In today’s edition of “Tale of the Tape,” we dissect a pair of major-league starters from the National League West, the Giants’ Matt Cain and the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke. Both entered 2013 with “ace”-level expectations, but, after a down year from Cain, only Greinke exited the season with it still firmly attached. You’ll find both right-handers listed among Paul Sporer’s four-star tier in BP’s Positional Rankings, but last year’s performances have the pair trending in opposite directions. Greinke is going 41 picks ahead of Cain, according to the most recent NFBC ADP. Can Cain bounce back and make this a closer-than-expected showdown? Or will Greinke stay ahead of the curve?
In nine seasons, Cain has recorded a 3.35 ERA in 265 starts, including a 3.68 FIP and 4.16 xFIP. Last year, the right-hander posted a 4.00 ERA after a slow start (6.49 ERA in April), giving Cain his first ERA over four since 2006, his first full season in Major League Baseball. From 2009-2012, he recorded a 3.00-or-better ERA in three out of four years, and not a single one worse than 3.15. In 11 seasons, Greinke has recorded a 3.65 ERA in 259 starts, including a 3.43 FIP and 3.60 xFIP. Last year, he posted his lowest ERA (2.63) since winning the American League Cy Young award in 2009. Greinke’s ERA has fluctuated more wildly, from 2.16 in 2009 to 4.17 in 2010 (the year following his Cy Young). Cain’s had the privilege of pitching his entire career in the NL, while Greinke has spent the majority of his time in the AL. While the former is the more consistent pitcher and plays in the more favorable ballpark, the latter has enjoyed as much (if not more) success in the NL, with a 3.28 ERA in three seasons, compared to a 3.81 ERA in the AL. It’s impossible to ignore a difference of 137 points in earned run average between the two hurlers in 2013. For what it’s worth, PECOTA predicts a 3.02 ERA for Greinke and a 3.10 ERA for Cain.
In term of career WHIP, Cain holds the advantage over Greinke, 1.17 to 1.23. Greinke has the superior career walk rate (6.1 percent vs. 8.2 percent), but Cain’s batting average against is far superior (.222 vs. .253). Cain hasn’t recorded a WHIP greater than 1.20 since 2008, while Greinke has posted a 1.20 WHIP or greater in three out of the last four years. PECOTA predicts a 1.10 WHIP for Greinke and a 1.11 WHIP for Cain, but the latter has maintained a .218 average against since 2010; only Clayton Kershaw has been better among starters with at least 450 innings pitched during that time.
Slight advantage: Cain
Contrary to popular belief, Greinke and Cain have extremely similar strikeout rates, with the former holding the slight edge over the course of their careers (21.3 percent vs. 20.3 percent). Cain actually claimed the higher strikeout rate in 2013, but they were almost identical (20.8 percent vs. 20.6 percent). Looking at their career swinging strike rates, again, it’s like looking in the mirror (nine percent for Greinke, 8.9 percent for Cain). Greinke’s advantage in terms of strikeouts starts to show up in his peak seasons, which include strikeout years of 242 (2009), 201 (2011), and 200 (2012). Cain has never registered a 200-strikeout season, coming closest with 193 in 2012, but that number fell dramatically in 2013 (158 strikeouts, the lowest total of his career). Greinke only collected 148 punchouts in 2013, but, with equal playing time, he should out-produce Cain in the category. PECOTA predicts 185 strikeouts for Greinke and 166 for Cain.
Prior to 2013, Cain had tossed 200 innings or more in six seasons, serving as a virtual lock to take the ball every fifth day. He only reached 184 innings in 2013, but he still managed to make 30 starts, adding to his current streak of eight years with 30-plus. Greinke hasn’t been as reliable, tossing 200-plus innings in just one out of the past three seasons, with a low of 171 innings in 2011 and 177 innings in 2013. Both can reach 200-innings, but Cain is a year younger and is the more trustworthy horse in the race. PECOTA only predicts Cain to reach 200 innings in 2014.
Ah, wins. Most here will agree that wins are a somewhat arbitrary stat for evaluating pitchers, but, in fantasy baseball, they often determine a good season from a great season. Take Jordan Zimmermann, for example. He had a good year in 2013 (3.25 ERA, 161 strikeouts), but what made it great was an NL-leading 19 wins, which vaulted him to top-10 status. Last season, the Dodgers won 16 more games than the Giants, and Greinke won seven more games than Cain. It’s a landslide, right? Not so fast. PECOTA predicts 15 wins for Greinke and 14 wins for Cain. Flip a coin.
Wins’ pretty cousin, quality starts are slowly becoming the preferred option as an alternative pitching category. Cain has thrown a quality start (six innings or more plus three earned runs or fewer) in 175 of 265 career starts, or 66 percent of the time. Greinke, on the other hand, has thrown one in 156 of 259 career starts (60 percent). Even in a down year, Cain was able to register 20 quality starts last season; Greinke tossed 18. Furthermore, Cain went six innings deep in 24 starts in 2013, while Greinke went six-plus in 20 (in two fewer starts). I’m giving the advantage to Cain, who has seven consecutive seasons with 20-plus quality starts, averaging 22 a year since 2007.
You can’t find a cleaner bill of health for a starting pitcher than Cain, who made his first trip to the disabled list in 2013. After being hit in the right forearm by a comebacker off the bat of Gaby Sanchez, Cain missed two starts in late August before coming back and recording four quality starts down the stretch. Greinke, meanwhile, missed a month of action after the Padres’ Carlos Quentin charged the mound following a hit-by-pitch, resulting in a broken collarbone for the pitcher. In another non-throwing injury, Greinke missed 2011’s opening month after breaking his ribs in a game of pick-up basketball prior to spring training. Going back further, Greinke was placed on the 60-day DL because of social anxiety disorder in 2006.
Both should see similar playing time as top-of-the-rotation starters. There’s a little more reliability in Cain, given his streak of 30 starts per season since 2006, but Greinke isn’t far behind, averaging 31 starts per year since 2008. During that same time, Cain has averaged one more start per season, so it’s not a giant advantage.
Both Cain and Greinke are capable of producing top-15 seasons. Cain has proven over the course of his career, however, that he’s a more safe option than elite option, i.e. he doesn’t necessarily have a high ceiling. Although he’s a year older, I believe Greinke’s ceiling is much higher, given the substantial advantage displayed in ERA and strikeouts over the course of his 11-year career. Greinke has topped Cain’s best ERA (2.79) twice, including last year, and bested his highest strikeout total (193) three separate times. Greinke has also out-earned Cain in WARP, 31.5 to 18.1.
For me, this decision really isn’t all that difficult, but the two starters are closer than one would initially think, especially given their polar-opposites performances in 2013. Cain entered last season as a bona fide ace, but one off-year and he’s being deducted major points from the fantasy industry, appearing just inside the top-25 starters, according to NFBC, with a 102.56 ADP. Going before the 29-year-old are Michael Wacha (92.26) and Gerrit Cole (92.94), a pair of soon-to-be second-year starters who have combined for 180 innings at the big-league level. I wouldn’t make that mistake. Greinke, meanwhile, is the no. 13 SP, going just after Justin Verlander, David Price, and Chris Sale. I agree that Greinke is the better bet for overall production in 2014, but Cain has proven to be a reliable no. 1 starter, too. One bad year amongst many good ones is no reason to jump ship in San Francisco. Cain can still put up an ERA and WHIP comparable to Greinke, with only the strikeouts lagging behind. Both represent great value.
And the winner is… Greinke