This is the second article in a five part series that will examine the Giants starting rotation through the use of PITCHf/x data. If you missed the first PITCHf/x article on Barry Zito, scroll down a few posts or for the lazy, just click here. The first post includes a brief description of what PITCHf/x is and some valuable links that might be useful if you’ve never heard of the system. It’s recommenced that you start with the first post if you’re new to these articles or PITCHf/x.
Now, on to the fun stuff.
Lack of Support
The 2007 season was harder to watch than an episode of Will and Grace. One of the hardest and most tiresome themes of ’07 was Matt Cain losing again and again after pitching a great game. If you looked at Cain’s ERA, which isn’t always the best way to do these things but it serves as a good rough sketch of how Cain pitched in just 2007, his ERA of 3.65 is excellent for a 22-year-old pitcher still learning his craft. Cain was 10th in the National League by ERA but his record of 7-16 is an indictment of how poor the offense played when Cain pitched. Of all starting pitchers — that threw at least 160 innings — in the National League last year, Cain received the 2nd lowest run support. When Cain started, the Giants could only muster a minuscule 3.51 runs per game. By comparison, Dontrelle Willis received the most run support in the National League, getting 6.27 runs per game when he pitched. D-Train’s offense helped to push his record to 10-15 despite all around bad peripherals.
Clearly for the type of “stuff” that Cain possesses — a fastball in the mid-90′s, a power curve, a developing changeup, and slider — he deserved better than a 7-16 record. But baseball is a cruel sport sometimes and Cain had to end up enduring a rather tough year. Fear not, because while the offense is still going to be a huge problem for the Giants in 2008, Cain is doing a lot of things right on the pitchers mound.
Break, Velocity, and Pitch Types.
What caught the eye of Giants scouts when Matt Cain was in high school was the fastball. Even in high school Cain was throwing between 89-94mph with the heater which is very impressive to have that kind of velocity at such a young age. The fastball is Cain’s best pitch and one that he throws the most often. Let’s check his break plot to look at the fastball and his three other offerings.
Cain has four distinctive groupings on the break plot. The first thing you notice about Cain’s fastball is that it really rides in on the RHB. The large red grouping is towards the negative on the X-axis, meaning that it’s going to crowd that right-handed-batter. Because Cain is a right-handed pitcher, it really allows him to take advantage of that side of the plate with his fastball. Pounding it with heat. You’ll notice that the next plot near the fastball grouping is the changeup. The changeup has a little more break on the Z-axis — or vertical break — compared to the fastball which tends to be more straight and have less break because of the force and grip that the fastball is thrown with. Even though the changeup is “in the neighborhood” of the fastball it does get more break — 6.7 more inches downward — than the fastball and it’s also 6.6mph slower than his heat, which helps to add to the pitch’s effectiveness. If Cain can sell the changeup, it’s going to be a good pitch for him. Fans can remember when Jason Schmidt used his fastball and changeup exclusively as a 1-2 punch. I think if Matt Cain can continue to develop his changeup it’s going to be a “next step” for him as a pitcher.
The next group is the slider which separates itself even more from the fastball and changeup. The slider breaks down and away from a RHB, which it should when thrown by a RHP. Cain gets his biggest vertical break on the power curve that he throws. Cain’s curve has always rated as a plus pitch for him and the break plot shows us why. Cain’s getting the most vertical break — an average of -5.5 inches — but he’s also throwing the curve pretty hard at an average of 76.96mph. By comparison, Zito’s slow looping curve was thrown at an average of 71.82mph. The sample size of Cain’s curveball as tracked by PITCHf/x is a little small, too. I think his curve could be hitting closer to 80mph on average, at least that’s what my memory is telling me. Anyone want to comment about what they think the average Matt Cain curveball is clocked at?
Here’s how hard Cain threw his four offerings on average and how many PITCHf/x tracked of each pitch type.
