Matt Cain

Giants’ postseason hopes rest on Matt Cain’s expensive right arm

The Giants blew two save chances last night, so naturally that got people talking about the bullpen. You know, the same bullpen that has a 1.66 ERA and 1.09 WHIP since the All-Star Break. They weren’t allowed to have a collective off night, because Matt Cain couldn’t get one guy out in the sixth inning, an inning he entered with a 6-0 lead.

It’s the same every time. His stuff looks pretty good, but his command is off. As Mike Krukow said today with Gary Radnich, he hit a wall in the sixth, started slinging pitches instead of firing them in with some “screw you” mindset attached (Krukow’s words), and as a result we saw a lot of pitches that were off by “half a plate,” which Krukow noted is quite a lot for a pitcher like Cain.

Cain’s brief 2015 season has been annoyingly up-and-down in nature, but his velocity is still roughly the same and there’s been at least one bright spot in each of his six outings.

  1. In his debut against Miami, his arm didn’t fall off.
  2. He was dominant over six scoreless innings against the Mets, his best start of the year.
  3. After getting knocked around early by the D-Backs, he pitched a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts in the fifth (his final inning of the game).
  4. Other than a home run by Jedd Gyorko, Cain pitched six strong innings in San Diego.
  5. Cain allowed only one hit to the Brewers over his last two innings … after giving up four runs over his first four innings. No homers allowed, though!
  6. Cain kept the Braves off the board for the first five innings last night.

So the Giants are stuck. They’re paying him more than anyone else on the team, and they can’t count on him or write him off.

The team’s identity is clear. They lead the National League in hits and on-base percentage, and they’re second in runs and batting average to the Rockies. Considering the ballparks those two teams call home, the Giants pretty clearly have the best offense in the league. They also boast an upper-tier defense.

Their pitching staff doesn’t quite match the position players in terms of production, and if they’re going to make the postseason, they need Cain to pitch better than a borderline fifth starter. What other choices do the Giants have? Tim Hudson, who labored through a couple outings before the Giants sent him back to the disabled list after the Mike Leake trade? Tim Lincecum and his degenerating hips? Ryan Vogelsong is an option, but despite the way last night ended the Giants need him to be a moderate/high-leverage reliever.

Cain has had 33 innings to figure out his release point, but the hits just keep on coming. Opponents are blasting Cain to the tune of .303/.340/.545. That’s an OPS of .886 — Buster Posey’s OPS was .893 heading into tonight’s game.

Other than the Mets (lowest batting average and OPS in the NL), Cain hasn’t faced a winning team. The Braves’ offense is not good (12th in the NL in runs), but Cain still gave up 10 hits and four earned runs last night. Granted, Hunter Strickland gave up a home run to Chris Johnson, A.J. Pierzynski (ew) took Santiago Casilla deep, and Vogelsong gave up the two-run home run that ended the game. It wasn’t a night for pitchers, but Cain — the guy who’s famous for getting no run support in games where he’s “Cained” — was the one who lost control of what should’ve been a blowout.

One note in favor of Cain, something that we saw anecdotally last night in Atlanta: He might be suffering from a little bit of bad luck. He’s getting hit fairly hard, but his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .330, far higher than his career mark of .265. And it would be unfair to write this story without noting that he’s coming off elbow surgery and didn’t get the benefit of Spring Training. He’s stepping into a pennant race without any time to tweak his mechanics or relocate lost confidence.

And Cain wasn’t THE reason why the Giants lost to the Braves. But he’s making $21 million, or about $1 million less than the other seven Giants who pitched in that game combined. They need him to start earning his massive paychecks between now and the end of September if they want to keep this season going into October. That doesn’t mean he has to be the same guy he was up until his perfect game three years ago, but at the very least he needs to match Jake Peavy’s recent output rather than posting similar numbers to the Giants starters who are currently on the DL.

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