JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Matt Cain

Matt Cain
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: Matt Cain
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR Adj. S-JAWS W-L SO ERA ERA+
Matt Cain 29.1 29.0 29.1 104-118 1,694 3.68 108
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Before Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum carved their niches in Giants history, there was Matt Cain. Nicknamed “The Horse” thanks to his size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) and durability, he was “the original homegrown hero of the Giants’ golden era,” to quote the headline of one tribute, serving as the bridge between the latter-day Barry Bonds teams and the Buster Posey ones. He played a significant role for the first two of the Giants’ three championships under manager Bruce Bochy and was particularly stingy in the postseason, posting a 2.10 ERA in eight starts totaling 51 innings.

In a 13-year career (2005–17) spent entirely with the Giants, Cain made three All-Star teams and received down-ballot Cy Young support in three seasons. On June 13, 2012, he threw the 22nd perfect game in AL/NL history. Alas, that 2012 season, the first year of a six-year, $127.5-million extension (briefly the largest deal ever for a right-handed pitcher), was his last good one. After that, mileage and injuries took their toll; he missed all of the Giants’ 2014 postseason run, having undergone season-ending surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow.

Poor run support, particularly early in his career, camouflaged some of Cain’s strongest seasons and knocked his career won-loss record below .500, but beyond his impact upon the Giants, he carved a unique niche among statheads. As old friend Eno Sarris explained at The Athletic just before his final start in 2017, “Cain retires third all time in pop-ups since we started tracking the play, and recognizing that this was a skill of his was important to statistical models. It’s not a stretch at all to say that his ability to elicit pop-ups is why pop-ups are now counted in pitching WAR on FanGraphs.”

Matthew Thomas Cain was born on October 1, 1984 in Dothan, Alabama. His father Tom worked in sales and management for a window and door wholesaler, and his mother Dolores was a schoolteacher. Tom’s job bounced the family from South Carolina to Alabama to Tennessee; the family moved to a 50-acre plot of land 30 miles outside of Memphis when Matt was 10 years old.

By that point, Matt’s baseball career was rolling along. At five years old, playing T-ball, he pulled off two unassisted triple plays in a seven-game season. At 11 years old, he came under the tutelage of former major leaguer Mauro Gozzo, who owned horses nearby and had a farrier in common with Cain’s grandfather, Guy Miller, who had sent his three grandsons to Gozzo for evaluation. “You never tell how a kid that young will develop,” Gozzo told the Bay Area News Group’s Andrew Baggarly in 2005. “But I definitely saw a loose arm, and I sensed some serious desire. Those are the two things you look for.” Gozzo soon quit his job in waste management to teach pitching full-time and schooled Cain in the importance of mound presence and confidence.

At Houston High School in Germantown, Cain’s drive to succeed was ahead of his physical ability; he was throwing his fastball in the 88–92 mph range, where he was up to 92–95 — accompanying that with a plus power breaking ball and a changeup — by the time he reached the majors. He began receiving attention from college scouts as a junior, and the following year, professional scouts were regularly attending his starts. In March 2002, Giants scout Lee Elder saw Cain pitch in place of teammate Conor Lalor, who was scratched due to a sore arm. “Elder saw the ball jump out of Cain’s hand and knew the kid was first-round draft material,” Baggarly wrote. After a senior season in which he went 7–3 with a 1.02 ERA, he was chosen by the Giants with the 25th pick in the 2002 draft and signed for a $1.375 million bonus.

Cain was just 17 years old when he began his professional career with the Giants’ Arizona League affiliate and still a teenager when he pitched in the Futures Game and reached Double-A Norwich in mid-2004, where he posted a 3.35 ERA with 7.5 strikeouts per nine in 86 innings. That performance vaulted him from 91st to 13th on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list. After pitching to a 4.39 ERA with 10.9 strikeouts per nine at Triple-A Fresno in 2005, he got the call from the Giants, debuting with a five-inning, two run effort against the Rockies on August 29, 2005, pitching well but getting the loss because his teammates scored just one run. Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had, #Cained would have been trending.

The final batter of Cain’s debut was Todd Helton, literally the toughest out in the league that year via his NL-best .445 on-base percentage. Cain battled him for 14 pitches before retiring him on a warning track fly ball. “Here was this 20-year-old kid who kept throwing strikes against one of the most dangerous hitters in the game and refused to give in,” Baggarly told FanGraphs. “I think that’s when a lot of us knew he had what it took to be an impact performer for a long time.”