TYPE INITIAL SPEED (MPH) NUMBER THROWN Fastball 94.39 861 Curve 76.96 85 Slider 86.35 250 Change 87.79 177
In our first PITCHf/x article we lamented that Barry Zito has lost some zip on his fastball. It turns out that Cain is throwing both his changeup and slider faster than Zito can throw his fastball. Cain is also throwing a lot of heat, his average fastball is clocked at 94.39mph. Anyone that’s watched Cain knows that he’s a fastball pitcher. He constantly challenges hitters by throwing his fastball. He by-far threw the fastball the most out of his four other pitches. When you can crank it up to 95mph constantly, it’s not a bad idea to go with the #1. I was surprised to see Cain throw the slider the second most next to this fastball. Considering how good his curve can look, I would have guessed that the curve would have been the #2 pitch.
Let’s now examine when Matt throws what and what kind of results he’s getting. First, let’s take a quick look at what pitches that batters are swinging at and missing.
TYPE STRIKES SWINGING% Fastball 7.7% Curve 5.8% Change 13.5% Slider 10.2%
The changeup got the most swing-throughs of any of Cain’s four offerings. Batters swung and missed at the change 13.5% of the time. Next in line was the slider which generated 10% swing-throughs and following that was the fastball at 7.7% and the curveball at 5.8%. According to Baseball America, the Giants mandated that during Matt Cain’s development that he throw the changeup more. By 2005 scouting reports on his changeup had it rated as a solid-to-average pitch. The changeup is going to continue to be a good pitch for Cain and I remember him starting to throw it more in ’07 when compared to his ’06 season. That Cain is using the changeup more as a weapon is going to help him because it should give the batters something else to think about and from the strikes-swinging data, it appears to have turned into a nice pitch for Cain.
All counts aren’t created equal. Each pitcher will attack hitters a variety ways in different counts. Let’s take a look-see at how Matt Cain pitched to the opposition by count in ’07.
To my surprise Cain was most likely to use the slider when he was looking for a strike out. When reading any scouting report on Cain I hardly heard any mention of his slider. The curveball and fastball always took front row to his changeup and slider. But it appears that Cain has started to develop his slider even more, because when he was up 0-2 or 1-2 and looking for a strikeout, he was more likely to throw the slider than either his curve or change. As we learned above, the slider generated swing-throughs at 10% and proved to be a pretty good pitch for Cain.
The graph reaffirms our belief that Cain is a fire-baller. Cain threw the fastball at least 50% of the time or greater in every count except for when he was in a 1-2 count. When Cain was in a 1-2 count he tended to throw either his fastball or slider, but he also mixed in the curveball and changeup. With Cain if you’ve got three balls, you’re getting the fastball. When Cain was down 3-0 in a count he was 94.12% likely to throw you the fastball. 85.71% when in the 3-1 and 69.51% when in the 3-2.
Let’s take it a step further, and see how Matt Cain pitched to RHB’s and LHB’s.
Overall, 6-out-of-10 times, no matter which handedness the batter is, Cain is going to throw the fastball. Not surprising since it’s his best pitch and you want your pitcher throwing his best pitch as much as you can. Cain is more likely to throw the curve and changeup to LHB’s than RHB’s because of the break on the pitch. The changeup is going to break away from a lefty and the curve is going to break down and in on the lefty. Meanwhile, the slider is the pitch that Cain is more likely to throw to a RHB out of his non-fastball pitches. This is because the slider is going to break away from a RHB, making it tougher to pull, unless Cain hangs the slider.
Continuing on the strikes-swinging percentage discussion from above, here are Cain’s percentages on balls, foul/foul tips, strikes looking, and strikes swinging for each of his four pitches.
Cain had the most trouble throwing his curveball for a strike but on the other hand the curveball got the highest percentage of strikes looking. The hard and quick break on the curve is more likely to freeze a hitter than any of his other pitches. The fastball produced the highest amount of foul balls or foul tips (26%). Hitters tend to foul off fastballs a lot anyways, especially when they’re constantly in the mid-90′s. Matt Cain’s changeup also created a good amount of foul balls or foul tips at right around 24%. The changeup, as previously stated, had the most strikes swinging and it’s a testament to a pitch that Cain has obviously worked hard to make better.
