Matt Cain has been the picture of consistency and high-quality consistency at that. From 2009 through 2012, he pitched around 220 innings each season, posted ERA marks between 2.79 and 3.14 and struck out 171 to 193 batters. A typically weak Giants offense hampered his win total, but he was the fantasy ace who usually cost a bit less than the others. Perhaps us sabernerds simply kept waiting for the bottom to drop out and his apparent good fortune to fade, which depressed his price. But that never happened.
Heading into 2013, I think our perception of him now was that after 1,537 Major League innings, Cain has real BABIP and HR/FB rate suppression skills. Though we still hadn’t figured out exactly what he’s doing (and surely his home park and defense plays a role), at that point we had to admit that this is who he is.
And then 2013 happened. Over the first half of the season, he posted an uncharacteristic 5.06 ERA, though the damage was primarily done by an inflated 6.49 mark in April. Panicky fantasy owners no doubt were wondering if the good luck had finally dissipated and whether now was the time to sell while Cain still had name value. The owners who did decide to sell were likely kicking themselves later, as they watched Cain right the ship by posting a 2.36 ERA over the season’s second half.
So what happened? Let’s compare his skills over both halves:
Yes, Cain’s walk rate in the first half was higher than any full season mark since 2009. Perhaps his elbow was acting up at times, as he is known to have loose bodies floating in his right elbow. But he offset that slightly inflated walk rate by striking out what would have been a career best rate of hitters.
In the second half, he was essentially the same pitcher. He punched out a lesser rate of batters, but improved his control and induced a higher rate of harmless pop-ups. Overall, his SIERA was actually better in that first half, but really not much different than what he posted in the second half.
So what was behind that ghastly first half ERA? This is easy:
The man that could always be counted on to suppress home runs on fly balls and strand runners at an above league average clip failed to do so for a couple of months. Big deal, $hit happens. You certainly couldn’t argue that he was more hittable in that first half and the elbow was worse than he was letting on, because look at the BABIP! He was still preventing hits on balls in play like always and was even better at it during that awful first half.
So the bottom line is that 2013 first half and second half Matt Cain were the same pitcher and also the same pitcher as 2010 through 2012 Matt Cain. Because Cain’s troubles were in the first half and he finished the season with a bang, he’s unlikely to be as undervalued in 2014 drafts as he would be if the timing of his poor results were the opposite. Still, there appears to be little reason to consider him any differently than you did in previous years, but you will definitely be given the opportunity to buy him at a discount.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.