“Matt Cain the ace” is a near-prehistoric concept at this point. In real time, it’s only been a few years since Matt Cain was at the top of a World Series winning rotation. But, as we all know, a few years in baseball time is an eternity. With a team option that will presumably be declined at season’s end, Cain is just trying to hang around past this season.
For years, Cain was a highly coveted, top-of-the-rotation workhorse. From 2007 to 2012, Cain tallied over 200 innings in each season, with marks over 180 innings in the seasons before and after. From 2005 to 2012, Cain racked up a total of 31.8 bWAR and 28.4 fWAR. In addition to that, he tallied three All-Star game appearances, two top-10 Cy Young finishes, and two World Series rings with a third coming in 2014. To put the cherry on top, Cain cashed in on his success in early 2012 with a five year, $112.5 million dollar extension with the team option for next season.
Then the wheels came off of his promising career. In 2013, Cain had his first spat with injury in his career. He was placed on the 15-day DL after being hit by a comebacker. Cain would return and finish an underwhelming season with over 180 innings pitched. His 2014 injury woes proved much worse. After a short stint on the DL in May, Cain came down with elbow issues in early July. Those issues were caused by bone chips that, according to Cain, he had pitched through for years. He would have to have surgery to remove them and would be sidelined for the rest of the season. His arm issues carried into 2015, when he was placed on the DL with forearm issues in early April. Cain then struggled through just over 60 innings that season. Finally, in 2016, his hamstrings were his undoing. Cain was placed on the DL on May 28th that season and wasn’t activated until late July due to this injury. All in all, Cain pitched 240 1⁄3 innings from 2014 to 2016 with a 5.13 ERA that led to a -1.8 bWAR mark.
Cain has made a huge change in his fastball usage this season. After formerly relying on a fourseam-heavy repertoire, Cain has flipped the switch and become a sinker baller.
This is partially motivated by a continual drop in velocity on each of his pitches, since approximately 2014.
After a bit of an extended rollercoaster ride down for the average velocity of his fourseam and sinker, both pitches are now nearly indistinguishable, with the sinker being .07 mph faster. A drop in velocity is no surprise given Cain’s age and injury issues.
Cain’s change in pitch usage has resulted in a change in how he attacks the zone. So far, Cain has been living inside the zone much more than in the past few years.
As a result, his strikeout rate has dropped and his contact rate has spiked up. However, he’s also seen a big spike in his walk rate of around three percentage points.
The spike upward in both his contact rate, despite living in the zone much more, can be explained by his contact and swing rates outside of it.
Essentially, Cain isn’t fooling hitters when he ventures outside the zone. He hasn’t had success when he’s fishing for a swing and miss. Given that he’s trying to reinvent himself as a sinkerballer, lots of contact isn’t necessarily bad. However, an outright inability to put away hitters that results in a spike in walks is nothing near positive.
Despite mixed results with his plate discipline statistics, Cain is seeing a massive payoff in his ability to keep the ball in the park. Over the past few years, Cain has steadily outpaced the league average HR/FB even as it spiked with the league’s power surge.
This season, Cain has greatly cut that rate. Among pitchers with 40 or more innings pitched this season, Cain has the 14th-lowest HR/FB rate. Last year, he finished 132nd among pitchers with 80 or more innings.
The question remains if Cain will be successful enough going forward. Thus far, he’s generated positive value by both fWAR and RA9-WAR values, but it’s marginal. His biggest damnation has come at the hands of DRA. Thus far, he currently sits with the eighth highest DRA among pitchers with more than 40 innings pitched, which results in a pWARP of -1.23.
Matt Cain needed to change to continue pitching at this level. That’s an easy conclusion to make. The changes that he’s made are having a clear effect on his results, but it’s still unclear whether it’s enough.
Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.