Dave Cameron wrote an interesting piece over at ESPN.com on the benefits that soft-tossing lefties like Barry Zito are enjoying in baseball’s new, less hitter-friendly era. Dave (Insider):
Despite the fact that most of the focus has been on the downturn in home runs, however, that’s actually just a small part of the downturn in offense over the past decade. The drop in home run rate has coincided with a continued increase in the strikeout rate and, perhaps more importantly, a continued decline on the rate at which batters get hits when they put the ball in play…
An 11-point drop in league BABIP might not sound like a big deal, but considering the amount of plays in a baseball season, it adds up fast. For instance, if league BABIP in 2007 had been .288 instead of .299, the difference would have been 1,470 hits over the course of the season…
And, with the league shifting back toward an environment where pitching to contact is rewarded with outs more frequently, there’s one group of pitchers that is reaping the rewards more than others — soft-tossing lefties.
Got me to thinking, and not about Zito or soft-tossing lefties, or lefties not allowed to face lefties like Brandon Belt. Spilled enough digital ink on similar topics last summer. Can’t do it any longer.
It got me to thinking about Matt Cain’s hot start. Maybe he’s benefiting too. I haven’t written in a while, and the last time I did I wrote about Cain. Want some more variety? Too bad.
We’re talking about a pretty small sample of eight starts here, but Cain has really looked good this season. And not only has he looked extremely good — following that extension he signed just before the bell rang — but his results have been very good, too, at least in the non-wins category.
Through eight starts and 57.1 innings, Cain has missed bats at a clip of 8.48 per nine innings, up significantly. from 7.46 in his career. What’s more, he’s walking just 1.57 batters per nine, a huge improvement from even his last two seasons in which he walked 2.46 and 2.56 batters per nine, respectively, each of which were great steps in the right direction from his career rate (now 3.16). More strikeouts and fewer walks is generally (read: always) a very good thing. His current strikeout to walk ratio of 5.4 would obliterate anything he’s done before.
Looking a bit deeper, though, there’s another factor that has helped him significantly this season. When a batter manages to put the ball in play against him, they’re putting it in the air 51 percent of the time. That’s a lot, even for Cain. Over his career it’s been closer to 45 percent, and in 2011 he had trimmed it down to 39 percent over the season. Thus far in 2012 he’s going in the opposite direction: an increase from his already-high career rate. And it seems he’s benefiting from that change.
Never having done well on balls in play (BABiP) against Cain — which we’ve discussed and studied and discussed for several seasons — batters are fairing worse than ever versus the right-hander. So far in 2012 his BABiP is a minuscule .212, second only to Ted Lilly’s .189, and hitters are hitting just .180 off him.
That combined with his superbly low walk rate has led to a WHIP of just 0.82, trailing only Justin Verlander (0.80), the pitcher whose career — stats-wise — has been remarkably similar to Cain’s.
Will his fortune continue so fantastically against balls in play? Who knows, though he’s certainly done it before. And should it not, the rate he’s so far seen in 2012 with home runs on fly balls (8.1 versus 6.6 career) seems a bit too high for him anyway. Something to fall back on. A pitcher that’s approaching 1500 innings and has managed to give up just a single opposite-field home run can probably expect to keep as much in his back pocket.
The more I watch Cain pitch, the more comfortable I am with the extension the Giants’ front office gave him prior to the season. Dude’s good.