Thursday, May 02, 2013

What's Wrong With Matt Cain?

Hello. Welcome to China Basin Baseball, a Giants blog where there is a post sometimes every 3 months! Probably not a good strategy to generate traffic. But I haven’t been writing for the past few months for a variety of reasons. I like to think the main one is to accumulate as many creepy automated blog comments as possible. I have some deleting to do. But the truth is college requires you to put in a lot of work, and quite frankly I lost a little motivation along the way. I'm back though and hopefully for good, and will try to get at least 3 or 4 post up per week. That's something that I will regret writing soon.

Anyways you’re probably here for the baseball, because this is a baseball blog! To baseball! There are already many storylines in the first month of the season for Giants baseball, but this one tops the list for me (via gidget)

My favorite moment is at the end when Bochy makes eye contact with the bat boy:

Bochy: Look at this son. We never have to use the stairs again. We've done it.

Bat Boy: This is what my life is reduced to.

Other then managers finding secret passageways in the dugout, another big narrative has to do with the struggles of the Giants rotation. Giants starters have given up the 2nd most runs among National League starters. Specifically, the problems have centered around Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain.  As evidence by the headline, this post is about Matt Cain. 

The good news is that Matt Cain has a better ERA than Roy Halladay. The bad news is that Matt Cain’s ERA sits at 6.49 which is 3rd worst in the NL among qualified starters. Roy Halladay is 2nd worst at 6.75. Related: Jogging is going for a human.

So what’s wrong with Matt Cain? 

The blue line is league average HR/9 and the green line is Cain’s HR/9. Cain’s giving up 2.3 home runs per 9 innings, just under triple his career average. That is what's wrong with Matt Cain.

Of course, Cain has been something of an anomaly to stat nerds in his career. He’s a flyball pitcher that pitches to contact and does not generate many groundballs. Strike one. His career BABIP is .264, which implies he’s been super lucky and is due for some regression. His xFIP is constantly in the low 4’s and high 3’s, which is an indicator of what his ERA should be and it’s sayng Matt Cain should be closer to Wandy Rodgriguez than Cliff Lee. But each year, despite what the peripherals say, Matt Cain is not Wandy Rodgriguez, he is Matt Cain.

The reason Cain has been able to outpitch his peripherals over the years has been his pin point command, and how he deceives hitters by making them hit underneath his pitches. His command has always been impeccable. His K/9 is the highest of his career and his BB/9 is only 2.60, right around his 3 years average. So the command, at least the getting in the strike zone part of command, is fine.

His velocity is fine too. It is a tick lower than last year, which could possibly make a small difference, but lets assume for now .4 MPH difference is pretty insignificant.

So the problem for Cain this season is obvious, but the cause of that problem is not. He hasn’t been overly wild and he hasn’t lost too much velocity off his fastball. So why the spike in home run totals?

There are a few explanations. The first one is that you can just chalk it to the ole bad luck and small sample size duet. It would be nice if I could use that excuse for anything. That’s how I like to explain my high school dating record. And for Cain, it could very well be true. Any pitcher can have a bad 5 or 6 game stretch, no matter how good you are. Any small sample can create a lot of noise, whether it be bad luck or a pitcher losing his stuff for a few starta. With Cain, it’s not like he’s walking more batters or losing strike outs. He’s been the same pitcher except for the home run rate, which leads one to believe it really is bad luck.

Cain is extremely skilled at keeping long fly balls in the ball park, but for whatever reason this season those long fly balls are leaving the yard. For most flyball pitchers, you could say that’s bad luck, because conventional wisdom says it’s hard to control whether long flyballs stay or leave the yard. Yet for Cain, he’s shown the innate ability to consistently keep flyballs in the park, which is why he’s such an anomaly. But the uptick in home runs this years hasn't been all luck. 

Most scouts will tell you Cain’s stuff just hasn’t been the same this year, particularly the fastball. As Dave Schoenfield notes, Cain lives off the fastball, and like most pitchers, all his specialty stuff is set up by the fastball. It shows in the stats. Hitters this season are hitting .278/.371/.556 against Cain’s fastball. That’s not good, especially considering it’s Cain’s most commonly thrown pitch. As expected, his LD% against his fastball has gone up considerably 21.5% in 2012 to 27.9% in 2013. To the further hammer home the point, the contact rate against his fastball has gone up from 80% in 2012 to 89.7% in 2013. Batters are whiffing on his fastball just 4.6% of the time, the lowest rate of his career. It’s obvious that Cain’s fastball is not as deceptive this season, and hitters are handling it with greater ease. In fact, according to Fangraph's pitch value tool, Cain's fastball has been the 8th worst fastball in the National League, just below Bronson Arroyo. That's an annoying sentence to read and I apologize. Here's a website about puppies.

Why are hitters so much more comfortable hitting against his fastball this season? This season righties have done the most damage against Cain. Here’s his heat map from 2012 against righties with the fastball:

The more red the color gets the more pitches Cain’s thrown to that location. Cain likes to stay middle away and up in the zone and he did a pretty darn good job of that in 2012. Here’s his heat map for this season against righties with the fastball:

It’s not overly significant, but it does appear Cain has been missing more towards the inner part of the plate than he has in years past. When he's missing, he's missing inside a lot more. At least for the first 5 games, Cain’s fastball command has been off. And for a pitcher that works up in the zone like Cain, the emphasis on pin point command is intensified. Even just the slightest change in location can spell disaster if Cain doesn’t put the ball exactly where he wants it. That small shift towards the inside can be the difference between a home run and a flyball towards the warning track.

This is all just a long way of saying that Cain is not right, and is also getting unlucky. It seems like even though Cain’s location has been off, hitters are making Cain pay for mistakes at an abnormal rate. That’s one thing. Second is that Cain is bound to make an adjustment. As I said, any pitcher can have a bad 5 or 6 game stretch, and every pitcher has a stretch where his mechanics need twerking or his stuff is mediocre. All pitchers make adjustments over the course of a season. For Cain, it seems that everything that could go wrong in a month did go wrong. When bad luck and bad location coincide the results resemble crocodile vomit. Ideally, pitchers want to avoid crocodile vomit.

Cain will be better, I'd say much better for the rest of the season. But that’s not to say this won’t be a down year for Cain or that he’s starting might be due for some regression. Even the best pitchers that have been able to keep their HR/FB rate down over the years have eventually had that number rise with only 1 or 2 exceptions. So may be this is the year the home runs increase for Cain. Or maybe the Giants have some formula for keeping HR/FB rates down and Cain will continue to keep that rate down. The conclusion here is that I really have no idea, but would venture a guess that the majority of Cain's problems will be fixed and a lot of that has to do with bad luck and adjustments. Here is another point:

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