What Happened to Matt Cain?

At the end of the 2012 season Matt Cain looked like he was on the verge of great things.  He’d gone 16-5 that year at age 27, won his second World Series ring and pitched a perfect game, one of the best pitched games in MLB history.  At that point, Cain’s future indeed looked bright, as he was only at what we typically think of as the mid-point of his career.

Since then, Cain has pitched as badly or worse than he’s pitched at any time prior in his now long major league career.  What happened?

Most likely, the answer has something to do with all the innings he threw through the 2012 season.  At that point, he’d thrown 200 or more innings in a season six consecutive times and at least 215 innings in five consecutive seasons.  A lot of those innings were before he turned age 25.

However, his fastball is the same, on average, the last year plus as it was from 2010 through 2012.  The main difference in his pitching since 2012, at least on paper, is the number of home runs he’s allowed.  He allowed 23 dingers, a career high, last season in only 184.1 innings pitched.  This year, he’s allowed 11 HRs in 69.2 innings pitched as I write this (he’s pitching tonight and is likely to got out for at least one more inning).

Cain’s hit and walk rates are also up slightly, and his strike out rate is down somewhat, but the home runs are really the biggest difference.  The numbers as a whole suggest that some of what Cain is going through could be just an extended run of statistical variation.  However, I feel something has definitely changed, and I would chalk it up to all the innings he’s thrown in his major league career, not entirely different from what we are seeing now from Tim Lincecum and Justin Verlander, who are admittedly older and have seen their average fastball speeds drop significantly since they were dominating.

For what it’s worth, all three pitchers are throwing a lot more sliders now than they did when they were dominating, but it’s hard to know if that is a cause or an effect of their decreasing performance.  I also don’t know whether all pitchers as a group in today’s game tend to throw more sliders as they get older.

I do wonder whether Clayton Kershaw is going to be an ace for many more seasons.  He really soaked up the innings from 2010 through 2013, and he missed the month of April this year with shoulder problems.  Kershaw is also throwing more sliders than he has in past seasons, but it’s always been a major pitch for him, unlike the others mentioned above.

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