The Giants are currently mired in the middle of a mediocre division, hovering around the .500 mark despite consistently putting together lineups with an aggregate slash line eerily similar to that of Jeff Francoeur. Entering the season, nobody had any misconceptions about their strengths and weaknesses; the pitching staff was considered effective enough to keep the team competitive, but they were expected to fall prey to the poor run support. After all, a team can only win so many games while averaging fewer than four runs per contest. As expected, Tim Lincecum has continued to dominate, but the Giants have also been the grateful recipients of a stellar start from the younger, more experienced Matt Cain. Whether or not the 24-year-old righty can sustain his early-season heroics has certainly become a hot topic, but Cain has unquestionably done his part over the past two months.

Type his name into Google and a surplus of articles are bound to surface, proclaiming that Cain should be sold high in fantasy leagues because his performance is not “real.” These articles tend to hone in on a disconnect between Cain’s ERA and FIP, almost going so far as to suggest that his current statistical resumé is due to nothing more than luck. Perhaps Cain has benefited from some favorable bounces or from a few metrics that are bound to regress over the remainder of the season, but to sound these alarms without any evidence other than a FIP somewhat higher than his earned-run mark is absurd. In fact, all of these ERAFIP articles are just begging for a reminder of why we use FIP in the first place.

Fielding Independent Pitching quantifies precisely what its name suggests-the contributions of a pitcher relative to the events under his control, or those events immune to the effects of defense or luck. Walks, strikeouts, and home runs are recognized as controllable skills based on year-to-year correlations of moderate-or-greater strength. Because these three metrics provide a more telling window into a pitcher’s skill set, FIP serves as a better predictor of future ERA than ERA itself. An FIP higher than an ERA does not erase performance up to that point or indicate that the numbers lack validity. Instead, it merely suggests that the success, or lack thereof up to that point are not entirely related to the act of pitching.

The relationship between FIP and ERA is often directly tied to the strand rate, or the percentage of baserunners that fail to add to their runs-scored total. The league-average pitcher will strand about 72 percent of his runners. If a pitcher boasts a solid FIP with a putrid strand rate, he figures to have a worse earned run average. Inversely, a higher FIP married to a fantastic strand rate can transform an average pitcher into a Halladay clone. The latter situation has occurred with Cain this season, as his FIP currently rests at a good (but not great) 4.35 that is almost two runs higher than his ERA thanks to an otherworldly 89 percent strand rate.

From 2005-08, only an Alfonseca-sized handful of pitchers have exceeded a strand rate of 80 percent, with Johan Santana‘s 82.6 percent in 2007 topping the chart. Suffice to say, the likelihood that Cain’s impressive rate will hold is extremely low. Even with that caveat, such a high rate of marooning baserunners indicates an ability to bear down when runners reach base. Unfortunately, too many neglect to ask why or how this has occurred, simply reaching this point and dismissing the hurler’s performance as a fraud. Keep in mind that over the last ten years the league-average slash line with the bases empty is .260/.322/.419, compared to .270/.336/.426 with runners on. Cain has been spitting in the face of those numbers so far this season:

Bases    PA    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   BABIP
Empty   134   .339/.403/.479   .402
Men On  110   .141/.236/.228   .145

Runners have not necessarily struggled to get on, but they end up trapped upon reaching their destinations. Additionally, as the situations become more tense, Cain has produced another counter-intuitive split. Most pitchers fare better in low-leverage situations, but Cain has allowed hitters to slash a mere .172/.265/.241 throughout the most crucial circumstances. In less important plate appearances, hitters have managed a .286/.353/.390 line. Continuing with Cain’s reverse splits, the 6’3″, 230-pound righty has dominated lefties more than his same-handed brethren:

Hitter   PA    AVG/ OBP/ SLG   BABIP
RHB     119   .280/.376/.450   .329
LHB     125   .230/.285/.301   .253

These numbers reveal Cain’s career splits, where lefties have a higher REqA, as do batters hitting with ducks on the pond. On top of that, the reverse splits mock the idea of context, since Cain has strayed so far from the general population. Despite the ultra-low ERA and dominance with runners on base, many have already thrown in the towel with regards to Cain, since he has experienced a decline in whiffs per nine while exhibiting some interesting marks in the plate discipline department. After inducing swings out of the zone at a steadily increasing clip, reaching its rate apex at 26 percent last season, Cain has dropped to 21 percent in a league where the average is 24.5 percent. He has been bailed out by a 59 percent rate of contact on these outside swings, way down from the 65 percent found in his career data prior to this season.