In 2006, during Cain’s first full season as a starter, he struggled in the 1st half posting an ERA of 5.12. Cain took a quick demotion to the bullpen and came back to the rotation where he found his groove, finishing the 2nd half of the season with an ERA of 3.26. The 2nd half surge for Cain in ’06 was a good sign of things to come. In my opinion, Cain took another step forward this year. He was strong in the first half, ERA of 3.53, and his second half he was also pretty good with an ERA of 3.79. Even though Cain’s ERA was slightly higher in the 2nd half, he really pitched much better than he did to start the year. In the early part of the season, April specifically, Cain had a super-low BABIP of .116, which just isn’t sustainable over the course of an entire season. His BABIP evened out eventually and his numbers rose — an ERA of 1.54 in April vs. an ERA of 5.25 in May. Cain’s BABIP for the year was .282 and is right around the league average mark of .300 for most pitchers.
Why do I think Cain took a step forward this year? First, he was consistent in both halves of the season. Secondly, the first half of 2007 was partly buoyed by his freakish April — super low BABIP — and while he pitched good, no one can keep a BABIP at .118 for long. In the second half Cain bumped his K% greatly while lowering his BB%. Cain made some drastic strides in the 2nd half of the season.
In the first half of the year Cain’s strikeouts seemed to dip and it had people worried. After all, you don’t like to see your fireballin’ starter start losing K’s. Especially Cain, who’s a extreme fly-ball pitcher, he needs to control outs the best he can — strikes outs and not walking batters is going to be huge for Cain — in order to be successful. Pitching in Mays Field will help to lessen some of his flyball tendencies but it won’t solve them completely. As we’ve seen, Cain has been historically a very good pitcher in the 2nd half.
Here is Cain’s month-by-month 2007 graphed out. Included are his K% and BB%. League average K% and BB% are also included.
Cain was striking out hitters at above league average rates in April and May, he dipped slightly below in June, was right around league average in July, and went crazy in the 2nd half. Cain’s August and September are simply dominant. To give you an idea of how well Cain was striking out hitters in the last two months of the season, consider Jake Peavy. Now, I’m not saying that Cain is in the same class as Peavy, but for comparison sake, Peavy led the league in strikeouts in 2007. His season K% of 26.7% is incredible. In August Cain’s K% was 24.8% and September it was 23.6%. Any K% over 20 is really, really, good.
Not only did Cain boost his strike outs, he also drastically lowered his walks. I’m less likely to believe that Cain is going to be 5% BB% pitcher like he was in August, but the more he cuts down his walks the better he’s going to be as a pitcher. Remember that Cain is an extreme flyball pitcher — a GO/AO in 2007 of 0.91 — and he’s going to benefit by keeping guys off the bases with free passes. It’s also somewhat encouraging that Cain, after a very tough year — he entered July with just two wins — actually got better in the last two months. I can’t imagine how mentally exhausting it must have been to go out and pitch every 5th day, to battle your tail off and hardly receive any run support. His 2nd half surge says something about his mental toughness.
Wrapping Things Up
Matt Cain’s 2007 was frustrating to watch sometimes, there’s no two ways about it, but I think we can take some very-positive things away from the season.
The emergence of more weapons for Cain. Primarily thought of a fastball and curveball pitcher, Cain has started to develop some very good secondary offerings to pair with his fastball. The development of both his changeup and slider are promising. Both the slider and curve produced more strikes swining than Cain’s very-well-known curve. But it’s also apparent that Cain isn’t going to throw breaking stuff over and over either, he’s most likely to throw you gas when he’s on the mound.
Another positive for Cain was that he pitched 200 innings at the age of 22 without any injury. I can’t say that I was happy with the way that Bochy often handled Cain — running his pitch count well past a hundred frequently — but Cain responded well. I just hope that Bochy exercises more caution in 2008, which he definitely should if he has half a brain. The Giants are going to be terrible and there is no point in grinding Matt Cain’s arm to dust trying to scrape out 65 wins with this team.
Mostly I’m encouraged by Cain’s development of his change and slider. I think if he continues to work with those pitches in addition to his excellent fastball and curve, he’s going to be a very dangerous pitcher. Matt Cain will be one of the bright spots on a poor Giants team in ’08. Maybe try to score him some more runs, guys.