190.2 4.1
2007 3.65 3.78 3.68 200.0 5.4
2008 3.76 3.91 4.50 217.2 3.5
2009 2.89 3.89 3.98 217.2 4.3
2010 2.95 3.51 3.38 219.1 5.6

So while Cain’s out-performed his peripherals consistently over the years (which is likely due to being a flyball pitcher in AT&T), he’s still been very good either way. The numbers have never strayed too far away from his career averages, aside from having two solid years here in 2009 and 2010, and he’s almost a lock for 200+ innings at this point in his career. Also of note, Cain is a pitcher that’s had a below average BABIP and it has been known that it is difficult to make great contact against him compared to the average pitcher, thus I definitely prefer using tRA over FIP.

This is mostly information that I’m sure avid Giants fans understand very well. Yet despite that, the man still seems to get overlooked and as the season winds down it seemed like a perfect time to reflect on the spectacular, yet underrated career for Cain. In an almost poetic fashion, today marks Cain’s final 2010 start. It’s also his 26th birthday, and most fittingly, if he is able to get a win today he will have the chance to pitch in meaningful games in October for the first time in his career. The situation is almost too perfect, and I hope that tonight I will be able to celebrate the Giants first playoff appearance since 2003. Ideally, I’ll be writing a new post tonight or tomorrow recapping the Giants successful season so far.

You know what’s magic inside? Matt Cain.

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