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Prospect Retrospective: the career of Matt Cain

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What Matt Cain was like as a prospect, and how he looks in historical context

MLB: Oakland Athletics at San Francisco Giants Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, San Francisco Giants right-hander Matt Cain announced his retirement. This was inevitable of course after a 15-year professional career but it still caught Giants fans like Grant Brisbee in an emotional moment. Cain has been a stalwart of the franchise for more than a decade. Let’s take a look at what he was like as a prospect and where he fits into historical context.

Cain was drafted by the Giants in the first round in 2002 from high school in Collierville, Tennessee. He got off to a strong start in 2013 but his season ended early with an elbow problem, prompting this report in the 2004 edition of the Baseball Prospect Book:

Out of high school in Collierville, Tennessee, Matt Cain was San Francisco’s first-round pick in 2002. He was off to an excellent start in 2003, posting an aesthetically pleasing ratio set in the South Atlantic League (K/BB +77 percent, K/IP +46 percent, H/IP +17 percent). All numbers excellent. But he was shut down in mid-June with elbow tendinitis, and didn’t pitch again until instructional league. The good news is that no surgery was required, and the pain cleared up on its own. Cain has a fastball clocked as high as 96 MPH, though more often in the 92-93 MPH range. His slider and changeup still need work, but he throws strikes, and is reputed to be a hard-worker who takes his craft seriously. I like the numbers a lot, and the scouting reports are positive, but that elbow worries me. The Giants were cautious with him and shut him down at the first sign of trouble, which is good of course, but that will have to be monitored closely. Without the elbow problem, he’d be one of the most impressive pitching prospects in baseball. Even with it, he is a breakout candidate. Grade B.

Cain stayed healthy in 2004 and with that came the breakout, with a dominant turn in the California League (1.86 ERA in 73 innings) and solid production after moving up to Double-A (3.35 in 86). The report entering 2005 rated him as one of the very best pitching prospects in baseball with a straight Grade A.

Matt Cain overcame the elbow problems that cut short his ’03 season, emerging as one of the elite pitching prospects in the game in ’04. He was too good for the California League, and while he struggled with his command at times in Double-A, all in all it was an impressive season. Cain has a 92-95 MPH fastball that seems to pick up an extra MPH every year. He also has a curveball, slider, and changeup. Statistically, Cain’s numbers took a hit after his promotion, particularly his K/BB ratio, which came in slightly below Eastern League average. That’s a sign of the need for better command, but scouts are unanimous that Cain will be able to achieve that with more experience. His stuff is first-class, and he is an intelligent and dedicated athlete. The only thing that worries me here is health. The elbow problem seems to be a thing of the past, but things like that tend to recur. That, along with the K/BB slippage, are good reasons for the Giants to take their time with him. If they asked me (which they didn’t and won’t), I would advise giving Cain a good 20 starts in Triple-A to refine his control and put the finishing touches on his game. Grade A-.

Indeed, the Giants did send Cain to Triple-A for 2005 and he held his own in the difficult Pacific Coast League, going 10-5 in 26 starts with a 4.39 ERA. He was promoted to the majors towards the end of the year and was quite impressive, posting a 2.33 ERA in 46 innings but retaining rookie status. The report for 2006:

Barring injury, a horrid spring training performance, or the arrival of the Unarian Space Brothers, Matt Cain will open 2006 in the Giants rotation, and will be a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. Few young pitchers can match him in terms of stuff: he has a 92-94 MPH fastball that he can bump up to 96 when he needs it. He combines the heater with an excellent curveball, and he rounded out his arsenal with an improved changeup last year. He has number one starter stuff, and a number one starter attitude, exuding intelligence, confidence, and competence on the mound. Cain’s only real flaw is command: his walk rate was too high last year, though it seldom hurt him. Even with a too-high walk rate, his overall K/BB was still 22 percent better than the Pacific Coast League average. His K/IP and H/IP were excellent at +52 and +25 percent respectively, statistical confirmation of the scouting reports about the quality of his stuff. Personally, I believe that Cain’s command will not be a problem in the long run. My main concern is health: he had an elbow injury in 2003, he seems to lose velocity late in the season, and his pitch counts tend to the long side. If his arm doesn’t fall off, Cain can and should be a rotation anchor. Grade A-.

San Francisco Giants v Oakland Athletics
Matt Cain, May 2006
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Cain took that rotation spot in 2006 and was erratic, if promising, going 13-12 with a 4.15 ERA in 191 innings, 179/87 K/BB. His 2007 and 2008 seasons were similar if somewhat better, than he took off in 2009 when his command improved.

From 2009 through 2012 he was one of the most consistently successful pitchers in the National League, generating 15.1 WAR over those four years. This included a perfect game on June 13th, 2012 against the Houston Astros. He was very consistent and very durable in this period.

Then age began to catch up with him. Hamstring, ankle, and elbow problems nagged, limiting him to 15 starts in 2014 and 11 more in 2015. Surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow was the most serious issue. He was never really the same, reduced to a replacement level pitcher in ‘16 and ‘17.

Overall, Cain threw 2081 major league innings, going 104-118 in 330 starts with a 3.69 ERA, 1690 strikeouts, 711 walks. He generated 29.5 fWAR, 108 ERA+. He made three All Star teams and was a key member of three World Championship teams; he was especially effective in the post season, posting a 2.10 ERA in 51 October innings.

The most similar pitchers to Cain according to Sim Score are Mario Soto, Jim Rooker, Sad Sam Jones, Pete Harnisch, Frank Sullivan, Eric Show, Denny Lemaster, and Tim Lincecum. Pitchers with similar WAR values in a similar number of innings pitched include Johnny Allen (29.9), Johnny Podres (29.7), Claude Hendrix (29.6), Preacher Roe (29.5), John Smiley (29.3), Johnny Antonelli (29.1), and Aaron Sele (29.1).

There are no Hall of Famers there but they were all successful pitchers with some dominant seasons, just like Cain. In the right year, you could win with one of those guys as your ace.

Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants
Matt Cain, May 2017
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images