The San Francisco Giants will send Matt Cain to the mound tonight against the St. Louis Cardinals, hoping to stop the momentum of the Redbirds and move on to the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. It's been quite a season for Cain, who threw a perfect game earlier this year.
Let's take a look at Cain's career, how he was rated as a prospect and where he currently stands in historical context.
Matt Cain was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 2002 draft, from high school in Germantown, Tennessee. The 25th overall pick in the draft, he threw 88-92 MPH in high school, showed a strong curve, and was physically projectable at 6-3, 180 pounds. His command was erratic in high school and some people felt he was a slight overdraft, but he performed well in rookie ball, posting a 3.72 ERA with a 20/11 K/BB in 19 innings with 13 hits allowed, and boosting his velocity to 92-94 MPH. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2003 book, noting that he had high upside but might take some time to develop.
2003 brought mixed results. His statistical performance for Low-A Hagerstown was excellent (2.55 ERA, 90/24 K/BB in 74 innings, just 57 hits). His velocity continued to climb, up to 96-97 MPH at times. He made progress with command of his curveball and improved his changeup. However, he missed the second half of the season with a stress fracture in his elbow, and there were significant concerns about his ability to stay healthy. I gave him a Grade B in the 2004 book, noting that "without the elbow problem, he'd be one of the most impressive pitching prospects in baseball. Even with it, he is a breakout candidate."
He stayed healthy in 2004 and broke out, posting a 1.86 ERA with an 89/17 K/BB in 73 innings for High-A San Jose, then a 3.55 ERA with a 72/40 K/BB in 86 innings for Double-A Norwich. His command wobbled after his promotion, but his mid-90s fastball, hard curve, and continually improving changeup gave him the look of a future ace. He also showed a terrific work ethic and mound presence. I was still somewhat worried about the elbow injury possibly recurring, but I rated him a Grade A- in the '05 book, ranked as the number 10 pitching prospect in baseball. I also noted the slippage in command at Double-A and wrote that if I was in charge, I would try to give him "a good 20 starts" in Triple-A to put the finishing touches on.
The Giants gave him 26 starts in Triple-A in '05, where he went 10-5, 4.39 with a 176/73 K/BB in 146 innings for Fresno with 118 hits allowed. Command issues were apparent, but his stuff was first-class and reflected in the K/IP and H/IP marks. He made his major league debut in late August as the youngest player in the National League and performed very well, posting a 2.33 ERA in seven starts with a 30/19 K/BB and a miniscule 24 hits allowed (.151 batting average against). I was still a little worried about recurrence of the elbow problem, as well as reports that his velocity dipped at the end of the season. I kept him at a Grade A- in the '06 book, but that was enough to rank him as the Number Three pitching prospect in baseball behind Justin Verlander and Francisco Liriano.
Cain had a solid rookie season in 2006 (4.15 ERA, 108 ERA+, 179/87 K/BB in 191 IP, 3.5 WAR) and has been consistently strong ever since. Bad support from his teammates gave him a weak won-loss record in 2007 and 2008 (15-29) but he pitched quite well both years (WAR 4.0 and 3.7) and has continued to do so.
Cain has seen a slight decline in his velocity (averaging 92.8 MPH in 2007, now down to 91.1 this year) but his slider, curveball, and changeup give him a complete arsenal and his command has steadily improved, his BB/9 dropping from 4.11 in 2006 to 2.56 in 2011 and down to 2.09 this season. His K/9 rates were steady in the mid-7.0s for five years, but have bumped up to 7.92 this season. Cain has also been very durable, with no recurrence of the elbow problems he had in the minors.
His career record now stands at 85-78, .521, with a 3.27 ERA, 124 ERA+, and a 1278/524 K/BB ratio in 1537 innings, with 1279 hits allowed. His career WAR is currently 27.5 (including 3.8 this year). He's literally never had a bad year, at least by WAR standards: his worst full-season performance was a 3.3 WAR in 2009. His ERAs have always been safely better than league, with +117 in 2008 being his worst season.
The list of statistically comparable pitchers through age 27: Jose Rijo, Jake Peavey, Marc Gubicza, John Smoltz, Dave Stieb, Johnny Antonelli, Juan Pizarro, Bill Gullickson, Burt Hooton, and Don Wilson. No bums there.
At age 28, Cain is past the classic injury nexus, and while he could certainly still get hurt, he strikes me as a decent bet to stay healthy and durable. He's gained 40-50 pounds since his high school days. Cain is a case of a projectable young pitcher who turned out extremely well.
To wind this up, here are the pitchers drafted ahead of Cain in the first round in 2002:
1) Pirates: Bryan Bullington, RHP, Ball State University
3) Reds: Chris Gruler, RHP, California HS
4) Orioles: Adam Loewen, LHP, British Columbia HS
5) Reds: Clint Everts, RHP, Texas HS
6) Royals: Zack Greinke, RHP, Florida HS
9) Rockies: Jeff Francis, LHP, University of British Columbia
12) Angels: Joe Saunders, LHP, Virginia Tech
15) Mets: Scott Kazmir, LHP, Texas HS
17) Phillies: Cole Hamels, LHP, California HS
18) White Sox: Royce Ring, LHP, San Diego State University
21) Cubs: Bobby Brownlee, RHP, Rutgers
(An earlier version of this article was published in June 2012 but it has been revised to account for end-of-year data)