A couple of hours ago, the Giants announced that they reached an agreement with Matt Cain on a five year deal worth just over $110 million. Wendy Thurm has already recapped the contract and why this is probably fair market value for a quality pitcher with no health problems headed into his age 27 season. And, she’s probably right – if the Giants wanted to keep Cain, they weren’t going to be able to do it for less than this. This isn’t a situation where they just overpaid irrationally. Their options were either to sign him for this price or watch him get more money from another team next winter. They chose the former.
I would have chosen the latter.
Matt Cain is a good pitcher. How good he’d perform in another set of circumstances – different ballpark, different division, different pitching coach, etc… – isn’t quite as well determined, but we’ve got a pretty good idea that Cain is good at preventing runs in the context he’s currently in. Over the last six years, he’s thrown 1,300 innings and posted an ERA- of 80, meaning that he prevented runs at a rate of 20 percent above average. Quantity and quality is a good package. It just doesn’t predict future success as well as you might think.
Starting in 2002, here are some rolling six year windows where pitchers threw at least 1,000 innings, the examples of pitchers around Cain’s age that performed in a similar manner, and how they did going forward.
Carlos Zambrano, ages 21-26: 1,186 IP, 75 ERA-, 87 FIP-, 92 xFIP-
While Cain has better command than Zambrano, both got significantly better results than their BB/K/GB rates would have suggested for a long period of time. Like Cain, Zambrano was extremely durable, and had shouldered heavy workloads while still taking the mound every five days. However, 2007 was the last year that Zambrano managed 200 innings in a season, and he’s been a significant disappointment ever since.
Jake Peavy, ages 21-26: 1,087 IP, 83 ERA-, 86 FIP-, 82 xFIP-
Peavy and Cain have a lot in common. Lots of success in pitchers parks in the NL West, got better as they aged, and showed a strong track record heading into their age 27 seasons. 2007 was Peavy’s best year, and marked the third consecutive year he’d topped the 200 inning level. He hasn’t gotten over 174 since, struggling with both health issues and diminished performance.
Mark Buehrle, ages 23-28: 1,357 IP, 83 ERA-, 91 FIP-, 95 xFIP-
Finally, some good news. Buehrle’s another guy who has consistently beat his peripherals and showed extreme durability early in his career. That hasn’t changed at all in the last four years, as he’s still the exact same 200 inning workhorse he’s always been.
CC Sabathia, ages 22-27: 1,269 IP, 78 ERA-, 80 FIP-, 84 xFIP-
Sabathia was another young workhorse who has managed to both stay healthy and stay excellent, but it’s worth noting that he succeeded with a more traditional skillset of limiting walks and getting a ton of strikeouts. He’s always been excellent at the three things a pitcher has the most control over, so for him, it was more of a question of staying healthy rather than sustaining abnormal run prevention skills. He stayed healthy and has been fantastic since.
Josh Beckett, ages 23-28: 1,057 IP, 86 ERA-, 80 FIP-, 82 xFIP-
Beckett couldn’t match Cain’s track record for health and durability, but he was one of the best pitchers in baseball in his mid-20s, and strung together four consecutive seasons with at least 175 innings pitched. Yet, his three years since have brought declined in performance and durability, and he’s regressed somewhat from his prior form.
John Lackey, ages 24-29: 1,216 IP, 86 ERA-, 88 FIP-, 90 xFIP-
Like Cain, Lackey’s value was built through quantity rather than just sheer dominance, and he provided the Angels with a long run of solid but unspectacular performances. His last three years have been a weird mix of good, bad, and ugly, and now he’s going to spend the 2012 season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
Brandon Webb, ages 24-29: 1,315 IP, 71 ERA-, 75 FIP-, 75 xFIP-
Webb was the total package, combining elite performance with the ability to throw 200 innings year in and year out. He was in the running for the title of the best pitcher in baseball. Then, he blew out his arm, and he’s thrown just four innings in the Major Leagues over the last three years. His career, at this point, appears to be over.
Dan Haren, ages 23-28: 1,154 IP, 80 ERA-, 82 FIP-, 81 xFIP-
Another success story, and another guy with a lot of similarities to Cain – extreme durability, began as more of a good innings eater, and then steadily improved into a legitimate frontline guy. He’s sustained his excellence even after moving back to the American League, but like Sabathia, it’s been built on a foundation of low walks and high strikeouts.
These eight guys represent a pretty mixed bag of future performance after being identified as durable, quality starters early in their careers. Haren, Sabathia, and Buehrle all show that Cain isn’t destined to turn into a pumpkin, but Zambrano, Peavy, Webb, Lackey, and Beckett suggest that past success doesn’t guarantee future success either.
In reality, Cain’s future is something of a coin flip. He may or may not stay healthy. He may or may not continue to prevent hits on balls in play. History is littered with similar pitchers who have gone either way, and when you’re betting $100+ million on a guy, you should get better than 50-50 odds that he’ll continue to perform reasonably well going forward.
At $22 million per year over the next five years, Matt Cain essentially needs to avoid all problems and continue to pitch as well as he has previously. He might do just that, but there’s a real risk that his arm is going to fall or that his performance will head the wrong way sooner than later. There’s just too much risk here for a team like the Giants to take on this kind of contract, especially with so many other pressing needs in the organization.
The Giants have a built-in pitching factory with AT&T Park and Dave Righetti in place, and given that they’ve had a lot of success maximizing the returns they get on importing pitchers from other organizations, they’re in a unique position to avoid paying market rates for pitching and instead invest that capital in getting some quality position players instead. It might not have been the popular thing to do, but letting Cain walk at the end of the year and throwing $22 million at a guy who swings the bat for a living may have been a better use of funds.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.