Matt Cain is a pretty good pitcher. For the past four years, he's pitched at least 190 innings and made at least 31 starts. He's led the league in a major category three times: complete games in 2009 (4), starts in 2008 (34, a tie with many, obviously), and wild pitches in 2007 (12). That's pretty much the Matt Cain story: huge volumes of less-than-stellar, albeit quite nifty, production.
The past four years over 826 innings, Cain has posted a 2.12 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 0.60 GB/FB ratio. These aren't anything close to ace-like numbers. Decent strikeout numbers, a few too many free passes, and lots of fly balls isn't exactly the formula for winning the Cy Young (or, for actually being the best pitcher in the league regardless of what the BBWAA says). Though it is a pretty good formula for being a valuable commodity and it's quite possibly leveraged better in a big park like that of the Giants.
Cain uses what I like to call a "workingman's repertoire". He throws a mid-90's fastball and three off speed pitches (slider, curve ball, change up), having shown only slight a preference for the slider among the three secondary offerings. He brings out the game theorist in all of us, I guess.
There's no need to get into the whole DIPS & park vs. ERA discussion at this time, it's been done a thousand times before and if you're reading this you don't much need me to tell you that stranding 82 per cent of the base runners a pitcher allows isn't sustainable. I'm not particularly concerned with his ERA, though. We're talking about future production, and I prefer to just ignore ERA during that type of conversation (or just in general). Lost in much of this discussion about DIPS and ERA regression is the fact that Matt Cain will be twenty five years old in 2010 and is likely to continue to improve, fundamentally, for the life of his contract.
In 2009 Fangraphs pegged Cain as the 34th most valuable pitcher in baseball (3.6 fWAR). My BsR SIERA WAR had him 39th in baseball (3.4 SIWAR)--very similar. Baseballprojection.com had Cain good for 5.1 rWAR in 2009, reinforcing the idea that his ERA has out performed his DIPS, but that's neither here nor there.
To switch directions and look forward, let's give Cain credit for one of his greatest assets--his youth--and say he'll be worth 13.5 wins over the next three years. It's a liberal win total, yeah, but Cain is a talented guy. So, how much did the Giants gain by locking Cain up at $27.25 million for his final two arbitration years and his first free agency year?
Matt Cain. 3 years, $27.25 million. VORC: $2.3 million. VOMC: $11.4 million. BFYBF: 0.08.
I look at this as one of those extensions that doesn't do a whole lot to improve the situation, but the situation was extremely club favorable to begin with. The Giants put a lot of work into scouting, drafting, and developing Matt Cain. They turned a 17 year old first round pick (#25 overall) into a 20 year old big league starter into a 4-win pitcher. It only makes sense to keep him through his theoretical peak, which is basically what the extension accomplishes. There's a decent chance the Giants will contend in 2012, who knows, and if they don't and Matt Cain pitches like we expect for the next two seasons, he'll have trade value even at a $15 million salary.
On the other hand, this deal has serious potential to turn into a disaster. If Cain doesn't get any better (or, worse, deteriorates or sustains a major injury) and the Giants don't contend, they'll be saddled with another hefty contract to no productive end. Of course, these are the types of decisions GM's face all the time, and if I'm Brian Sabean, Matt Cain is as good a player to gamble on as any. The privilege of paying Matt Cain $15 million in 2012 is that, a privilege, not a hindrance. At least at this point.
Disclosure: I neglected to include his $1 million signing bonus (paid in 2011) in the extension image. Though this hardly changes much.