The 20-year-old Cain went 2–1 with a 2.33 ERA (but a 4.08 FIP) in 46.1 innings over seven starts, leaving his rookie eligibility intact for 2006. He made the team out of spring training, but things didn’t go well initially; through seven starts, he was 1–5 with a 7.04 ERA, earning him a trip to the bullpen. But after just one relief outing, he returned and threw a one-hit shutout against the A’s in Oakland on May 21, finishing the year 13–12 with a 4.08 ERA and 3.96 FIP in 31 starts and one relief appearance totaling 190.1 innings, good for 2.5 WAR and fifth place in the NL Rookie of the Year voting.

For the quiet Cain, the transition to the majors was jarring. “I was a 20-year-old kid who didn’t understand anything about city life, didn’t understand what it was like to be in a major city, in a huge media area,” he recounted to MLB.com’s Chris Haft in 2017. “I had a hard time at first… I’d always grown up around trees and grass and outdoors, and here I am. I kind of felt like I was trapped in a bunch of concrete.” Over time he adapted to San Francisco; he and his wife chose a different neighborhood to live in each season, helping them gain a greater appreciation of the city.

In the spring of 2007, Cain signed a four-year, $9 million extension, which he inaugurated by beginning a six-year streak of making at least 32 starts and throwing at least 200 innings, but he went just 7–16 despite a 3.65 ERA (123 ERA+). Between that season — Bonds’ final one — and the next (8–14, 3.76 ERA), the Giants’ decrepit offense, which ranked second to last in the league in scoring in both years, eked out just 3.2 runs per game on his behalf. By comparison, the team scored 4.6 runs per game for Lincecum in 2008, helping him to an 18–5 record to accompany a 2.62 ERA en route to his first of two Cy Youngs.

Cain did crack the NL’s top 10 in WAR in both of those seasons, with 4.6 in 2007 (seventh) and 4.5 in ’08 (ninth), then put together his best season to date in ’09, going 14–8 with a 2.89 ERA (good for seventh in the league as well as a career-best 147 ERA+) and 6.1 WAR (eighth) in 217.2 innings. He made the NL All-Star team for the first time, though he didn’t pitch in the game after being hit on the elbow by a line drive in his final turn before the break. Led by him and Lincecum, the Giants snapped a four-year streak of losing seasons, improving from 72 wins to 88 on the strength of their run prevention. In the spring of 2010, Cain and the Giants hashed out another extension; this one, which incorporated the $4.25 million salary for the final year of his previous deal, albeit with different bells and whistles, totaled three years and $27.5 million.

Bolstered by rookies Posey and Bumgarner (both of whom had cups of coffee the year before), the Giants improved to 92–70 in 2010, winning their first NL West title in seven years. Cain put together another very good season (3.14 ERA, 223.1 IP, 4.1 WAR) camouflaged by a 13–11 record, but he was stellar in the postseason. In Game 2 of the Division Series against the Braves, he threw 6.2 innings and allowed just one unearned run, departing with a 4–1 lead; a bullpen implosion cost the Giants the game, but they took the series in five. In Game 3 of the NLCS against the Phillies, he threw seven shutout innings and allowed just two hits, and this time the bullpen held. In Game 2 of the World Series against the Rangers, he went even further, with 7.2 shutout innings on just four hits. He thus became the fifth pitcher ever to throw at least 20 postseason innings without allowing an earned run, after the Giants’ Christy Mathewson (27 innings in 1905), the Yankees’ Waite Hoyt (27 innings in 1921), the Giants’ Carl Hubbell (20 innings in 1933), and the Tigers’ Kenny Rogers (23 innings in 2006); Hubbell yielded three unearned runs, Hoyt two.

The Giants beat the Rangers in a five-game World Series but slipped back to 86 wins and second place in 2011. Once again, meager offensive support (3.4 runs per game) led to a mediocre record (12–11) for Cain, but he pitched to a 2.88 ERA (eighth in the league) in 221.2 innings. He also made his second All-Star team but again didn’t pitch in the game itself.

Just before the 2012 season began, Cain agreed to another extension that rolled over the final year of his existing deal. At that point, his six-year, $127.5 million pact was surpassed only by those of lefties CC Sabathia (seven years, $161 million) and Johan Santana (six years, $137.5 million). It was a record for a righthander, supplanting Kevin Brown’s seven-year, $105 million deal, but that would stand only until the following winter, when Zack Greinke signed a six-year, $147 million contract with the Dodgers.

