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Collette Calls: Is Cain Still Able?

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

Pardon my absence over the past few weeks. For those who do not know, I am leaving the House of The Mouse and relocating to Charlotte this weekend. This is not a relocation driven by my new job, but rather one driven by a need to be closer to family. In order to cut down on costs, my wife and I decided to do our own packing and let a moving company drive the goods up there. Some advice to anyone else who considers doing the same - DON'T! Even though I started casually packing things back in early May, the task has consumed nearly every free moment I've had these past couple of weeks. That's why you haven't heard from me since the Carlos Santana piece on June 12th, or on the RotoWire show on SiriusXM.

My last few days before the move involved a business trip to Chicago which afforded me some downtime in the airport to get one more piece down before month's end so I asked DVR & Jeff for a topic. The request - “What the @#$@ is wrong with Matt Cain?"

The first three seasons of Cain's career had some small bumps in the road, but from 2009 to 2012, he was one of the more consistent pitchers to own in fantasy baseball. Double-digit wins - check. Sub 3.25 ERA - check. Solid strikeout totals - check. ERA bests FIP - check. Then 2013 happened. His 8-10 record and 4.00 ERA last season ended the strong run of success. The batting average on balls in play held up, but his home run to flyball ratio finished in double-digits for the first time in his career. Historically, his flyballs died short of the wall in the cool environment in San Francisco as well as down I-5 in Los Angeles and San Diego. He gave up 13 home runs before Memorial Day in 2013 and 23 over the course of the season. In short, Cain's ability to strand runners was weakened by the fact he had trouble keeping the ball in the park.

The problem in 2014 is that problem has continued as Cain has already allowed 11 home runs in his first 12 starts of the season. To make matters worse, his walk rate is back up to over three per nine innings and he has stranded just 63% of his baserunners - a career worst figure.

This brings us back to the original question - what the $@$@ is wrong with him?

Is it a velocity problem?

We've seen Justin Verlander struggle this year with decreased velocity, but Matt Cain is not having a velocity issue.

While it is down a tad bit from 2007 to 2008, it is right in line with the years in which he was a valuable fantasy commodity.

Is it a mechanical issue?

Cain has moved around a bit on the pitching rubber and now pitches from a different spot than he did a few years ago.

He is certainly not alone as many pitchers will do this to find a spot that best enhances their pitches. The larger issue is how he has lowered arm slot.

His arm slot over the past two seasons is a few inches lower than where it was in 2012 and quite a bit lower than where it was in 2010. A pitcher will lower their arm slot to gain movement on their pitches. Sometimes when a pitcher does this, they leave themselves more susceptible to opposite-handed batters, but Cain has avoided such issues over the past two seasons. The problem with Cain is that he's now more susceptible to same-handed batters as righties are hitting .266 this season against him with a .504 slugging percentage. Both figures are career-worsts. Prior to 2012, Cain stifled right-handed batters and held them to sub-.400 slugging percentages.

The table below shows the pitch types that Cain has thrown to right-handed batters, split into 2009-2012 and since to mimic the final drop in his arm slot:

Breaking Balls33%47%

The decreased utilization of his fastball follows the pattern of the effectiveness of his fastball. Cain's heater was once a pitch he could dominate with and was one of the better ones in terms of run values in baseball. Lately, not so much. His breaking balls are still effective pitches, but the changeup has also slipped.

The thing with breaking balls is they are often thrown as chase pitches when batters tend to expand their strike zone. The problem for Cain is that he has not often held the high ground in matchups because he is throwing a career-worst 48% of his pitches in the strike zone. Batters are also swinging at a career-low 45% of his pitches, but more alarmingly, are making contact 69% of the time when chasing Cain's pitches out of the zone in 2014. That speaks to batters having a good idea of what is coming and where to look for it.

Is it a support issue?

The table below shows Cain's opponents' batting average by batted ball type:


Cain is receiving quite a bit of fortune in terms of line drives compared to year's past, but that fortune is all being given back by the beating he is taking in the flyball area and even a bit in the groundball area. Cain is throwing with a career-high groundball rate this year - and that's a benefit from the lower arm angle. That has led to a career-low flyball rate as well, but when the flyballs do happen, they're falling for hits well above his career rate. Some of that is due to the home runs, since those do count in batting average and not in BABIP. But, the Michael Morse factor cannot be ignored.

By UZR/150, the Giants are one of the worst outfields in the league. If we look at the team's three starters in the outfield, each of them score below average in 2014:

Michael Morse: -25.8
Angel Pagan: -8.1
Hunter Pence: -5.5

The only two outfielders to score positively are the reserves - Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez. The Giants outfielders are in the bottom ten in terms of defensive runs saved (DRS), second worst in out of zone plays (OOZ), and the overall team defense ranks in the bottom ten.

In short, this is a combination of a pitcher going through an evolution at a stage in their career that needs better defensive support behind him. This is not an injury-related issue or even just bad luck from any type of metric. What Cain is doing can work, but he needs better defensive support behind him.