Clayton Kershaw

Matt Cain wins again, looks like a legit Cy Young contender

This afternoon’s 8-3 win in San Diego wasn’t pretty. But thanks to a bouquet of defensive errors and his ability to overcome, Matt Cain’s line was. 7 innings, 9 strikeouts, 1 walk, 7 hits, no earned runs. That lowered his ERA to 2.41 (7th in the National League) and raised his WHIP to 0.94 — which still leads the NL. Since the Giants hit home runs (whaaaa?) and scored a mess of runs, Cain’s record is now 7-2.

Why mention these things? Because Cain isn’t just two months into his best season, both financially and statistically, he’s also in the top tier when it comes to the pitching triple crown (he’s also third in the NL in strikeouts, with 82). WHIP isn’t part of  the traditional triple crown — but while the kids are buzzing about FIP, it’s WHIP that warms the hearts of many Cy Young voters.

There’s almost 2/3 of a baseball season left, but right now Cain looks to have a great opportunity to go from a first time All-Star in 2011 to a first time Cy Young winner in 2012.

Not a great year for past (NL) Cy Young winners

Roy Halladay’s shoulder injury means he’s out of the running this year. So is Tim Lincecum. Clayton Kershaw’s had a nice year, but not quite to the standard he set in ’11 (plus, he’s dealing with what sounds like a pretty painful case of plantar fasciitis).

However, a pair of pitchers who’ve won the award in the American League are doing quite well. Zack Greinke is leading the NL in Fangraphs WAR (fWAR). Johan Santana’s having a fantastic year and pitched the first no-hitter in New York Mets history.

Cain’s a name brand pitcher now

After a brilliant postseason where he didn’t allow an earned run, plus a headline-grabbing contract extension 17 months later, Cain is now perceived to be an upper echelon guy. The fortune isn’t necessary, but a pitcher needs a little fame to win a Cy Young. Cain drew notice with his near perfect game against Pittsburgh in the Giants’ home opener (his first start after the contract), followed by the 9 shutout innings he threw in his next start against Cliff Lee. A few more signature outings like that and Cain will be in the fronts of voters’ minds after the season ends.

The Giants are playing pretty well these days

Even with a comically bad defense, the Giants are second in the Majors in wins and seem to be hitting their stride. The offense, even with their faults, is far better than last year’s. The bullpen isn’t perfect, but it’s plenty good enough. The Padres are already done worrying about this season, and the Rockies don’t look far behind in that respect. With an extra Wild Card spot available, it looks pretty likely that the Giants will find themselves playing in important games for a good percentage of this season, if not to the very end.

There’s a reason why Cain can compete with anyone

— Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have the same numbers Cain does, but they also have the same numbers as each other and play for the same team. There’s a good chance they could split the vote if their seasons continue on like this.

— Brandon Beachy doesn’t strike out as many guys. Same with Johnny Cueto.

— James McDonald’s stuff was never a question, but he’s never been thought of as an elite pitcher. Plus, he’s in Pittsburgh.

— Lance Lynn’s team (the St. Louis Cardinals) only helps his cause, but like McDonald he may not have enough of a track record.

— Cole Hamels, for now, is playing on a losing team (as is Greinke).

— Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Santana don’t have the wins, at least not at this point.

It’s far too early and anything can happen (including to Cain), but early on it appears Cain’s chief competition for the award may come from New York. Not Santana, either. R.A. Dickey, the knuckleballer, is in the right town, has a great story and leads the NL in wins with 9. As much as you may think wins are completely irrelevant, there’s still a strong contingent of people who disagree … and many have votes.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves

This is all just talk, of course. One of the other previously mentioned pitchers (or someone I didn’t even mention) could separate himself from everyone. Cain could finish 8-15 with a 2.54 ERA. One never knows with these things. But as of right now, Cain has a good shot to win an award that would’ve probably guaranteed him about a $200 million contract from the New York Yankees if Cain had kept his options open at the end of this season. But he didn’t, and the Giants look pretty smart right now for signing him to the biggest contract for a right-handed starter in MLB history. We’ll see if they look like geniuses after this season.

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