Entering 2009, hitters made contact on just 84-85 percent of Cain’s pitches in the actual strike zone, a very solid rate indicating that his raw stuff has overpowered the opposition. This season, that rate has risen to 90 percent, despite a slightly lower rate of overall swings. More contact on fewer swings is a Cook Yourself Thin recipe for strikeouts. Here are Cain’s peripherals since 2006:

Year    GP    IP     K/9  UBB/9  HR/9   ERA   FIP
2006    32   190.2   8.5   4.1    0.9  4.15  3.96
2007    32   200.0   7.3   3.4    0.6  3.65  3.78
2008    34   217.2   7.7   3.4    0.8  3.76  3.91
2009     9    60.0   6.2   3.6    0.9  2.40  4.35

With subtle spikes in both the walk and home-run rates as well as a dramatic drop-off in strikeouts derived from shifts in the approaches of opposing hitters, it stands to reason that Cain will have to make adjustments of his own when those tremendous numbers with men on base begin their inevitable trek downward. At this juncture, one question stands out: How in the wide, wide, world of sports has Cain been able to transform himself into Pedro Martinez circa 1999 with runners on base? For starters, here’s a look at Cain’s pitch selection data over the past four years:

Year Fastball Curve Slider Change
2006   72.2    14.1   6.5    5.8
2007   64.5     8.6  16.5   10.4
2008   65.4    10.2  13.8   10.6
2009   62.9    15.4   9.3   11.6

Upon first arriving in the big leagues, Cain used his powerhouse mechanics, complete with a slight jump towards the end of his delivery, to rocket 93 mph fastballs almost three-quarters of the time. Since then, he has matured with respect to pitch selection, incorporating off-speed offerings much more often. These frequency increases of the non-fastball components of his repertoire were not random, but rather the result of actual strides made in improving the pitches. Since 2007, Cain has added two inches of vertical movement to his curveball and 1.7 inches of horizontal movement to his changeup. As we discussed not too long ago, vertical movement in the Pitch-f/x data set refers not to how much a pitch rises, but rather to the extent to which it does not drop relative to a pitch thrown at the same velocity with no spin. At -7.3 inches of vertical movement on the curveball, compared to -5.3 inches back in 2007, Cain is exerting much more spin on the ball, so much in fact that he has caused the pitch to drop considerably more than if gravity were acting alone.

With runners on base, Cain’s data shifts markedly in a few key areas, primarily the movement on both his fastball and curveball. Here is his data with the bases empty:

Pitch         %    Velo   PFX    PFZ
Fastball    60.4   91.7   4.1   10.6
Curve       16.3   74.4   6.2  - 6.9
Slider      10.6   85.6   2.6    3.1
Change      12.5   85.9   7.2    4.2

And with any or all bases occupied:

Pitch         %    Velo   PFX    PFZ
Fastball    66.2   91.6   4.7   10.7
Curve       14.3   73.7   6.6  - 7.8
Slider       7.7   84.8   2.5    2.2
Change      10.4   85.2   7.1    4.5

Though a fraction of an inch here or there is not necessarily significant in terms of release point or movement, throwing a curveball with 0.9 more inches of vertical movement and a fastball with 0.6 more inches of horizontal movement than with the bases empty certainly helps to explain some of Cain’s stranding prowess. Context is always important when discussing splits, but as with our look at Javier Vazquez not too long ago, controlling for all of the factors that make pitchers unique leaves us with a very tiny sample of comparables. It really isn’t meaningful at all to compare Cain’s deltas in these areas to the five or six other pitchers with similar repertoires, pitch data, and workloads. It does, however, seem that Cain’s pitch data deltas do exceed the averages with fewer factors controlled.

