Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Matt Cain: still not just lucky

First off, let’s clarify. I like FIP and xFIP, and think they are wonderful tools that perhaps don’t tell us what actually happened on the field, but how well most pitchers pitched and how well they will in the future.

Secondly, I don’t want anyone to get the impression I think Cain is great. It’s pretty clear I don’t think he’s lucky. Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez and Roy Halladay are great. Matt Cain is very good. There’s a lot of room to debate that, but neither party will truly win until we’ve seen what 2011, 2012 and 2013 look like for Cain. But anyway, what he’s not is Joe Blanton.

Dave Cameron provided a dissenting opinion and great analysis over at Fangraphs on the subject after my original post. Here’s what he did:

Below are 10 pitchers who, from 2002 to 2007, had the lowest HR/FB rates in baseball, who have thrown a similar number of innings to Cain, and have thrown at least 100 total innings in the last three seasons. The first section is their 2002-2007 IP and HR/FB rate, with the second section being their 2008-2010 IP and HR/FB rate.


Group: 11,351 IP, 8.6% HR/FB – 4,202 IP, 9.9% HR/FB

The league average HR/FB rate is uaually around 10.6%. As a group, the ten best big time home run suppressors from 2002 to 2007 were only marginally better than average at that same skill from 2008 to 2010. Sabathia and Zito bucked the trend and actually lowered their HR/FB rates over the last three seasons. So it’s certainly possible Cain could continue to post low HR/FB rates going forward. After all, he does pitch in a pretty good pitcher’s park and his career HR/FB rate is better than any of the pitchers in this sample, so maybe there is something to David Pinto’s theory about how his fastball moves.

Dave looked at a group of Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, John Lackey, C.C. Sabathia, Brad Penny, Jarrod Washburn, Barry Zito, Miguel Bautista, Dontrelle Willis and Kevin Millwood. I have a few thoughts on the group.

First, those I think are fair to compare Cain to: Oswalt, Lackey, Sabathia, Washburn, Zito, Penny and Millwood. While I don’t think their all perfect – Lackey and Penny have had some arm trouble, and Washburn was going from his prime in the one sample, to his way out of the league in the next – these examples are completely valid, as their skills were similar in each sample. Of them, Oswalt is the best example. His strikeout rate and K/BB ratio stayed almost exactly the same, while his HR/FB increased. Point well taken.

But with Martinez, Bautista and Willis, I think we can make a reasonable argument they just don’t belong in this study. Martinez clearly wasn’t the same pitcher. He was striking out 9.6 batters per nine with a K/BB ratio of 4.35 in the first sample, and then just 7.3 per nine with a 2.38 ratio in ’08 and ’09 (he did not pitch in ’10). Bautista went from throwing 175 innings per season in the first stretch to 90 in the next while primarily working as a reliever. Finally, Willis battled anxiety disorder and his career fell off the planet. His K/BB ratio went from 2.2 to 0.69 while working as a starter and reliever: he doesn’t belong in the study.

Millwood was in his prime from 2002-2007 at ages 27-32, and then out of it 2008-2010 (33-35). He saw his HR/FB rate increase by about 1.5 points or 16%.

Oswalt was 24-29 and still in his prime from 2002-2007 and then 30-32 from 2008-2010 and still in his prime. Again, he’s Dave’s smoking gun. He saw his HR/FB rate go up 2.1 points or 25%.

Lackey was winning game 7 of the World Series in 2002 at 23 years old, he was 28 in 2007. He’s still very much in his prime from 2008-2010 at 29-31. His HR/FB rate went up by 2.0 points or about 24%.

Sabathia was very young from 2002-2007 (21-26) and still very much in his prime from 2008-2010 (27-29). He decreased his HR/FB rate by about 4% or 0.3 points despite spending the past two seasons in the new Yankee Stadium.

Penny was 24-29 from 2002-2007 and 30-32 in 2008-2010. The latter period includes a miserable 2008 when he struggled with tendonitis and inflammation and saw his K/9 drop to 4.85 and his K/BB ratio fall to a career worst 1.21. Still, I’m counting it. His HR/FB rate rose 1.8 points or 21%.

