Best Buy Low Pitcher: Matt Cain

A large swath of the sabermetric community had been waiting a severe decline for Matt Cain. He was someone who annually outpitched his peripheral numbers and frustrated some with his success. After all, a guy can’t sustain a .260 BABIP over the course of multiple seasons, and he certainly can’t continue to compile below-average home run rates with such a penchant for allowing fly balls, even if we’re talking about the cavernous AT&T Park.

With a 4.00 ERA in 184.1 innings this season, it appeared the “good luck” had finally expired. His fantasy value experienced a massive decline, going from the 5th-ranked starting pitcher in ESPN leagues (and according to our own Zach Sanders) last year to the 64th-ranked starter in 2013. Even the folks who expected a dropoff probably didn’t expect anything so dramatic. Last winter, anyone who posited that Jose Quintana, Tony Cingrani and Luke Hochevar would be more valuable pitchers at the end of the season would’ve been laughed out of the room.

But here we are. Quintana (56), Cingrani (60) and Hochevar (53) provided more fantasy value than Matt Cain, who was on average drafted amongst the top-ten pitchers in the spring. That’s obviously a season-killer for owners, and it’s a given that his value heading into the 2014 season will be severely depressed.

Should that be a signal to buy low and expect a bounce-back season in 2014, or should his 2013 campaign be viewed as the inevitable dropoff that many have expected for the past half-decade?

Despite his results closely mirroring his peripheral numbers (4.00 ERA to 3.93 FIP), the 29-year-old hurler is an excellent buy-low candidate on draft day. I’m not sure I would advocate trading for him in a keeper league — it would obviously depend on the price, both in dollars and players — but it could be something to explore on that front. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, we need to establish that Cain is actually a pitcher who should experience increased success next year.

The common concern with Matt Cain has always been his unique ability to consistently compile below-average BABIP numbers. Coming into the season, his BABIP hadn’t strayed above .263 in any of the previous four seasons. Thus, a season with an unusual 4.00 ERA must mean that BABIP finally returned to earth, right? Not quite. He struggled to prevent runs, but it wasn’t a BABIP-fueled season. His .260 BABIP hovers around his career average — and lends further credence to the fact that BABIP isn’t fully a luck-driven component; the pitcher does have some control over the outcome of balls put in play.

Cain’s struggles were not due to BABIP. Instead, his home run rate ballooned to 1.12 HR/9, which may not seem otherworldly, but the right-hander has never posted a home run rate over 1.00 HR/9. That’s a serious deviation for him, and unsurprisingly, his overall numbers ballooned in parallel.

The real question then becomes whether that increased home run rate should be expected to continue. What changed?

It appears nothing really changed outside his HR/FB moving over 10.0% for the first time in his big-league career. Consider the following points:

(1) His ground-ball percentage is a tick above his career average, so it’s not as if Cain is suddenly allowing more fly balls.
(2) His fastball velocity has remained remarkably steady, sitting at exactly 91.2 mph for the third-consecutive season, so it doesn’t seem we’re looking at a potential injury issue or decreased stuff.
(3) His .226 batting average against and 1.16 WHIP illustrate that batters are still having significant problems getting on base.
(4) His swinging-strike rate dropped slightly to 8.6% — which is roughly league average — but it’s still higher than his 8.4% swinging-strike rate in 2010 when he owned a 3.14 ERA over 223.1 innings.

The only change appears to be his HR/FB ratio, and I’m very tempted to give Cain a pass for that increase for the reasons stated above. In addition, most of his home runs (16 of 23) were surrendered in the first half, when the right-hander posted a 5.06 ERA through 112 innings. So we’re talking a small sample size of three months, and he quietly dominated in the second half with a 2.36 ERA in 72.1 innings. That’s the Matt Cain fantasy owners have come to know over the past half-decade.

Due to the home-run binge in the first half, though, Cain will likely be wildly underrated coming into the 2014 season. On September 12, ESPN released their final positional rankings for 2013. Matt Cain ranked 41st — behind guys like Ricky Nolasco, Doug Fister and R.A. Dickey. If that’s a harbinger for rankings to come next spring, he should be on fantasy owners’ very-short list for buy-low pitchers. It appears he will enjoy a much more Cain-esque season than he did this year.

J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

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10 years ago

1. Won a championship in a 20 team league where I drafted Matt Cain in the second round. So wasn’t a season killer for me.

2. I believe his increase in the HRs are due to two things: change in luck and being tired from a few years of long playoff runs. His command was not as good. So while velocity was fine, he was leaving the ball in the hot zones of hitters too often. I think another Fangraphs writer wrote about this earlier this year.

So I agree, excellent buy-low candidate with the rest.