For only the second time in his career, Cain got robust run support in 2012, a comparatively gaudy 4.7 runs per game. Combined with a 2.79 ERA (126 ERA+) and a career-high 193 strikeouts in 219.1 innings, he went 16–5. And after having taken five no-hitters into the seventh inning and one perfect game into the sixth, he finally went the distance for one on June 13 at AT&T Park, when he retired all 27 Astros he faced, striking out 14 over the course of 125 pitches.

It was the majors’ second perfect game of the season and the fifth in a four-season span after those of Mark Buehrle (July 23, 2009), Dallas Braden (May 9, 2010), Roy Halladay (May 29, 2010), and Philip Humber (April 21, 2012); only one has been thrown since, that by Félix Hernández on August 15, 2012. Cain’s Game Score of 101 matched that of Sandy Koufax (1965) for the highest in a perfect game, and at the time, the only nine-inning start of any stripe with a higher score was Kerry Wood‘s 20-strikeout, one-hit gem from 1998 (105). Since then, only Max Scherzer‘s 17-strikeout no-hitter of the Mets from 2015 (104) and Clayton Kershaw’s 15-strikeout no-hitter of the Rockies from ’14 (102) — both blemished by a batter reaching on an error — have surpassed Cain’s score.

(In a cruel coincidence, this scribe missed Cain’s perfecto by one day at AT&T, having watched Bumgarner homer and strike out 12 the night before in the company of a handful of baseball writers. That group included FanGraphs contributor Wendy Thurm, who wrote up her own experience of watching Cain here.)

The perfect game probably helped Cain get the starting nod for the NL in the All-Star Game. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who was 12–1 with a 2.40 ERA to Cain’s 9–3 with a 2.62 ERA, lobbied for the start by offering a hypothetical scenario of entering the game with men on base. But NL manager Tony La Russa chose Cain, who allowed one hit in two innings and was credited with the victory in an 8–0 win; Dickey threw a scoreless sixth.

In the postseason, Cain made five starts, pitching to a 3.60 ERA in 30 innings. Merely solid in Games 1 and 5 of the Division Series against the Reds, he yielded three runs in 5.2 innings in the finale but put the clamps on the Cardinals in the NLCS. After allowing three runs in 6.2 innings in a Game 3 loss, he returned to hold St. Louis scoreless for 5.2 innings in Game 7. He then went seven innings and allowed three runs in Game 4 of the World Series, departing in a tie game that the Giants won in the 10th, completing a sweep for their second championship in three years.

Unfortunately, it was mostly downhill from there for Cain. After a six-year stretch over which he ranked seventh in innings (1,299.2), ninth in WAR (26.2), and 10th in ERA (3.18, and 12th with a 126 ERA+) without missing a single start, he landed on the injured list for the first time in August with a forearm contusion suffered via a line drive. He still reached 30 starts for the eighth straight season, but his ERA ballooned to 4.00 (86 ERA+) and his WAR dipped to 0.8. He made just 15 starts in 2014 due to a cut on his finger, a hamstring strain, and surgery to remove bone chips that had been floating in his elbow for at least 10 years. “They’ve always been there,” he said of the bone chips. “It’s just that now they’re mad and they’re letting me know about it. For some reason, they got in a different spot and they got aggravated.”

The surgery turned Cain into a bystander during the Giants’ 2014 championship run but didn’t end his arm troubles. In the spring of 2015, he suffered a flexor tendon strain; between that and a subsequent bout of elbow inflammation, he made just 11 starts and posted a 5.79 ERA. A cyst removal, a recurrent hamstring strain, and lower back woes held him to 17 starts and a 5.64 ERA in 2016, and while he was healthy enough to make 23 starts the following year, he went 3–11 with a 5.43 ERA and was sent to the bullpen late in the season. After being idle for all of September, he made a farewell start on September 30, the season’s penultimate day. For five innings, he was the Cain of old, holding the Padres to two hits and one walk and striking out four, but he departed with a 1–0 lead that the bullpen couldn’t hold. #Cained one final time.

