Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cautionary Note On Matt Cain: He's a Homer

I was reading an article talking about how another pitcher was so much better than Cain, and I, like a number of other Cain enthusiasts, know about how great he pitched after his skipped start and especially after the All-Star Game last year, ace type caliber numbers.

So, as I am wont to do, I dug up numbers to throw in this guy's face and tell him a thing or two about Cain. But a very unfunny thing happened when I did this: I thought it would be interesting to do a home vs. road split after his he started to have success last season, after his skipped start, and the numbers are pretty stark and gave me pause on praising Cain until he proves otherwise. He wasn't as good as I thought he was, and perhaps, a fantasy creature created by that nurturing park, called AT&T Mays Field.

The Ugly Numbers

To say Cain loves pitching at home would be an understatement. Here are the stats:

Stat - Road - Home
ERA - 4.98 - 2.32
H/9 - 7.9 - 5.9
bb/9 - 5.0 - 3.8
k/9 - 9.1 - 8.9
k/bb - 1.8 - 2.3
HR/9 - 1.0 - 0.2
BABIP - .299 - .256

To say that Cain has done much better at home than on the road would be an understatement. More importantly, the BABIP on the road is startling because it is the mean that all pitchers fall back to, when I've been thinking that Cain is one of those special pitchers who are able to keep their BABIP low, however it is done, whether by grounders, as it is traditionally done, or keeping batters off balance with movement or off-season stuff and popping up a lot.

In addition, his bb/9 is extremely high, and not sustainable for long term success, resulting in his poor - poor for a good pitcher, OK for average pitcher - 1.8 k/bb. And the HR/9 that I thought was so good, is actually very average on the road at 1.0, which is the minimum that you want from a good pitcher.

So which is the extreme outlier, his home numbers or his road numbers? Thus far this year, his ERA is much worse at home than on the road, but if you look at his periperhals, his base value indicators, he's been very lucky on the road thus far. He has 8 walks in only 14.0 IP this season on the road, vs. only 11 strikeouts. Though no HRs and only 3 hits given up (that certainly will revert to mean there). Home stats I won't go over, it's only one game thus far (road is only two games as it is), so it is way to early to be making any pronouncements about how his 2007 compares to his 2006, but thus far the stats would seem like a continuation of the skills he showed last season: great k-rate anywhere, poor bb-rate on road but good at home, poor k/bb on road but good at home.

So this will be an interesting season for Cain. Not critical, but we will see further evidence what type of pitcher he is, the home warrior or the road pushover. If he can duplicate what he did in 2006, that would be good, the team was 9-4 in his home starts, 6-5 in his road starts. The good thing are the following: 1) pitcher's stats tend to jump around so a bad season is not necessarily a bad sign, though troubling sign, and 2) he is still very young, which some forget, only 22 years old, so he can still learn how to pitch better rather than throw well.

With vets with varying styles of success in Morris, Zito, and Ortiz around, he should be able to learn a thing or two eventually. After all, it was his excellent learning of the lessons of an old MLB pro back in his hometown that brought him to this point. If he could learn before, he can learn again.

But any pronouncement of Cain as a potential ace, me included, appears to be premature based on how starkly different his home and road numbers are, even after taking out his horrible start in 2006. And thus we must temper our enthusiasm, or at least our expectations for his success in the 2007 season, for our wunderkind, Matt Cain. But, of course, root him on. Go Giants!

2 comments:

  1. Martin,

    I wonder if this home field bias could be explained by Cain's youth. The stats are his rookie year and my gut tells me (I have no idea if this is born out by statistics) that freshman jitters are even worse on the road--i.e., lots of distractions for those not used to to the life of being a major league ballplayer.

    The HR/9 innings (1.0, .2) does make sense, however. As a fly ball pitcher, Cain benifits from all extra outfield expanse at AT&T. Not sure what would account for all those extra walks and hits he gives up on the road.

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  2. Barton,

    Freshman jitters definitely affected him - witness his starts before his skipped start last season. I was debating splitting the road stats into half, and maybe I'll still do that too, but my initial thought was that it might be slicing up the data too much. But yeah, maybe he settled down at home while being out of his element on the road perhaps.

    But, to me, given it was his first season in the majors, what difference, really, for him is being at "home" vs. being on the "road"? He's never been in SF before, he's always lived elsewhere, so at what point will he feel that SF is "home"? Everyone is different, so maybe he adjusted quickly to "home" but still had a hard time with road life. This year should clarify things.

    Sorry I didn't make more of a point about the HR/9 rate - I was rushing to get it out before a day with my family - but yes, good point about home helping him.

    What I should have done more and noted is that 0.2 is extremely low, perhaps historically low, whereas 1.0 is extremely ordinary.

    From my observations of pitchers HR/9 rate, it can jump around, just from random factors, but usually is in a range. So is the extreme 0.2 rate more likely to part of the normal range or is the 1.0 rate more likely? Oh, wait, 1.0 is already in the normal range of HR/9, 0.2 would probably be the best since the dead-ball era (hyperboly on my part, particularly since I have no idea what the HR/9 rates pre-Babe Ruth is, but I think you get my point).

    So I have to hold my breath on his home performance being repeated, because if his HR/9 rate goes up there - and in all likelihood it will, that's a hellaciously low rate - he will have to adjust and keep the other parts of his performance still good to great to do well at home, 0.2 in all likelihood was just good luck.

    The question now is whether it was slightly good luck and his normal range is in the 0.4-0.6 range or extreme good luck and his normal range is in the 0.8-1.2 range.

    This is like Brady Anderson suddenly yanking 50+ homers rare, but since that was Cain's first season, we don't have a strong data series to rely on, other than his minors stats.

    Even with his minor stats, he's only 22 years old. There's one idiot analyst I know who thinks that a player in his early 20's cannot learn to do better, but I think we all know that learning is what divides us from other animals, the key question is "will he learn?" so his stats in the minors, while it can be indicative of what he can do, isn't necessarily what he will do in the majors. He could suddenly go "Joe Cool" on us like Jerome Williams and think that he can do whatever he wants and not listen to the coaches and still be successful. Or he can learn to do even better in the majors, like Brandon Webb did.

    The evidence thus far is that Matt Cain is a great learner and thus gives us Giants fans great hope that he will continue to harness his great talents and give us great performances. He seems to be really humble every time I hear him speak, so a big ego does not seem to be part of his makeup. He is like a kinder, gentler Will Clark, full of confidence in his abilities, but, unlike Will, keenly aware of his shortcomings and having what I would call an impulse to do all he can so that he can be a Hall of Famer some day (not that Will didn't have that either, but Will was never humble or, probably, thought he had any shortcomings).

    He probably will never make it, that would be hoping too much right now when he is only 22, but I think it starts with the desire for that goal plus the abundant talent to do it, and he has both. And that is a great start.

    Another thing I was thinking I should have done is make the point that I'm not saying that Cain is not good or great or that he's never going to be good or great, I'm just saying there are some ugly stats there that will need to play out this season and give us a better indication of where he is as a pitcher right now. Lots of great stats there to make us think that he's a one in a generation pitcher, as I read someone else describe King Felix, but I wanted to temper expectations with this data I found that is troubling.

    So far, so good this season, eh? I would take that anytime and all season long.

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