By: Jake Kucheck
Sure, writing this on the heels of a stellar, Cueto-at-his-best, artistic complete game shut out of the Padres feels a bit masochistic. But solving problems is rarely painless, and the best way to celebrate winning is to figure out how to do more of it. So, on to Matt Cain.
Matt Cain is something of an enigma, and kind of always has been. Early in his career, he was labeled as a guy who struggled to get run support, which is the strangest of things to label a pitcher. Then he became 2012 Matt Cain, who threw a perfect game, won a World Series, made $100 Million, and somehow bucked his nagging trend of getting poor run support, resulting in a career high 16 pitcher wins (I refuse to call this stat “wins” because that term should be reserved for the far more useful Wins Against Replacemnt). Some amount of regression and injuries later, we’ve found ourselves in 2016, where Matt Cain will make $20 Million and continue to do so for each of the next two years, and he is back to being remarkably enigmatic.
Perhaps enigmatic is not as correct a word as just bad. The most frustrating part about Cain’s start to the 2016 season, though, is that he has typically pitched brilliantly the first time through the lineup, and usually been competent the second time, but things really start to unravel the third around. That’s not unusual. Pitchers are not as good 80 pitches into a game as they are at the beginning. This is not a new or difficult concept, and the existence and ubiquitous use of relief pitchers validates this concept. But to do this as consistently as Cain has done so far is worth looking into.
The trouble is, pitchers making $20 Million/year are expected to have figured out how to be successful into the 5th and 6th innings with some regularity, or as Johnny Cueto has done in each of his 5 starts this season (including last night’s CG Shutout, woo-hoo!), go into the 7th inning or later. Such things are expected of #1 and #2 starters, and less is obviously expected of a #5 starter, but as recently as 3 years ago, Cain WAS a #1 starter. So what’s going on?
For starters, he is older and has had significant wear and tear. That much is obvious, and that partially accounts for his transition from a bona fide ace going 27 up, 27 down against the Houston Astros to a guy that hasn’t been able to fool the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and Marlins more than twice through the lineup. Deeper than that though, his advanced stats don’t really have any obvious answers as to why the lack of success so far this season. There are two things that stand out though, and they are interesting enough that they merit further discussion when viewed along with his fifth inning problem.
First, Cain has given up a BABIP of .362 to opposing hitters in 2016, which is a startling number in general (as we know the league average is around .300 in the long run) but even more so compared to Cain’s career BABIP allowed of .266. So we know that balls are falling more frequently for hits, but why? There are three components of BABIP- defense, luck, and skill. We know that the Giants defense is not worse than it was last year, and it certainly is not worse than it was in Cain’s banner year of 2012, so that is an unlikely reason for the change. Luck my play a role, but 100 points of BABIP cannot be solely attributed to luck. So we have determined Matt Cain has not been as good of a pitcher for these first four games of the season as he has been for his career. But will that continue?
That brings us to the second interesting thing of note. While there hasn’t been any marked difference in how hard Cain’s pitches have been hit this year, there has been an interesting and substantial change in where they’ve been hit. For his career, Cain has produced a spray chart of 36.3% of balls being pulled, 35.9% being hit up the middle, and 27.8% being hit the other way. This year, though, a whopping 49.3% of batted balls have been hit up the middle. While the difference may not be astounding at first glance, it certainly is an outlier for his career. The second highest % of such up the middle batted balls was 37.8% in 2008, a season Cain finished just prior to Barack Obama being elected to his first term.
A spike in batted balls up the middle has its own set of likely explanations, but it is a simpler one than a similar spike in balls pulled or hit the opposite way. Balls hit up the middle tend to be on pitches thrown down the middle, so this coupled with the spike in BABIP means Cain is likely throwing a lot of balls down the middle of the plate. Without doing massive Pitch/FX research, I can’t say for sure, but I would venture a guess that the swing % increases on these pitches as games go on. Meaning, hitters often take more pitches early in games to get a feel for what kind of pitches the pitcher has and how best to attack him, and will be more aggressive once they’ve figured out the answers to these questions.
So what do these advanced stats tell us? Mainly what might be obvious if we watched his starts. He throws strikes, doesn’t throw particularly hard, and will throw some pitches down the middle that, when swung at, will more often than not fall for hits in the middle of the field. If hitters adjust and start attacking him earlier in games and Cain doesn’t adjust by starting to paint more corners, there could be even bigger problems ahead. Like first inning problems.
Assuming they don’t, though, Cain may continue to be serviceable for 4 innings of work every 5th game. Unfortunately, that’s not particularly useful, and since the Giants bullpen will likely be used heavily in Peavy starts as well, a tired bullpen needing to pick up either 4 or 5 innings depending on whether the game is at home or away doesn’t paint the prettiest of pictures. While Samardzija has shown enough flashes of being a $90 Million pitcher to keep the Giants from being in Spahn/Sain/Pray-for-Rain territory, his lack of efficiency means the bullpen is likely to see a lot of work in 3 of every 5 games. The bullpen also isn’t very experienced, so that could make for some long games where double digit runs are surrendered during the dog days of summer. What might the Giants do about this?
The answer, interestingly enough, might be a guy who has had his own share of first inning problems, and is currently showcasing his talents at the Giants Arizona facility. I don’t mean replacing Cain in the rotation with Tim Lincecum, though. I mean adding Lincecum to the bullpen, but for a very specific role. You see, Cain has a simple throwing motion and is very successful against patient hitters who aren’t swinging at stuff he throws down the middle, and Lincecum has a bananas throwing motion and throws the ball pretty much everywhere but down the middle. Having Cain start a game, work his way through the lineup twice, and hand the ball off to Lincecum to theoretically get to the 7th or 8th inning would be an unheard of, wackadoo strategy, but also a very difficult adjustment for opposing hitters. If the Giants are basically punting all of Cain’s starts anyway, it gives Lincecum another shot at the big leagues, but more importantly, saves the young arms of Strickland, Osich, Law, Gearrin and company for higher leverage situations.
If there were ever a time where it made sense to bring Timmy back, you’d have to imagine it would be done best in an unconventional way. What could possibly be more unconventional than this? Could the aggregate of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum (Mim Caicecum?) combine to make a decent fifth starter? Is this the key to #EvenYear magic? We’ll never know unless we give it a try…