Cain the Giants Rotation Provide Value?

It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.

The Giants may have won the World Series last year, but before they got to the postseason, their rotation was not the strength of the team. In the regular season they ranked mid-pack at 16th in ERA and near the bottom in WAR at 28th. And it was primarily just Madison Bumgarner that was the strength of the team in the postseason as he threw almost a third of all innings for the Giants in the playoffs. Aside from mid-season acquisition Jake Peavy, the Giants have not added anyone to the staff. That should probably concern fans of the defending champs. Of course, three titles in five years helps ease some concerns. But for fantasy owners under-performance the year prior sometimes leads to value on draft day.

Matt Cain is the obvious bounce back candidate. From 2009-2012 Cain pitched 882 innings with a 2.93 ERA and 13.2% K-BB%. Fantasy owners should obviously be interested n a return to numbers even close to that stretch of production. Cain was always a FIP beater, so it’s possible to view his struggles in the last two years an the inevitable end to an unsustainable run. But I believe in contact management being a repeatable skill, and I believe Cain had that skill. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t lost the skill, but I’m not in the camp that thinks Cain suffered from inevitable regression.

As for whether Cain can get his mojo back, the smart money is probably on no. For one, he’s over 30. Skills go away with age and contact management may be no different in that respect. Second, injuries hampered Cain last year. He had bone spurs removed from his throwing elbow and ankle this offseason. Optimistically the procedures could help him return to form, but he hasn’t been in form for two years. It’s hard to be confident in the surgeries fixing the problem.

All that said, the projection for Cain in Pod’s Projections is surprisingly robust. Pod has Cain with a 3.35 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and 12.3% K-BB%. By my z-score calculation, that would give Cain a top 25 ranking among starters. The ERA and WHIP are primarily a function of the projections having Cain’s BABIP remaining near his career average of .265 and seeing his HR/9 return to right around average at 1.01. That in turn has his strand rate peaking back up to 75.4%. I can definitely buy the home run rate. Maybe Cain has lost his ability to keep a better-than-average rate of fly balls in the park, but it’s also possible there’s some bad luck sprinkled in there. Improving to league average in that department as opposed to the well above average mark he posted during his peak does not seem unreasonable.

Cain is going around 60th on average among starters, so if you buy the Pod Projection at all, Cain looks like a huge value. Steamer isn’t nearly so optimistic as Cain ranks in the 50-55 range per those projections. But even with that more pessimistic projection, Cain’s price is appropriate. Given the chance that Pod is right about his upside, Cain is worth a shot in what amounts to the last round of a ten-team, 25-man roster mixed league and the 21st round of a 12-team mixed league. If he bombs again, he’s not going to hurt you too much at that spot.

Moving back up the ladder, Bumgarner is obviously great. But is he worth drafting? He’s going sixth among starters on average and just inside the top 30 overall. If you’re a wait on pitching person, you can go ahead and rule Bumgarner out. Pod’s projections have him eighth among starters and Steamer has him fifth, so sixth among starters is not an unreasonable spot. Perhaps the best reason for passing on Bumgarner is that there are other starters that the projections like almost as much, if not just as much as Bumgarner, going just a bit later. Bumgarner is averaging a mid-third round pick in 12-team leagues and guys like Corey Kluber, Yu Darvish and Zack Greinke can be had in the late third, late fourth, and early fifth, respectively. As a guy who likes to wait on pitching, I guess I’m imploring to wait a little more, even if it’s not as late as I would wait.

Three veterans, Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Peavy round the planned starting rotation. Of the three, the projection systems like Peavy the best. Both Pod and Steamer have Peavy being a top 60 starter. His ADP among starters is 88, so if you’re in a deeper mixed league where more than 50 or so starters should remain on rosters at all times, Peavy looks like a bargain and an excellent candidate with which to fill out your rotation. Essentially, a full year in the National League in a favorable home ballpark should help reverse the damage done to his numbers by Fenway.

Hudson provides a similar value opportunity as his rankings in the projections are 20-30 spots higher than his ADP among starters. But the projections have Hudson as more of a top 70-ish pitcher, so the league will have to be even deeper for you to consider rostering Hudson. In shallower mixed leagues, both Hudson and Peavy are viable stream candidates when at home or in other favorable ballparks.

As for Lincecum, no one is buying a bounce back. Pod and Steamer both have him safely outside the top 100, and his ADP among starters is 123. In the deepest of mixed leagues or NL-only leagues, maybe he’s worth a flier. But you can honestly probably find options with more upside than The Freak. There’s also a decent chance he gets moved to the bullpen, so his days of fantasy relevance are all but over.

The other candidates to get starts are Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit. After a horrednous 2013, Vogelsong returned to usefulness last year. Well, he was useful for the Giants and only somewhat so for fantasy owners. If he gets back in the rotation, he’s worth consideration for spot starts at home given his 3.10 ERA at home in 100 innings there last year.

As for Petit, it’s hard to look at his strikeout and walk skills and not think he has upside. He had a big problem stranding runners last year, but he didn’t have a huge problem with home runs. Not that home runs are the only factor in strand rate, but a 66.9% LOB% would make more sense if his HR/9 wasn’t 0.92.  Cistulli noted in Petit’s FG+ profile that Petit’s lack of velocity may be the reason that his run prevention skills have not lined up with his excellent strikeout and walk skills. That’s a fair concern, but if Petit got a spot in the rotation, I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t want to give him a shot on my roster.

The real problem with Petit is less the uncertainty about whether he can deliver on tantalizing peripherals and more about his current ADP. Petit is going 77th among starters right now, and he’s not currently expected to start the season in the rotation. His overall ADP is essentially last round of a 12-team mixed league territory, and I’m not using a pick in that format on a guy without a job. If he was going to break camp in the rotation, sure. But if he secures a rotation spot, his ADP will presumably climb even higher. So the only situation in which I’ll roster Petit will likely be him being drafted by another owner, dropped when he doesn’t start for a few weeks, and then adding him when news breaks of him getting some starts.

You can find more of Brett's work on or follow him on Twitter @TheRealTAL.

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Mike Podhorzermember
7 years ago

Historically, Steamer has always been pessimistic about Cain and any other pitcher who consistently outperforms his peripherals like Jered Weaver. Steamer heavily regresses the luck metrics, which works most of the time, but causes the system to be wrong about some. On the other hand, I’ve never been a fan of ZiPS because it doesn’t regress enough and generally believes a low BABIP is a skill. The system will therefore get the Cains and Weavers correct, but will be wrong on lots of others and won’t predict the Kluber-like breakouts that just require better luck.