Friday, October 29, 2010

W: CAIN, L: Wilson, S: Washington; Giants up 2-0

As it turned out, the Giants handled the Rangers decisively on Thursday night, but that was only after the Rangers’ relief corps turned the bottom of the eighth into a full blown walk-a-thon. It started out inauspiciously enough, and it indeed looked as if the Giants’ pitch-black bearded closer would need to come out to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black – well, if Andy Baggarly had his way anyway, he’d more likely come out to his usual House of Pain – to get three outs in the top of the ninth before the Rangers plated two to secure the win for the steady Matt Cain. Steady, not brilliant and not dominant if you ask Rob Neyer or probably more than a few sabermetricians anyway – more on this later. If not for Ron Washington deciding that saving his flame throwing left handed closer Neftali Feliz in case the Rangers not only tied the game in the ninth but went ahead creating a hypothetical save situation* for him, the story of the game would have been Matt “Big Sugar” Cain. And really, it still is.

*Washington’s use of his pen was truly inexcusable tonight, but it worked out to the Giants’ benefit so I won’t spend too much time on it. I will say that he’s become a bit of a punching bag in the statistical crowd, an honor he’s earned for deploying his relievers in an ever peculiar manner throughout the postseason, most notably not using his closer almost ever. There’s no evidence that the Rangers would have ever scored so, as Rob Neyer pointed out, it became a moot point. At least he got one decision right in Game 2, i.e. to not put the creaky Vlad in right field again which saved the Rangers at least twice on balls put into play by the Giants.

Though the final score was 9 to 0, the game was actually one of the real pitchers duels the Giants and their fans are accustomed to. The game was all zeroes for four innings, 1-0 for two innings and 2-0 for one inning to take us to the eighth. But after the Giants and Cain got their shutdown inning in the top half – with an assist from Javier Lopez continuing his dominant October by retiring Josh Hamilton – all hell broke loose. Well, not right away but soon thereafter. I’ll get to that.

In Cain’s seven and two-thirds of work, he gave up four hits, two walks (1 intentional to face the pitcher in a key situation) and struck out a mere two. He stuck with mostly three pitches on the night of the 98 he threw. He threw 53 four-seam fastballs (54%), 23 changeups (23%), 21 sliders (21%) and 1 curveball (1%). Like Lincecum, he opted to stay off the fastball in terms of how often he usually throws it – he’s thrown 66% heaters in his career. He stole first pitch strikes time and time again with both his changeup and especially his slider, while also mixing in the fastball which he had command of on both sides of the plate. You’ll see from the plot below that while he didn’t throw as many fastballs as he typically does, he didn’t stray from his strength. Cain is a high fastball type pitcher, and he’s effective that way. It’s the reason he’s a fly ball pitcher as opposed to inducing ground balls a plenty and why he’s so suited for AT&T Park.

PitchFX courtesy of Brooks Baseball

According to FOX’s beloved broadcasters McCarver and Buck, Ron Washington would say before the game that Matt Cain “has power, and we like power.” Well, Cain’s power fastball up in the zone certainly could have been a concern for him or could have had him contemplating a change in approach. But as the graph clearly shows, the unintimidated Cain delivered his heater in the upper half of the zone while largely keeping it on the corners, and kept his slider and changeup down and below the strike zone where each of those offerings are most effective. While Cain didn’t flash the swing and miss brilliance his teammate Tim “The Freak” did in his 14 strikeout, 31 swing and miss strikes gem against the Braves, he did evenly distribute 9 swing and miss strikes between all three of his pitches.

The one blemish on Cain’s evening – and it would become a real break rather than a blemish ultimately – was a fastball he left up and out over the plate that Ian Kinsler crushed to center. I can say with the utmost confidence that viewers won’t see so near a homerun (without actually being one) ever again. Even more incredible, it was the Catch-22 of near homeruns. The ball hit the very top of the padded center field wall with great force when the backspin of the ball which carried it so far in the first place returned it to the field. Talk about bitter sweet. Had the ball cleared the fence, the Rangers would have led 1-0. Instead, Cain – the bulldog he is – stranded Kinsler exactly where he stood at second in disbelief when he coaxed a lineout and two groundouts, snatching the momentum from the Rangers.

The Giants immediately capitalized on the captured momentum when Edgar Renteria connected on what was really a pretty good pitch, an up and in fastball which he deposited into the left field bleachers for a solo home run, igniting the crowd. And with the way Cain had been pitching and the misfortune that was the double by Kinsler, it must have felt like a grand slam. C.J. Wilson had been excellent otherwise, and truthfully, had pitched a lot like Cliff Lee was supposed to have. He dropped 0-0 curveballs in for strikes over and over and kept the Giants at bay for most of the night. For a pitcher with a reputation for spotty command he sure didn’t look the part.