On that note, via Baseball-Reference: Cain ranks 57th in the Wild Card Era in games started (331), but he’s 31st in no-decision starts. Picking up on an area that Eno explored, he’s sixth in that period in quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) in which he received a no-decision (74) and 12th in quality starts in which he didn’t receive a win (112).

As Eno noted, Cain emerged at a time when statheads were gaining an appreciation of the distinction between defense-independent pitching outcomes (via Voros McCracken’s revolutionary DIPS) and the comparatively minimal amount of control a pitcher has over balls in play, with hurlers’ BABIPs often fluctuating wildly from year to year but eventually regressing toward league average in larger samples. Yet until 2015, Cain never posted a BABIP of .300 or higher, and six times, he qualified for the ERA title with a BABIP of .270 or lower, the most of any pitcher in the Wild Card Era; Scherzer and Ted Lilly are tied for second with five, and Justin Verlander, Ervin Santana, Tim Wakefield, and Barry Zito are tied for fourth with four. Among pitchers with at least 2,000 innings in the Wild Card era, only Kershaw has a lower BABIP:

Lowest BABIPs of the Wild Card Era
Clayton Kershaw 2008-2022 2581.0 .270 2.48 2.76 -0.28
Matt Cain 2005-2017 2085.2 .272 3.68 3.92 -0.24
Jered Weaver 2006-2017 2067.1 .273 3.63 4.07 -0.44
Tim Wakefield 1995-2011 3006.0 .273 4.43 4.74 -0.31
Barry Zito 2000-2015 2576.2 .274 4.04 4.39 -0.35
Johan Santana 2000-2012 2025.2 .276 3.20 3.44 -0.24
Woody Williams 1995-2007 2120.0 .276 4.20 4.66 -0.46
Jamie Moyer 1995-2012 3073.0 .278 4.20 4.53 -0.33
Justin Verlander 2005-2022 3163.0 .278 3.24 3.36 -0.12
Pedro Martinez 1995-2009 2567.2 .279 2.91 2.89 0.02
Al Leiter 1995-2005 2052.0 .281 3.64 4.09 -0.45
Tom Glavine 1995-2008 2891.0 .281 3.51 4.13 -0.62
R.A. Dickey 2001-2017 2073.2 .281 4.04 4.41 -0.37
Tim Hudson 1999-2015 3126.2 .281 3.49 3.78 -0.29
Bronson Arroyo 2000-2017 2435.2 .282 4.28 4.60 -0.32
Ervin Santana 2005-2021 2486.2 .282 4.11 4.31 -0.20

Coincidentally enough, Arroyo, Dickey, and Weaver are all on this Hall of Fame ballot for the first time as well, and part of the One-and-Done subset just as Cain is. A key factor for these pitchers posting low BABIPs, and thus lower ERAs than FIPs — which 15 of the 16 of the pitchers above did over that time period, Martinez being the exception — is their skill at generating pop-ups. A gander at the Wild Card Era leaderboard shows only Weaver (13%) and Zito ahead of Verlander, Cain, and Arroyo (all 12.2%), with Kershaw (11.8%) just below. Pitching in home parks with large foul territories certainly factors into that; Zito, Cain, and Verlander were helped to their high rankings by the likes of the Oakland Coliseum, AT&T Park, and Comerica Park. Similarly, Cain has the lowest rate of home runs per fly ball (8.3%) of the era, with Cliff Lee (8.8%), Weaver and Verlander (both 8.9%) and Zito (9%) making up the top five, and Kershaw (9.4%) eighth.

How did Cain do it? Here’s Eno:

Talking to Joey Votto about his legendary ability to avoid pop-ups, he once admitted to me that the pop-up was the result of a pitch in the “perfect sliver of the strike zone, up and in-ish,” and that Cain was great at hitting that spot. During his peak seasons, Cain had a riding fastball that had a full inch more ride than the average fastball, meaning it dropped less than your average fastballs and jumped on hitters. Ride is associated with pop-ups, especially when you throw the pitch up and in, like Cain did.

We haven’t even talked about the step from BABIP suppression to quality of contact measures such as exit velocity and xwOBA, and unfortunately, only the not-so-pretty tail end of Cain’s career caught the Statcast era. But suffice it to say that these are topics of frequent discussion within sabermetrics, and within most such discussions, Cain’s name routinely… pops up. Alongside the great impact he had on a very successful era of Giants baseball, he’s left an outsized mark on our understanding of the game. That’s quite a legacy.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

Remarkably well written, thanks Jay.