Any player/Any era: Matt Cain

What he did: I’ve been writing this column for two years, and for two years, Matt Cain has been a potential perfect subject. In part, this column has been about taking men whose stats may have suffered due to their career circumstances. I’ve looked at hitters like Jim Wynn and Bob Watson who might have been Hall of Famers had they not played in the Astrodome of the 1960s. Conversely, I’ve looked at Paul Derringer, who went 7-27 in 1933; on the 1968 Dodgers, Derringer’s efforts that season would be good for a 16-13 record with a 2.55 ERA and 1.098 WHIP. I believe so much of baseball success is about being in the right place at the right time, and until last night, Cain was another Wynn, Watson, or Derringer, a man who could’ve used any era and team besides his own.

For anyone who missed it, Cain threw the first perfect game in the Giants’ 130-season history last night, shutting down the Houston Astros 10-0. A legion of baseball writers have already weighed in about Cain’s feat including Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles. Grant wrote:

There are two ways to talk about Matt Cain: the macro and micro. Big picture and small picture. The micro is on a game-to-game basis. Boy, oh boy, Matt Cain sure is good. He looked awesome in that game, and the change-up was a-changin’. Breaking down specific at-bats. Reminding ourselves how lucky we are to have him. Noting that he got cained, or marveling that he somehow mooned the baseball gods and eked out a win.

The macro and big picture, though, isn’t something you can do very often without spoiling it. That’s where you note that Cain was the original guy, the transitional figure. It’s easy to get myopic and forget that the Giants weren’t always a pitching-rich team that struggled to hit. For a while they couldn’t do either. And then there was Matt Cain, showing up in the majors when he was 20, and pitching beyond his years.

Brisbee may have best captured the context for a pitcher who only recently crossed .500 for his career winning percentage despite compiling a 126 ERA+ and 28 WAR. For much of his seven-plus years in the majors, Cain’s been a sobering example of the importance of run support, of how a lack of it can impact a hurler’s win-loss record. The Giants have scored more than 700 runs just one season of Cain’s career, and if the splits below show me anything, he’s suffered for it. Might Cain be an annual threat to win 20 games on a team that regularly gave him four or five runs a game? I think so. Just look at his splits:

0-2 Runs Scored 11 52 .175 3.14 77 77 4 1 502.0 417 192 175 177 397
3-5 Runs Scored 35 21 .625 3.37 91 91 8 3 588.0 484 230 220 220 496
6+ Runs Scored 31 2 .939 3.34 48 48 3 2 320.1 266 128 119 92 287

Last night, however, this point was moot, and in that spirit, I’ll depart from this column’s usual format. Typically, I suggest an alternate era a player might have thrived in and why. If anyone would like to do that in the comments section here, please feel free. For now, I’ll close by saying that last night, for one game at least, Cain needed to be no other place besides where he was at.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Al KalineAl RosenAl SimmonsAlbert PujolsArtie WilsonBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug Glanville,Ed WalshEddie LopatElmer FlickEric Davis, Frank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack MorrisJackie Robinson, Jim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr., Kenny LoftonLarry WalkerLefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark FidrychMatt NokesMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate Colbert, Nolan RyanOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

2 Replies to “Any player/Any era: Matt Cain”

  1. I don’t think Cain needs any other era to have had a better recognized career, his home park has aided him and most of his numbers look very good. It’s largely the extent to which pitchers’ wins are still seen as important that keeps Cain from being seen as a legit ace (which I believe he is).

    Cain has an ERA+ of 126, which is great. He also has just 77 wins in 1412.1 innings, which works out to 1 win for every 18.34 innings. Here are all the pitchers in baseball history who’ve pitched as well as Cain (using an ERA+ of 120 as the cutoff, allowing for pitchers who’ve been close to as good), for as many innings as Cain, while somehow managing as few wins per inning as he has:

    Yep, that’s the complete list, there is no one.

    It seems to me that the only change Cain could really use in his career in order for it to be better appreciated, is better run support, and perhaps a spot of better luck.

  2. I agree with you about the perception of wins. Cain’s long struck me as another Bert Blyleven.

    I’m with you on the importance of run support and Cain having a fine ERA+ though I’m curious as to what you mean beyond that regarding luck. My general perception is that Cain’s had a good bullpen during his years in San Francisco, though I recognize that luck encapsulates other things as well.

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