Matt Cain GiantsIf there was one thing you could count on coming out of Spring Training, it was Matt Cain pitching like Matt Cain. He’s been the most consistent pitcher the San Francisco Giants could ever dream of having since his arrival as a 20-year-old fireballer back in 2005. The Giants haven’t always supported Cain with a fair number of runs, but Cain has always done his job.

That is, until lately. The Giants have now lost four straight Cain starts. Two of those starts were pretty darned good, and two were not good. Today’s start against the Milwaukee Brewers was the worst Cain has pitched in who knows how long. Based on how he looked in Arizona, I would’ve assumed that the most earned runs he would have given up through his first four starts would be around seven, and now he’s allowed at least that many in two different starts. He allowed five home runs in the Giants’ recently concluded road trip, which started out weird and fun and ended with a thud.

It doesn’t help that the only guy currently hitting is Brandon Crawford — another reminder that it’s just April. But anyone who knows how to access a Baseball Reference or Fangraphs page could have predicted that the Giants would be hard-pressed to hit balls over the fence this season. This whole Cain thing, even with the small sample size involved, is a tad unsettling.

Cain had a tremendous 2012 season after signing a massive five-year contract extension, coming through with a career-high 3.78 SO/BB ratio during the regular season and logging 249.1 innings including postseason play. He pitched a perfect game, and his win/loss record of 16-5 actually seemed like an accurate depiction of his contributions for once.

I wondered if all those innings may finally be taking their toll, but Cain hasn’t lost anything in terms of velocity this season. In 2012, Cain averaged these speeds according to Brooks Baseball.

  • Fourseam: 91.84 mph
  • Sinker: 91.33 mph
  • Slider: 86.83 mph
  • Curveball: 78.50 mph
  • Changeup: 86.29 mph

2013 (not including today’s start):

  • Fourseam: 91.15 mph
  • Sinker: 91.65 mph
  • Slider: 86.28 mph
  • Curveball: 79.52 mph
  • Changeup: 85.75 mph

This is good news for Cain and the Giants. Tim Lincecum’s dip in velocity — along with an inability to command his pitches, especially the fastball — has led to a sustained and correlating dip in production. Cain’s problem isn’t adjusting to a different, lesser arsenal. He simply seems to be making location mistakes with irregular regularity, at least for him. Madison Bumgarner struggled with a mechanical flaw near the end of last year that led to poor results, and once that was cleaned up everything went back to normal (which in Bumgarner’s case means generally outstanding).

Mike Krukow knows infinitely more about pitching than I do, and after today’s game he mentioned a few problems he noticed from Cain during today’s 7-2 loss: his breaking balls didn’t have much life (he called them “lazy”), he left the ball up too often and, perhaps most surprisingly, Cain’s concentration was poor.

That’s not something Cain will want his name attached to, losing focus on the field during a game that followed two consecutive losses for his team. However, mind fatigue in April is better than arm weariness at any time — especially for a pitcher like Cain, who’s never been confused with a flake like Jonathan Sanchez.

Cain has surrendered a nine-run inning and five home runs over his last two starts, and that alone should be enough to snap him out of the mental malaise Krukow referred to. I’m sure the lapse in concentration — if it even existed — wasn’t due to Cain thinking about delicious kringles he could be eating after the game or the flight back home to San Francisco. My uneducated guess: he knows his mechanics are off, so his mind is racing during the game and each pitch. In other words: all the pitchers on the staff fixate on getting into a good “rhythm,” and right now Cain is Elaine Benes. That’s a problem. The answer, for now, is for Cain to watch some video, work with Dave Righetti and get back to looking good on the mound by the time his next start rolls around.