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Case Solved: Why the Giants’ Matt Cain Went 8-10 in 2013

In discussing Major League Baseball’s most relevant statistics, whether it’s individual player records, player performance, or team results there’s still a big institutional gap between traditional measuring sticks and advanced concepts.

Baseball’s new metrics haven’t been “new” for at least twenty years. but the mainstream sports media and much of the MLB establishment continue to miss their value and meaning.

And it’s not about using the magic computer box to ferret out a series of obscure statistics from esoteric data. It’s about an idea. To use quantitative methods to identify those results that measure the specific performance of individual players, not influenced or skewed by the performance of other players.

Bill James, the maven of sabermetrics, characterized it as “objective knowledge”.

Only because professional baseball moves slower than an R. A. Dickey fastball do these metrics still feel “new” even though they were introduced in the 1980s.

Matt Cain’s 2013 season is one that on the surface he would like to forget. Cain went 8-10 with a 4.00 ERA and did not have a shutout or complete game in 30 starts.

The two questions that should pop up are, 1) did Matt Cain actually have a “bad” year in 2013; and, 2) if he didn’t have a bad year, why the 8-10 result?

Keeping in mind that pitcher wins and losses, like hitter RBI, are statistical measures dramatically dependent on the performances of a player’s teammates throughout the season.

As a pitcher, you can’t get wins if your hitters don’t score enough runs, or your bullpen is shaky, or if the defense behind you can’t control balls in play or make double plays.

As a hitter, you can’t create runs if the guys ahead of you don’t get on base, or if you are surrounded by a slow-running offense that needs extra hits to move around the diamond, or if you don’t have a multiplicity of ways to get on base yourself.

Looking at Matt Cain’s season, he did very well in the statistical categories that isolate his performance: a 1.16 WHIP, a 7.71 strikeout average per 9 innings (33rd among the top 80 MLB starters), and 7.7 hits allowed per 9 innings (8th best among NL starters). Of Cain’s 30 starts, 20 were quality starts (at least 6 IP with 3 ER or less) which tied him at 16th among NL starters and 30th of all MLB starters.

So what happened on the way to an 8-10 record?

Comparing Matt Cain to several other starters in 2013 provides some clues:

2013 SP WHIP IP QS Opposition
Matt Cain, SFG 1.16 184.1 20 2.89 3.40 2 23 8-10
Anibal Sanchez, DET 1.15 182.0 20 2.86 5.31 10 9 14-8
Julio Teheran, ATL 1.17 185.2 18 3.02 4.03 6 22 14-8
Ubaldo Jimenez, CLE 1.33 182.2 16 3.17 4.50 12 16 13-9
Bartolo Colon, OAK 1.17 190.1 23 2.90 5.43 21 14 18-6


Two things immediately jump out: run support and double plays. San Francisco Giant hitters provided Cain with an average of 3.40 runs per start, which is terrible. How terrible? Cain was 71st out of the top 80 starters in the Majors in run support per start.

Of course the Giants offense skunked the entire pitching staff, coming in 21st of 30 MLB teams with 629 runs and 29th in HRs with 107. MLB teams scored an average of 4.16 runs per game in 2013 and NL teams hit an average of 144 home runs.

Cain wasn’t helped by San Francisco’s shaky defense, whose 107 errors placed them 24th among 30 MLB teams. But the killer here was the inability of the Giants infield to turn the double play– they were 28th in baseball in average DPs turned per game (0.79) and it killed Matt Cain’s starts.

Contrast that with Bartolo Colon, who not only got 21 double plays turned behind him, his run support was 1.27 runs above the MLB average. There are certainly many other variables here, including League and park factors, but there’s one inescapable conclusion.

The combination of a poor defense and  the inability to produce runs is what led to Matt Cain’s mediocre win-loss record. Look what Julio Teheran did with a similar WHIP, only 3 times the double plays, and run support much closer to the MLB average. And Teheran has two less QS than Cain, a higher opposition OBP and gave up only one less HR than Cain.

This is all good news because Matt Cain’s 2013 performance was stellar and there’s no reason to doubt that 2014 will be the same or better. Only in those categories where Cain depended on the performance of his teammates did things fall short.

There’s no doubt that baseball is a team sport, but traditional measures of player performance mask what individual pitchers and hitters actually accomplish during any given season.