Cain again got into some trouble in the sixth when he gave up back to back singles followed by a wild pitch to put runners on second and third with one out. But he got Cruz – who was having a rough night taking the only two punch outs from Cain – to foul out and Kinsler to fly out. After Cain threw down another 1-2-3 inning in the seventh he got the insurance run he coveted after Ross walked, the Giants chased Wilson with a blister, and Juan Uribe blooped him in with a single. Time was running out for Texas.

As I promised earlier, I will now describe the two-out nightmare that was the bottom of the eighth (for Texas) but a huge relief and rare chance to relax for San Franciscans. There was definitely some eighth inning weirdness in this one. But first, Daniel O’Day struck out Andres Torres and especially Freddy Sanchez in convincing fashion. Up came Buster Posey, who had looked lost in general at the plate thus far in the series. He was 0 for 3 to this point in the game with two strikeouts. The hardest contact he’d made was when his bat cleanly struck one of the green seats in the first few rows near the dugout after he’d wung his wood and struck out in parallel. Posey ended up showing the beauty of his approach by reaching out and poking a ball to center for a single, and though the Rangers didn’t know it yet, their doom had begun.

Washington went to left handed reliever (and young, baby faced) Derek Holland to get the lefty on lefty match-up he desired. Wash could just as easily had his closer warming considering the game was close and keeping the deficit at just two would be pivotal were a comeback to be staged in the ninth. But he didn’t. What unfolded to the delight of Giants fans must have been a dose of torture to Texans.

Holland was, in a huge understatement, erratic. Of the 13 pitches he threw, 12 were balls. That plated one, but there were still two outs and the Rangers’ closer was still available and rested. In came Mark Lowe by Washington’s choice. Lowe made it more interesting but ultimately walked in another before giving up a 3-2, back breaking, two run single to Edgar Renteria. Washington dug into his bag ‘o relievers once more and pulled out Michael Kirkman. Kirkman turned out to be the right man for the job, apparently, because he didn’t walk anyone and struck out Freddy Sanchez… after giving up a two run triple to pinch hitter Aaron Rowand and a double to Andres Torres. And as I mentioned, this all – every bit of it – occurred with two outs.

By this time Brian Wilson’s tattooed right arm had become as unnecessary as it was ice cold. Mota came in to log his first postseason inning and retired the Rangers in order to give the Giants the two to nothing lead in the series. The Giants fans erupted, celebrated, and most importantly felt one step closer to that which once was thought to be incomprehensible. But this team of random LEGO’s? ‘Fraid so, America.

More on Cain: A few paragraphs back, I eluded to the fact that many statistically inclined baseball onlookers think Cain is much luckier than he is dominant – Rob Neyer recently wrote about it. There’s a compelling school of thought among them, and in most cases I myself am among them, that a pitcher can only control three variables: homeruns, walks and strikeouts. Meaning, when a pitcher allows the ball to be put into play, he has no control over whether or not an out will be recorded. And so, a statistic exists – and which I myself use pretty often – called FIP or Fielding Independent Pitching. FIP is determined using walk rate, strikeout rate and homerun rate and is scaled to look like ERA or Earned Run Average, which everyone is familiar with. When a pitchers FIP is higher than his ERA, there’s evidence that the pitcher benefited from good defense and good luck, when FIP is lower than ERA the opposite. There’s overwhelming evidence this is true and FIP is a great predictor of future ERA. For example, I’ll confidently submit that Trevor Cahill of the A’s with the 2.97 ERA will not have an ERA below 3.00 next season. I’m so confident in that assertion that I bet a friend $20.

Well, Matt Cain has an ERA well below his FIP in 2010… and 2009, and 2008 and 2007. Over his career of roughly 1,100 innings, his career ERA (3.45) is approaching half a run better than his career FIP (3.84) because he’s done exceptionally well at holding batters to a poor average on balls put into play (BABiP). Cain’s is .274 in his career, much lower than the league average of around .300. I’ll leave it at this: the great debate is, does Cain have some magical, unexplainable ability to induce weak contact, when 99% of professional pitchers simply have no control over such things?

Such pitchers do exist, though they are rare. Tom Seaver was one and the active and brilliant Mariano Rivera another. And having watched Cain pitch from 21 years old to 26, I have no issue saying I believe he is among these magical few. I hope I’m right but at least a few more years are probably needed to confirm or obliterate my perception. It may well be my bias as a bleeding, die hard Giants fan coming through, but who can blame me?

To conclude this blog: After Cain’s similarly fantastic Game 3 win against the Phillies in the NLCS, irreplaceable Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly said it better than anyone before him after Cain came off the bump following eight mesmerizing innings of shutout ball:

“And yes, Cain walked off. He didn’t leap or jog. He took no pleasure in the moment with a roundhouse punch or a fist pump or even a smile. He exited like a grim town sheriff after shooting the bad guys.

Then he simply gave a firm handshake to catcher Buster Posey, who waited for him at the rail with an admiration so palpable, the kid might as well have asked for an autograph.

The town was safe for another day.”

It seems beat writers can be swayed by “Big Sugar’s” romance, too.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent! We daily fans always knew Cain IS special. GO GIANTS!!