The fastball velocity issue has raised eyebrows as well, since it is fairly rare to see a 24-year-old with fluid mechanics and no real prior injury history suddenly drop from 93 mph to 91.7 mph in under three seasons. While the knee-jerk reaction would involve suggesting some kind of injury, the more likely cause is a combination of incorporating more off-speed pitches as well as learning not to max his effort on every single offering. Cain will not finish the season with an ERA this far from his FIP, since one will work like a magnet, drawing the other closer. His performance right now is very real, and his success with runners on seems to stem from much more than just luck-based indicators bound for regression.

The numbers suggest that he has been able to kick the gears into overdrive when a baserunner reaches, digging deep for the extra movement needed to put the batters away and prevent any damage. Luck has certainly been cast in at least a supporting role, but it doesn’t have as much of an effect as his abilities. The BABIP marks will regress, as they usually do, but Cain’s rate of strikeouts should also revert to his previously established norms. They may not cancel each other out, but the regression highway handles traffic on both sides. Matt Cain may never become a true ace, and his end-of-season statistics may be unrecognizable relative to his present production, but we now have the data available to investigate the roots of these statistical shifts. Let’s use it, instead of relying on more obvious data and merely treating that as gospel.

Thank you for reading

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As a Giants fan, it's been great having Cain be so dominant. So thank you Eric for allowing me to dwell on it - it's a pleasure that not all baseball fans have.

I have noticed that when Lincecum is having trouble throwing strikes, which does happen on occasion, he will pitch from the stretch even with the bases empty. Perhaps Cain is experiencing some advantage out of the stretch that is affecting his numbers. There may be some mechanical twist that adds movement to his pitches that is missing from the wind-up. And it could be that Dave Raghetti, the pitching coach, has a knack for teaching the stretch. Regardless, it's great to see Cain have some good fortune after three years of 7 IP, 2 R, 6 H, 2 BB, 6 K performances, only to lose the game 2-1. Go Giants!
I agree with the above post in that it may very well be an issue of slightly altered mechanics when pitching from the stretch that affects his pitch movement. Otherwise, why wouldn't Cain simply pitch the same way when the bases are empty? I would be great to get a little bit of a scouting perspective to answer that question.
I may be completely wrong about this, but pitching from the windup might use more of the body, balancing the load/effort across the back, thighs, etc. There might also be some additional momentum provided from the rocking back and the stride.

So I would guess that a pitcher would get tired quicker if he threw from the stretch all the time since that effort would be concentrated on fewer body parts.

Maybe Mike Marshall knows...
Hmm . . . so what you're telling me is that, if someone in my fantasy league is trying to sell high on Cain, if I can get him for a reasonable price, I ought to consider it, instead of being scared away by a guy who's overdue for regression. Sweet.

I still haven't quite wrapped my head around the raw Pitch f/x data, and I wonder about the system's accuracy in some ways, but this is fascinating big-picture, inclusive analysis. Very well done article, Eric.
Terrific article, thanks.
I'm betraying my own obsession (words) by asking, but did you realize you didn't use the word "Matt" until the second to last sentence of the piece? If you're trying to make Matt Cain into a one-name megastar a la Ichiro, count me in.
Haha, nice catch. I didn't even realize that!
Something else important to note. If you follow Cain and parallel the velocities to the situations he gets in you will notice that when runners reach base, or threaten to score, he often elevates his stuff.

His average velocity may be around 90-92, but he will often bring out 94-96 when the situation merits it.
Fascinating read Eric. And I'll echo Hrcoll; Cain's shown an ability to dial it up when he really needs it. That leads me to believe he's just harnessing the immense stuff. He's never going to be a HOF stuf, but he's one of the 30 best SP in baseball, and a "No 1" by that standard.
I consider Cain to be in a similar boat to Scott Kazmir in that they have the tools to be true #1 pitchers but they won't ever reach that point, leaving them great #2 pitchers. When I think of a #1, I think of Halladay, Johan, Hamels, Sabathia, Lincecum... Cain doesn't come to mind, but he is definitely a top-tier #2.
I think of Cain as I do of Darryl Kile/Jon Lieber/Mike Mussina types in their heyday... not someone who will dominate a fantasy league for me, but an overall solid starting pitcher with good ERA/WHIP and K/9 ratios and few injury concerns.
I've had a hard time understanding the flak That Matt Cain has received through the waves of the baseball analysts. His peripherals are sometimes bashed as if he is nothing more than a #3 or #4 starter. The mainstream media would've already showered him with praise if he received decent run support over the last several years.
I must be biased. He's one of these guys where I'll ignore the analysts that are naysayers - because nearly every time I've seen him pitch, he's on. Good movement, yeah, the bulldog mentality too. The movement's the thing. I never realized that his velocity may have decresed, though. I don't live in the bay area and I don't watch the Giants on a consistent basis. And maybe that's why I'm biased and just haven't seen Mr. Cain throw but one bad game. I'll take him.
Matt Cain gets bashed because he's not a "winner"... because the Giants generally put a losing team on the field and Cain just doesn't get the offensive support to rack up Wins. On top of that, even as a rookie, people were already looking forward to Linecum and Linecum soon surpassed him as staff ace.
I was thinking about this every time I saw an article about Cain and his inevitable regression. This article is why I love BP: amazing use of a statistical scalpel when many others are using hammers.

