Can Matt Cain still dominate with his fastball?

Victor Decolongon

Matt Cain's fastball usage has decreased significantly since 2010, but after carving up the Colorado Rockies in his third start of 2014 with a good dosage of fastballs, has Cain proven that he can still dominate with his heater?

Matt Cain's fastball and home run problems are two interesting (and related) topics. And no, this isn't some small sample-sized based statement that's vulnerable for irrelevancy come May. There's actually a pretty solid foundation.

But if you're not quite up to speed on Cain's problems with the long ball, the discussion consists of a few main points: Cain's HR/FB% in 2013 (10.8%) is a clear outlier, suggesting he should regress to the mean in that department. And, when it does, the assumption was (and still is) that Cain should return to being his typical self, which is a three-win or better pitcher, not one struggling to eclipse the two-win mark, like 2013. That's pretty much the gist.

There's also a bit of a twist: Cain is using his fastball a whole lot less than he used to. And yes, this is the same fastball that yielded 12 home runs in 2013 (14 if you include sinkers), making up more than half of the 23 total.

Year USG%
2010 63.1
2011 54.44
2012 50.81
2013 48.82

Note: The USG% includes four-seamers and sinkers, as both are in the "fastball group."

The decrease is readily obvious, specifically the roughly 15% overall decrease since 2010. But perhaps some perspective will further brighten the picture: Cain went from throwing the third-most amount of heaters in 2010 (2133) to throwing the 35th-most (1272) in 2013. Relative to his peers, he's still right up there. The thing to note, however, is the drop from third to 35th.

However, when we look for the corresponding red flags that generally go hand-in-hand with a usage decline, well, there aren't any. There hasn't been a steep velocity decline. Cain's average four-seamer still sits in the 92 mph range, just like it did in 2010. There hasn't been a huge change in vertical or horizontal movement. In fact, if anything, he's getting a bit more horizontal bite. So the "diminishing fastball" excuse, similar to the case of Tim Lincecum's declining heater, really doesn't have much credence here.

So it's back to the drawing board, and yeah, you probably guessed where we're headed: this is where the home runs and fastball usage intertwine. No, I can't say with 100% confidence that that uptick in long balls is the answer to Cain backing off his heater, but on the same token, I wouldn't bet against it.

How about another table?

Year Whiff% LD% FB% GB% Swing% AVG vs. ISO vs.
2010 7.97 3.16 7.09 5.2 48.88 0.237 0.154
2011 8.43 3.76 6.47 4.91 46.62 0.243 0.133
2012 10.38 3.26 5.87 3.52 46.15 0.245 0.174
2013 7.41 4.97 6.47 4.57 48.9 0.265

0.198

Note: The numbers above are for his fastball only

We've already noted the usage trends, and we've also touched briefly on velocity. There's nothing to report on with the "Whiff%" and "Swing%" columns. Everything seems pretty normal, except the final column (Isolated Power Against) and the LD% column (Line Drive Percentage Against). The former tells us that, in 2013, Cain's heater was getting hit a lot harder, and the latter tells us that those hits were going for extra-base power--home runs, doubles, triples. Not a particularly good trend, I'd say.

Sure, there is the second half of 2013, when Cain was much better, as his 3.15 second half FIP was a significant improvement over the 4.16 mark he posted in the first half. He was obviously better, but his fastball still yielded five homers, and he didn't use it with any greater frequency--including sinkers, the usage percentage was in the low 50‘s, qualifying as nothing more than a slight uptick.

However, Saturday against the Rockies (April 12), a different, more 2011-like Matt Cain surfaced-- or perhaps "resurfaced" is the better term. Including pitches classified as sinkers, Cain threw his fastball 54.31% of the time, and what's even more notable is the fact that 63.5% of his first pitches were sinkers and four-seamers versus the 42% clip he posted over his first two starts of 2014.

And...the results were pretty darn good. The Giants took a 1-0 loss, but Cain finished with a nifty 2.13 single-game FIP in seven innings. He struck out eight, allowed four hits and issued three free passes. It was a much-needed outing after he coughed up seven earned runs with merely five strikeouts over his first two starts (11 innings).

But again, with extremely small sample sizes (one start in this case), there is that underlying caveat: we can only assume so much. One start isn't going to paint a completely new picture. It could be a one-start fluke. What we can do, however, is to look for a potential silver lining. And, I think there's an obvious one: Cain can still dominate with his fastball.

That is, if he locates it. That's really nothing ground-breaking, but hey, it's effective, and always has been, and in Cain's case, fastball command was an issue through his first two starts (and still might be).

Cain_april_1-11_medium

Note: The above picture, courtesy of Texas Leaguers, is Cain's Pitch Locations chart (both lefties and righties) for his four-seamer against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers.

The main thing of note: The majority of the dots appear to be up in the zone, which has its benefits (Cain is known to elevate the fastball when he gets ahead), but it's not necessarily where a pitcher wants to consistently live.

As for his last start against the Rockies...Cain_april_12_medium

Again, there are a fair amount of elevated pitches, but you'll also notice a few pitches scraping the lower-half of the strike zone and a few more pitches in/away depending on handedness of the hitter--essentially, instead of missing out over the plate, he missed out of the strike zone, which is indeed a much better formula for success.

That's pretty much it. In his last start, Cain threw his fastball more, located it better and posted a quality outing. Nothing too eye-popping. There isn't anything that's supposed to stand out. Rather, Cain's fastball usage and corresponding home run trends are simply two things to follow as the season progresses. Maybe he starts to lean heavily on a better-located fastball. Maybe he continues to back off the pitch. This is really a situation where only time will give us some answers.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Texas Leaguers, Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball.

Jake Dal Porto is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.

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