Print and Go Back ESPN.com: SweetSpot [Print without images]

Saturday, April 14, 2012
Matt Cain continues to mystify

By Bill Baer
Special to ESPN.com

Matt Cain has been flummoxing statheads almost as long as he has been flummoxing opposing hitters. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander has quietly become one of baseball's premier pitchers since earning a regular spot in the San Francisco Giants' rotation in 2006, despite a career xFIP (4.26) nearly a full run higher than his career ERA (3.37).

Utilizing a typical starting pitcher's tool chest -- fastball, slider, changeup, curve -- Cain has posted an ERA between 2.88 and 3.14 in each of the past three seasons, but stood in the background as teammate and 2008-09 back-to-back Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum shone in the spotlight. Sabermetricians labeled Cain a fluke, bound to regress to a 4.50 ERA that was more in line with his xFIP.

Matt Cain
Matt Cain tips his cap after his one-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in the Giants' home opener.
In fact, many balked when the Giants awarded Cain a six-year, $127.5 million contract extension nearly two weeks ago. Cain has never finished higher than eighth in Cy Young balloting and never posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio in excess of 3-1. How could he possibly be worth that much money?

Cain showed exactly how in this afternoon's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He brought a perfect game into the sixth inning, allowing his first hit with two out in the frame to opposing starter James McDonald on his way to a 5-0 Giants victory. The home crowd in San Francisco gave him a lengthy and appreciative standing ovation, perhaps a penance for worrying after his first start, in which the Arizona Diamondbacks tagged him for five runs over six innings.

While he is not known for his ability to strike batters out on a frequent basis, Cain has posted an average strikeout rate (a shade under 20 percent) over his career. Today, Cain struck out 11 Pirates, utilizing expert pitch sequencing. ESPN Stats & Information notes that eight of his 11 punchouts were on pitches out of the strike zone, and overall, Pirates hitters chased at 58 percent of pitches out of the zone.

An added bonus to being so unpredictable is weak contact. Since 2006, among starters with at least 1,000 innings pitched, Cain has the fourth-highest infield fly ball rate at 12.6 percent, trailing Ted Lilly (13.8), Jered Weaver (13.6), and Bronson Arroyo (12.7). As a result, Cain's career batting average on balls on play sits at .265, about 35 points below the average for pitchers and the point to which most pitchers regress. That low BABIP is the reason most expected him to regress, but he has proven he has an ability to limit hits on balls in play better than most pitchers, which is a rare skill.

If Cain had authored the 273rd no-hitter in baseball history, he certainly would have gained some recognition across the baseball world. But in reality, his resume is already impressive enough, and he has been everything the Giants had hoped for when they drafted him in the first round of the 2002 draft and, at 27 years old, there is plenty more still to come.

Bill Baer writes for Crashburn Alley and you can follow him on Twitter here.