You know how we feel about Matt Cain on this blog. If you don't, just read this. Carl Steward filled in for Andrew Baggarly on Friday night, and had a very surprising opinion of Cain's 2011 season.
There's a lot to say about Matt Cain's 2011 season. His strikeouts are up from the last 2 seasons, and his walks are down. He's getting more groundballs, and allowing fewer home runs. His success against lefties has been especially impressive, possibly due to an improvement in his changeup, which he throws mostly to LHBs. The percentages differ whether you use Baseball Info Solutions or Pitch F/X, but the conclusion is similar: Cain has evolved in his pitch selection (I am using the Pitch F/X numbers):
60.3% 4 seam fastballs, 12.8% changeups, 12.6% sliders, 11.6% curveballs, 2.1% 2 seam fastballs
58.5 % 4 seam fastballs, 16.0% changeups, 8.8% sliders, 13.4% curveballs, 2.8% 2 seam fastballs
48.3% 4 seam fastballs, 17.9% changeups, 11.7% silders, 13.5% curveballs, 8.2% 2 seam fastballs
Not only has Cain increased his usage of the changeup since 2010, but he started developing a 2 seamer, and is now using it a significant amount of the time. I can't faithfully conclude what these changes mean exactly, but the difference in approach could be a reasonable explanation for why Cain is enjoying a career year.
Cain has maintained low ERAs, BABIPs, and HR rates throughout his career while having only above average K and BB numbers, leading to two explanations from the statistical community: he's overrated and lucky, or he's the exception to the rule. Both views may now be outdated, because Cain's FIP this year is down to 2.87, almost a run better than his career average, and 15th best in the majors. His amazing 4.5% HR/FB this year means his xFIP isn't as kind, but at 3.51 it's still .75 runs better than his career mark. His BABIP and LOB% are normal for his career, in fact a bit worse, partly to blame for his Fangraphs-adjusted ERA (ERA-) being only just as good as the total for his career.
I've been paying attention to this development in Cain for some time, which is why Carl Steward's confounding article from Friday bothered me so much. I don't imagine Steward cares what Matt Cain's FIP is; someone who rates Ryan Vogelsong as the most effective pitcher for the Giants this year probably only knows wins and ERA. Yet Cain's ERA is lower than it was last year. None of what Steward wrote really made sense. He described some kind of weird pattern of Cain pitching well in one start and then poorly in the next, something I haven't noticed nor what the record suggests. It could just be a case of looking at the past with...whatever the hell that metaphor is.
"He hasn't been horrible, he just hasn't been the Cain everybody saw in 2010."
That's unfair, and completely wrong. And so is Steward's line about Cain needing to become the rotation's "horse" again. I don't love that term, but it does describe part of Matt Cain's profile: he has never been hurt, and he pitches many innings each year. He can be counted on. Steward would have you believe that he has not been as reliable this season. Meanwhile Cain leads the staff in inning pitched, and he's been excellent at going deep into games. Lincecum and Vogelsong (Vogelsong in far fewer starts) have both failed to get past the 6th inning in 5 starts this season. Bumgarner hasn't gone past the 6th inning 4 times. Cain, reliable as ever, has only failed this criteria once, April 20th in Colorado. Very equine of him.
Now stop saying mean things about Matthew Thomas Cain.