In 2007 Matt Cain was one of the sadder stories on the Giants. Day in and day out he would take the mound, pitch a great game, and almost always lose in a heart-breaking fashion. Bullpen melt downs and putrid offensive production became the staples that would ruin a great looking start by Cain. Just how unlucky was Matt Cain in 2007? According to BP’s Luck metric, Cain finished with the 4th lowest Luck score since 1959! His Luck score for 2007 was -13.52. A negative score indicates terrible luck and a positive score indicates that you had good fortunes for that year.
If you’ve never heard of this Luck statistic, here is BP’s official definition:
Luck, as measured by the number of extra wins, and short losses the pitcher actually got, versus his expected record. LUCK = (W-E(W))+(E(L)-L)
It’s based on estimated wins and losses. Looking at how similar pitchers with the same statistics faired. Here’s the BP definition of estimated wins:
Expected win record for the pitcher, based on how often pitchers with the same innings pitched and runs allowed earned a win or loss historically (this differs from how it was computed, which was a more complicated, theoretical calculation).
According to the estimated wins and losses metric, Matt Cain should have netted 13.6 wins and 9.4 losses. Instead, Cain went 7 and 16 in ’07. The #1 all time pitcher with the lowest Luck score is Houston’s Turk Farrell (-18.18 Luck sore). In 1963, he went 4 and 22, when his expected W/L total should have been 10.9 and 8.8. Nolan Ryan’s (-14.96 Luck score) 1987 season is #2 and Bruce Berenyi’s (-13.52 Luck score) 1982 season is #3.
Luck statistics for starting pitchers:
Barry Zito: -2.76
Noah Lowry: +4.32 (this shouldn’t surprise anyone)
Tim Lincecum: +0.94
Matt Morris: +0.92
Kevin Correia: -0.69 (includes both starting and relieving)
Jonathan Sanchez: -2.07 (includes both starting and relieving)
Matt Cain was almost 6 times as unlucky as the next unluckiest Giants pitcher (Zito) and he easily led the entire major leagues this year. The next pitcher behind Cain was St. Louis’s Anthony Reyes, who scored -8.45. Cain had a historically unlucky season. Noah Lowry was lucky, but he hasn’t the luckiest pitcher in baseball, that honor goes to Cleveland’s Paul Byrd, who is starting tonight in the playoffs against the Yankees, Byrd scored a +8.23 Luck score. Noah was the 18th luckiest pitcher in the majors this year.
Lets take a look at some more data on Zito, Lincecum, Lowry, and Cain. Four guys, who are right now, penciled in for next years starting rotation.
NAME K/9 BB/9 H/9 HR/F GO/AO ERA xFIP BABIP Matt Cain 7.34 3.56 7.79 5.5% 0.91 3.65 4.66 .284 Barry Zito 5.99 3.80 8.33 9.6% 0.99 4.53 5.01 .272 Noah Lowry 5.02 5.02 8.94 6.9% 1.45 3.92 5.47 .288 Tim Lincecum 9.23 4.00 7.50 8.2% 1.23 4.00 3.90 .295
xFIP didn’t like Matt Cain, adding an entire run to his projected ERA. It also padded out Zito and Lowry’s ERA’s. Lincecum was the only Giant pitcher that xFIP thought should have had a lower ERA this year. I can understand why xFIP might be skeptical about Cain, as it normalizes HR’s in it’s equation, but I think that it might be penalizing Cain a little more than it should be for being a flyball pitcher. Cain’s ground out/air out score of 0.91 illustrates the fact that he’s a flyball pitcher. Hitters have hit more balls in the air than on the ground against him. But, notice his home run per flyball rate (HR/F). It’s very, very low, almost half of what it should be for most pitchers. Studies have shown that flyball’s land as home runs about 11-12% of the time and xFIP is obviously skeptical on Cains ability to keep his flyballs in the park. But, this isn’t Cain’s first year of posting a sub 11-12% on his HR/F. In 2006, he posted a 7.1% HR/F, which is well below the 11-12% threshold. Only time will tell if Cain has some tendency whereby he keeps his flyballs in the park, but for now, it doesn’t look too outlandish to think that he could post numbers under that 11-12% mark.
Noah Lowry’s xFIP is amusing as well. While his BABIP is on course with his career averages, his BB/9 rose greatly to a little over 5 walks per 9 innings. You can’t be a successful pitcher if you’re walking 5 guys an inning. Walks, strikeouts, and to some extent the type of contact made, are the few things that pitchers can influence in a game. Lowry’s loss of control, coupled with his declining K/9 rates – he’s lost almost 2K’s per 9 since his great 2005 season – don’t bode well for future success. This is why I, and many other Giants fans, hope that Lowry can be moved over the offseason. He pitched over his head and is unlikely to repeat this level of performance. I’m also skeptical of Lowry’s boosted GO/AO rate. Up until this year, he had been a flyball pitcher, working right around 1.0, but in 2007 he got more outs on the ground. Still, even with Lowry’s new ground ball tendencies, there is a lot to be worried about.
Tim Lincecum was, in my opinion, the most exciting Giants pitcher in ’07. His walk rate is a little high, but his K/9 is fantastic and he got a good bit of his outs on the ground. What more can you say about Lincecum that hasn’t already been said? He’s a great talent and should only continue to grow in 2008.
Cain and Lincecum are the future for the Giants. Zito, is going to be Zito, a close to league average pitcher who’s incredibly overpaid. I have some small hope that Zito can rebound in ’08 but I won’t be counting on it. I was very surprised that he struggled so much in the NL, I thought the transition would shave something off his ERA. Hopefully, Lowry will be moved for something in the offseason and the Giants can fill the rotation spots with pitchers from the trio of Sanchez, Correia, or Misch.
I do think that the Giants rotation strength is a little overrated. You’ve got a legit 1-2 punch in Cain and Lincecum, but Lowry and Zito aren’t solid bets to be good pitchers in the near future. Lowry especially, his arm troubles and loss of control are bad indicators. The Giants have got some interesting arms in the minors but they are all very far away. Guys like Sosa, Alderson, and Bumgarner could find themselves in the rotation someday, but they are so far away, and minor league development can go wrong sometimes, you don’t know when they’ll be ready.