Sometimes we get caught up and focus on the wrong things when we try to assess the performance of a player. Sometimes we overlook obvious issues that portend struggles in the future because the results we're currently receiving are pleasing. At other times we're quick to throw a fella under the bus because of a perceived lack of performance even when a deeper look suggests that things aren't nearly as bad as they appear to be. In 2013 Matt Cain was in that second group. I know the results weren't there, and his owners were ticked off, but as I said over an over through the course of the season --- he was pitching the same as he always had but the results just weren't showing up in the fantasy game. Or were they? Let's take a look.
From 2007-12 Cain threw at least 200 innings each year and from 2008-12 he tossed at least 217 innings each year. He made only 30 starts leading to 184.1 innings in 2013. That was disappointing.
From 2009-12 Cain won at least 12 games each year. He won just eight games in 2013 so he fails here.
In 2010-11 Cain lost 11 games both season. From 2010-12 he averaged nine loses a year. He lost 10 games in 2013 so he was “normal” there.
Cain had a 4.00 ERA in 2013. Terrible for him given the following facts. (1) His career mark is 3.35. (2) Cain had an ERA under 2.90 in 2011-12. (3) Cain had an ERA under 3.15 from 2009-12. (4) Cain had an ERA under 3.77 from 2007-12. His ERA was terrible in '13. Period. But I'm here to tell you that it wasn't deserved. Hear me out before you bail on my position.
Matt Cain had a 1.16 WHIP in 2013. That mark was a four year high but it was better than his career 1.17 mark.
Matt Cain had a 7.71 K/9 mark in 2013. That's the third best mark of his career and two tenths higher than his career rate. It was also the second highest mark he's posted in seven years.
Matt Cain had a 2.69 BB/9 mark in 2013. That's better than his career 3.03 rate. It was a four year high but still it was a solid mark and below his career level.
Matt Cain had a .260 BABIP mark in 2013. That's slightly better than his carer .264 mark and it was identical to the mark he posted in 2011-12. Identical.
Matt Cain held batters to a .228 batting average in 2013. His career mark is .227.
Matt Cain had a 0.94 GB/FB ratio in 2013 that is better than his career mark of 0.86. Also, his 39.9 percent fly ball rate was the second best mark of his career.
Matt Cain had a 3.91 SIERA and 3.88 xFIP in 2013. Both numbers are better than his career rates of 4.10 and 4.16.
Let's quickly review.
Cain was better than his career average in WHIP, K/9, BB/9, BABIP, GB/FB, SIERA and xFIP. He was also one hit allowed above his career BAA. See what I mean when I say that he was the same pitcher last year that he always is? So why did he struggle? It's an oversimplification to blame one thing, but let's do it anyway. OK, I'll blame two things and not just one.
Home runs and bad luck.
As I noted above Cain's 39.9. percent fly ball rate was the second best mark he's ever posted. So he gives up the second fewest fly balls of his career and he allows the most homers per nine ever? Make any sense to you? Me neither. Cain's 1.12 HR/9 mark was a career worst and 30 percent worse than his career average of 0.79. Blame the HR/F gods. Cain had a 10.8 percent mark in 2013. That's pretty much a league average level but it's well in excess of Cain's career mark of 7.2 percent. I'll be the first to admit that it makes little sense that Cain has always allowed so many fly balls but never huge homer totals. His home park helps no doubt, but Cain seems to possess a talent that we can't really quantify – he allows fly balls by they just don't leave the yard. Never before had Cain allowed a mark higher than 8.4 percent in the HR/F category, and that's over eight previous seasons so it wasn't like he was getting lucky for a year or two. Last season he went from elite to average in this measure, and that move alone tanked his ERA. Remember earlier when I mentioned xFIP? What is xFIP? It's basically a fancy ERA type number that adjusts for a league average HR/F ratio who focusing on those things a pitcher has direct control over. The last three seasons that number has been 3.78, 3.82 and 3.88. Despite extremely consistent numbers in those two measures his ERA the last three years are 2.88, 2.79 and 4.00. Like I've been saying Cain pitched the same way he always does, he just didn't get the breaks as the fly balls, for the first time, left the yard (as you will note he's always outpaced his xFIP, until 2013 that is).
The other issue was his line drive rate. For his career that mark is 19.2 percent. From 2009-12 he only had one season over 20 percent. In 2013 that mark rose to 22.4 percent. That's far too high when you consider that his BABIP and BAA were identical to his career marks.
All of this makes even less sense when we note that Cain had a 63.3 percent rate of first pitches being strikes, a number that was a career best. More than ever before he was getting ahead in the count, yet the results didn't follow. Strange isn't it?
Matt Cain will likely be underdrafted in 2014. He pitched the same as always in 2013, he just didn't get the results. He shouldn't totally be given a free pass though. It is a concern that the last two seasons he's looked much more like a league average hurler when it comes to the fly ball and HR/F rates. Did he loose his seemingly magical ability to keep fly balls in the yard? If he did, and he's now going to be average in that regard, the days of an ERA in the 2's are gone. However, with a little luck, Cain could easily lop off a half run from his ERA in 2014. A bit better luck in the W-L column and Cain could return to being a solid SP2 in mixed leagues.
By Ray Flowers
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The co-host of The Drive on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio (Sirius 210, XM 87: Mon-Thurs 7 PM, Fri. 9 PM EDT), Ray also hosts a show Sunday night (7-10 PM EDT). Ray has spent years squirreled away studying the inner workings of the fantasy game to the detriment of his personal life. Specializing in baseball, football and hockey, some consider him an expert in all three.
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