I'm curious what other types of starters have high strand rates, and how well they've been able to maintain it over longer periods. Al Leiter comes to mind as a potential candidate.
Well, Cain isn't going to sustain a 90% strand rate, but people often forget that regression works both ways. It's very likely that he'll also experience regression in allowing baserunners since their currently hitting like Pujols against him with the bases empty. Right now, more runners + awesome strand rate = low ERA. By season's end it'll likely be more strikeouts+fewer runners+lower strand rate=low, but not as low as before, ERA.
Eric, are strand rates for individual pitchers correlated season to season? In other words, is there any statistical evidence that stranding runners is a sustainable skill? It is a common part of the baseball narrative (e.g. a bulldog mentality, buckling down when you really need to, etc.), but is it real? The Pitch F/X data you present on Cain suggests that he's doing something different with runners on, but historically speaking, does everyone tend to revert to the 72% mean strand rate or are there examples of pitchers who are persistently above or below that?

Enjoyed the article.

Will run those numbers over the weekend and see what I get. Who knows, might be an interesting piece in and of itself. From working with the numbers quite often, though, the strand rate doesn't seem to be any different than other regression-based stats, like BABIP, in which certain guys do exhibit some control, but players for the most part regress to the mean.
Did you notice how much more Cain squishes ISO with runners on base? With bases empty, the ISO allowed is .140 and with runners on, it's .087. Is that a repeatable skill?

It stands to reason that a pitcher that allows less SLG with runners on base would have more opportunities to strand runners, since instead of a runner scoring on a hit, they'd only advance to second and third and thus provide another opportunity for Cain to get out the next batter.

Though the flipside is that pitchers are supposed to have little control on what a hitter does besides the HR/9 rate.
Strand rates show basically no correl. y2y:
I'll have my own in-depth look at strand rate this week.
Yeah, great article.

As a Giants fan whose watched most of his starts so far this year, I have to assume that those crazy splits of bases empty vs runners on has at least something to do with his windup/stretch mechanics. I think a nice follow up to this would be a discussion with somebody about them.
And another point about his mental makeup: Given his experience with run support the last two years, the fact that he hasn't come remotely close to going homicidal on somebody would suggest that he's extremely grounded in the head.
"The fastball velocity issue has raised eyebrows as well, since it is fairly rare to see a 24-year-old with fluid mechanics and no real prior injury history suddenly drop from 93 mph to 91.7 mph in under three seasons."

I totally disagree with this. I have not done the research fully, but based on scanning the data for every current MLB pitcher, I believe that it is not at all unusual for a young, "healthy" pitcher to lose that much FB velocity (1-2 mph) 600+ IP into his MLB career. The truth is for most pitchers, the act of pitching itself is a gradually damaging process, even if not sudden injury occurs. This is sometimes offset by or even exceeded by the gains he makes in control/knowledge/strategy. But raw velocity rarely remains steady several years into a career. To cherry pick one example, Cole Hamels was once a "mid-90s" fastball prospect. There are a surprising number of picthers whose velocity peaked in their 1st or 2nd MLB seasons.

Would love to see someone at BP test this hypothesis fully. Obviously, would have to adjust for usage (starter vs. reliever), and possibly examine peak FB as well as avg. FB, to account for possibility picther is simply choosing not to throw as hard as often.