Don't you love baseball writers' lingo? M.C. "continued to progress" today (according to Chris Haft). Uh, OK. Regardless of the outcome, everyone on the fookin' ballclub continues to progress unless they are dead. A quibble, I know.
Fan Graphs recently added updated Bill James projections. (This is another one of those sites that makes ESPN, SF Gate and just about every other "mainstream" source pointless. Between Fan Graphs, Baseball-Reference, The Baseball Analysts--just to name a few--and the many excellent Giants blogs, the old sources of information are just there for nostalgia purposes.)
Here's his take on the 2009 Matt Cain model:
32 GS 213 IP 185 H 92 BB 192 SO
13-11 W-L 3.55 ERA
I've touched on FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) before. Think of it as a more accurate way to express ERA. Last year, you-know-who was the ML leader in FIP, at 2.62. Among those with 150 or more IP, Dan Haren was 4th (3.01), Brandon Webb was 8th (3.28), Johan Santana was 16th (3.51), Jake Peavy 21st (3.60), Cole Hamels 25th (3.72), Jonathan Sanchez 35th (3.85), and Matt Cain 39th (3.91).
Sorting just for the NL, Matt comes in at number twenty-one. There are 30 ML teams, 16 in the NL. That should give you some idea of the relative value of a fellow like young Mr. Cain. Baseball-Reference uses ERA+, the pitching equivalent of OPS+, one of the stats I throw around all the time. These are more like the traditional stats but weighted against the league average and adjusted for park effects. A score of "100" is "league average."
Matt had an ERA+ of 116 last year, basically saying he was 16% better than average. The Franchise led the league of course, with an eye-popping 167. Check out the career leaders (min 1000 IP and 100 decisions) for a sense of perspective on this metric. For the record, the last not-named-Barry Giants hitter to be at least 16% better than average for a full season was the 2006 Ray Durham (127 OPS+). The last full-time starters to give us over 116 ERA+ were the 2007 Cain (122) and the 2006 Jason Schmidt (125).
Matt pitched well today. For the season, I'd like to see him face fewer batters and throw fewer pitches. Five guys (in the NL) faced over 900 batters in 2008: Santana/964, Webb/944, Cain/933, Lincecum/928, Hamels/914. ALL of them pitched more innings than Matt (217-2/3): Santana (234-1/3), Hamels (227-1/3), Lincecum (227), Webb (226-2/3). Cain, Santana, and Webb tied for 8th in the league in hits allowed, 206, but Matt had far more walks, 91, than all but Tim, 84 (Webb-65, Santana-63, Hamels-53). Dan Haren, to throw in another NL ace, had only 40 walks to go along with 206 Ks. I think this is why Matt has not quite broken through the upper echelon. He's young, tough, big, strong, athletic, healthy, and talented. But he puts a few too many guys on base and and doesn't quite get as many outs as the rest of the bunch. Only 13 guys threw over 3300 pitches in the NL last year, and Tim and Matt were 1-2 with 3682 and 3606. Santana was 3rd/3598, Hamels 5th/3427, Webb 8th/3358, and Haren 11th/3339.
I'm not concerned about fatigue or over-use. I think it is a mental thing, and I expect him to mature and improve. I'd like to see him attack more hitters and make them put the ball in play rather than nibble and give up walks. I'd like to see him get guys out earlier in the count, but still have the strikeout weapon. Maybe he needs another pitch, a good sinker/split-finger to induce more ground balls. With increased confidence, better coaching (yikes!), and veteran-star-mentoring (Unit?), the sky's the limit for our 2002 1st-Round draft pick.
What he really needs, of course, is RUN SUPPORT.
Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded. FIP was invented by Tangotiger.
Matt Cain B-R page.
Matt Cain FanGraphs page.