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Matt Cain: more than able

Though his last five seasons with the Giants were marred with injuries and lackluster performances, his first eight seasons were anything but mediocre.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday afternoon, it was announced that Matt Cain is planning to retire after the 2017 season, when his contract with the San Francisco Giants ends and the option for 2018 (which would’ve been a guarantee if he threw 200 innings in 2017) is not picked up. He was quoted saying, “I can’t see myself going somewhere else to play for another team.”

Cain, who was drafted in 2002 in the first round, 25th overall, was never exactly the ace of the Giants. Especially not when the rotation also included Tim Lincecum (back when that meant something) and Madison Bumgarner. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t hold his own every fifth day.

Cain first hit the big leagues in 2005, making him the longest tenured Giant in 2017. He was called up that August and made his debut against the Colorado Rockies. He lost that game, despite pitching five innings and only giving up two runs. The run support just wasn’t there.

And that always seemed to be the case in his career—so much so that many Giants fans call a lack of run support a “Caining.” Over his career, he recorded a RS/GS of 3.9, where the MLB average is 4.5.

If you talk to a Giants fan who has been involved in fan communities over the last 13 seasons, they might say Matt Cain was a third starter at best, or that he just didn’t know how to win. But most will say that Matt Cain was a pitcher who needed to be evaluated through more than just wins and losses, and by focusing on how valuable he was to the team.

When looking at the various WARs, over his career, he recorded a 25.9 WARP, 30.3 bWAR, and 29.5 fWAR, all impressive figures. And less objectively, he helped the Giants significantly to two of their three recent World Series championships, in 2010 and 2012.

The year that stands out the most was Cain’s 2012 season, when the wins and losses, though still meaningless, seemed to match up with his outings. His DRA was 3.59 with an oppTAv of .254, and allowed just 73 runners to score in 219.1 innings pitched—and only 68 of those runs were earned. There was also that extra inning pitcher’s duel between Cliff Lee and Cain in April of 2012, where Lee threw 10 innings of shutout ball against Cain’s nine innings of shutout ball.

The success of his season culminated in a perfect game against the Houston Astros, then still in the National League Central, on June 13. For a pitcher who didn’t always get the run support, that night the Giants scored 10 while Cain struck out 14 Astros. No walks, no hits, no errors from the Giants defense. He threw 125 pitches, with 86 for strikes, and he became the first pitcher in Giants history to throw a perfect game.

That postseason, Cain threw in five games, starting in all of them. He started World Series Game Four, the deciding game of that postseason, throwing seven innings, giving up three runs, all earned, walking two and striking out five. The Giants went on to sweep the Detroit Tigers at game’s end, securing their second World Series victory in three seasons.

Houston Astros v San Francisco Giants
The Giants celebrate with Cain after his perfect game.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

It’s easy to say that Cain was never the same after that 2012 season. In 2013, he wasn’t necessarily the ace he was in 2012, but still a serviceable pitcher in the rotation and was worth 3.0 WARP, 0.5 bWAR, and 1.5 fWAR in 2013. But then a line drive to the pitching arm landed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

Between 2014 and 2017, Cain’s ability to pitch was hampered by multiple injuries and a handful of DL stints. The rotation moved on, with Madison Bumgarner becoming the ace of the rotation, and new pieces were added to the puzzle in the form of pitchers such as Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.

This Saturday, Sept. 30, Matt Cain takes the mound one last time at AT&T Park—a farewell tour of sorts, though without the multiple locales. The Giants’ beloved right hander is set to say goodbye to a long career as a Giant, and will be lauded by fans as a good one. Though not a Cy Young winner or a potential Hall of Famer, Cain made his mark on the Giants and its history book. Sometimes, that’s all you need from a pitcher.