Washburn was 27-32 and in his prime 2002-2007, then out of it 2008-2009 at 33 and 34 while not pitching in 2010. His final days as a major league starter included 43 miserable innings with the Tigers in which he gave up 12 home runs. His walks were up, his strikeouts were down, and then he was simply out of the league. His HR/FB rate rose just 7% or 0.6 points.

Finally, Zito was in his prime for both samples, 24-29 from 2002-2007 and 30-32 from 2008-2010. He, like Sabathia, lowered his HR/FB rate. He dropped it 10% or 0.9 points.

So, of the examples I’m willing to play ball with, every single one of them had at least a league average HR/FB rate, which Dave pointed out hovers around 10.6%, from 2008-2010. Millwood still maintained a 10.6. The others had a better than average HR/FB rate: Oswalt (10.4), Lackey (10.5), Sabathia (8.2), Washburn (9.3), Zito (7.9) and Penny (10.5).

With our new group (Martinez, Willis and Bautista removed) the group rate of 8.6% goes up by one point to just 9.6%, still an entire point below the average HR/FB rate.

Let’s also not forget than Cain’s HR/FB rate is significantly better than anyone in this sample, which Dave himself pointed out. I think this can be taken two ways: a larger correction should be expected because he’s further from the average, or; given that Cain has performed so much better in this area over his career, it only strengthens the case that the skill is legitimate.

I think the last thing I’d like to toss into the discussion is Cain’s infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%), as well as that of the players in the sample. Cain’s IFFB% over his career is 12.9%. Not only is that high, but it’s been incredibly consistent (2005-2010: 11.8%, 16.3%, 11.4%, 10.1%, 10.6%, and 16.4%). In our sample of players, those who had the higher IFFB% over their career were the most successful at maintaining their low HR/FB rate. Zito has a Cain-like 13.30 IFFB% over his career, and he lowered his HR/FB rate from 2008-2010. Sabathia has also done well with IFFB%, he’s at 10.50% in his career, and he too lowered his HR/FB rate. Washburn has an 11.50 IFFB% over his career; his HR/FB rate was only up 7% in his final two seasons from the six Dave sampled before.

Oswalt and Lackey, on the other hand, have identical 8.10 IFFB% over their careers, and each saw the biggest jumps in their HR/FB rate in the 2008-2010 sample after doing so well from 2002-2007. It certainly seems like there might be something to this, but we need more evidence. I’d be thrilled to see someone dig into this more. Perhaps Dave’s up to the challenge.

With some help from Dave, I’m even more convinced that Cain’s 1,100 innings are enough to conclude he has a very good chance at continuing to post at least below average HR/FB rates. Maybe he won’t post a 7.0% rate over the next three years, but an 8.0-8.5% rate seems reasonable. If he retains his other skills too, that’ll be plenty for him to remain a very good starting pitcher.


  1. Let us survey the opposition hitters and see what they think about Cain's status as a top notch pitcher. I'm sure some hitters would rather face Timmy than Matt! I agree that Cain is a very good pitcher. Much better than Joiquin Andujar.

  2. I was looking into this same topic and wanted to explore the idea by Dave Pinto at baseball musings that vertical movement of the fastball could help explain the home run rates.

    I had the data on these guys from 2008 to 2010 unfortunately pitch fx doesn't go back that far.

    Oswalt: Vertical movement 8.73
    Lackey: Vertical movement 8.69
    Sabathia: Vertical movement 8.83
    Zito: Vertical movement 9.86
    Cain: Vertical movement 10.06

    League average vertical movement is about 8.6 with increased vertical movement and increased velocity you see lower home run rates.

    So it makes sense that Oswalt, Lackey are moving toward league average as there vertical movement and fastball velocity is moving toward league average as well.

    This doesn't cover the first part of the sample because that would be more enlightening to see what there movement was like early in their careers.

  3. I wonder if you did the same thing as Cameron did for K/9 if you'd show similar decline. Maintaining a 1000+ IP of elite anything is really difficult.