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this season there was a lot of talk about the San Francisco Giants and their
pitching staff. There was Tim Lincecum,
the young phenom and 2008 NL Cy Young winner who wanted to back up his
spectacular season. There was Barry Zito,
who was still searching for the top-of-the-rotation form that won him an AL Cy
Young in 2002 and a $126 Million deal with the Giants. There was even Randy Johnson, who at 45 years
old came into 2009 needing five wins to reach the monumental 300 Club.
Matt Cain entered the year as a
fourth banana on a star-studded pitching staff that was seeking to give the
Giants a shot at contention in the NL West after a horrible 2008. He’s still only 24, but after two consecutive
disappointing seasons in which he totaled a 15-30 record, many were wondering
if he’d ever deliver on his promise and potential. Cain has very quietly put together an
impressive first half that most baseball fans may not be aware of. With his team in second place behind the
headline-grabbing Dodgers and Mannywood and with budding superstar Lincecum
garnering most of the attention, Cain has delivered every time out yet still
been able to stay mostly out of the spotlight.
Cain leads the Giants in wins with
nine (Lincecum and Johnson each have seven) and has racked up three complete
games, both numbers lead the NL and put him among Zack Greinke and Roy Halladay
in all of Major League Baseball. His
ERA, 2.57, not only matches Lincecum’s, but it ranks 2nd in the NL
behind only Dan Haren of Arizona. His WHIP compares favorably to Lincecum (1.23
to 1.14) and his opponents’ batting average is slightly lower (.231 to
The main reason Cain receives far
less attention than his teammate, other than the obvious hardware, is that Cain
relies far less on strikeouts. He
strikes out only a modest 7.52 hitters per nine innings, but is successful by
limiting runners and letting his defense work behind him. Lincecum’s funky delivery, electric stuff,
and ability to embarrass hitters is more eye-catching, but no one can argue with
Cain’s results so far this year.
Lincecum’s notoriety, strikeout
total, and miniscule ERA have many clamoring for him to start the All-Star Game
for the Senior Circuit, but Matt Cain has made quite a case for himself, albeit
in a less visually impressive way. I doubt
he will get the necessary buzz to garner the start on July 14, though he’ll
certainly be there and hopefully he’ll get some of the pub that he deserves.
If he keeps up this pace, it will
be interesting to see if Cain can become the fourth member of the current San
Francisco staff to win a Cy Young, an unheard of collection of pitching talent,
even if some of it is in its twilight (Johnson), or simply lost in the dark
(Zito). If Cain can maintain and develop
the ability he’s shown through the first three months of this season, the
Giants could be looking at twin aces for many years to come.
The question is whether Cain can
maintain such excellence over the long term.
His first full year, 2006, he managed a respectable 13-12 record with a
4.15 ERA, impressive for a rookie.
However, the last two years he appeared to backslide with campaigns of 7-16
and 8-14. Those numbers are a little
deceiving though for the same reason that Lincecum’s win total suffered last
year. In 2007 Cain posted a 3.65 ERA
followed by 3.76 last year, but he was punished in the win column by pitching
for a bad, offensively challenged team.
In both seasons, as in 2006, he
struck out more than twice as many as he walked and was able to pitch more than
200 innings and make more than 30 starts.
His big frame (6’3″, 245 lbs) has allowed him to be very durable and
reliable and with 101.2 innings logged thus far in 15 starts, almost seven
innings per start, he’s well on the way to another workhorse season. That ability to go deep into games and even finish
some on his own will help his win total down the line as he leaves fewer outs
in the hands of the bullpen.
Cain may not get as much attention
as any of his staff mates, but he is more than worthy of attention and an
All-Star appearance in two weeks. The
Giants may not have the bats to catch the Dodgers this year, but Pablo Sandoval
gives them hope and if Cain can continue to produce alongside Lincecum, San
Francisco may be looking at one of the best one-two
punches in baseball for the foreseeable future.