Let me tell you a story about the invisible man, an invisible man that has it all. This is a guy that’s been to the mountain tops of the game, both early and late, yet somehow he still slides beneath the radar. No matter what he does, no matter how big of a boom he makes, it never seems to register. Maybe that will change with his latest feat, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow it doesn’t…because he’s invisible, you know? Well no matter if you can’t see or speak to it or not, let me at least make the plea here for the best pitcher nobody acknowledges. Let me speak on behalf of Matt Cain.
See, last night he threw the 22nd perfect game in baseball’s 150+ year history, so that will get the wagon rolling about how great he was. The problem is how great he’s been the entire time he’s been in the game has been next to ignored. How does this happen? How can somebody with such a rare combination of talents and accomplishments be so easily ignored? Let’s play a bit of “Where’s Waldo” here and sort out why a lot of folks need to get on the horn with their optometrists immediately.
Who is he? He’s in his 8th season, working on his third All-Star game in the last four years. His rookie year he had a run of 42 inning pitched while giving up only one run, good for a 0.21 ERA. He’s the same guy that already notched a one-hitter this year, as well as a two-hitter in a nine-inning no decision. That’s alright I suppose, but there’s more…
Is it where he plays? Cain is a West Coast lifer as a San Francisco Giant, and it is harder to see him work his craft when he’s doing it so late for the majority of the country. However, it still is a team that is only two years removed from being World Series champions. A World Series that capped a postseason where he forgot to let anybody score on him at all. In his just over 21 innings pitched, he posted two wins and a 0.00 ERA. So that can’t be it…
Is it who’s around him? Now we may be getting somewhere. For much of his career he’s pitched just behind two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum and in front of one-time Cy winner Barry Zito. Lincecum soaks up the sun because he’s a physical freak of the dominant variety. Zito, on the other hand, soaks up the shade because of his huge contract and often repulsive numbers he puts up in return. However, once again, in the middle of it all is Cain, who’s posted a career ERA of just 0.14 points higher than Lincecum. Add in All-Personality Team captain Brian Wilson, and more importantly perhaps, his beard, and you’ve got a man that’s officially lost in the shuffle of more famous friends.
So why isn’t he shining? It could be because he just doesn’t win much. His career high in wins in one season is 14; we’ve seen guys do that in one half before. He’s also never topped 200 strikeouts in one year. And as for the biggest sore point: he’s only won 1 more game in his career than he’s lost. How terrible is that? Why would the Giants give him the biggest contract ever to a right-handed pitcher for “just” being one game over .500 in his eight-year career? Yet nobody saw this as a bad deal, and it was even seen as the better signing between him and Lincecum?
Well, there’s more than meets the eye here, as he is a victim of more circumstances than one man should have to be. Nobody’s done more that has less to do with him than Cain. But in the process he’s proven that one particular stat that is preyed upon, wins, doesn’t mean as much as it would lead you to believe in measuring the value of a pitcher. For his career, he’s received just over three runs of support from his lineup when he’s started, by far the worst number in the game. That’s beyond wasteful; it’s equivalent to landing Scarlett Johansson’s number and not using it. So despite being one of the most effective pitchers in the game for over half a decade, he’s gotten a historically low amount of support to actually show that he is.
The second half of last season is a perfect sample of what he has had to deal with. He posted a 2.39 ERA after the All-Star break, but due to a nearly sterile amount of run support, he was only able to win 3 games, raising his total to 12 on the year. For a frame of reference, Justin Verlander’s ERA was 2.79, but he won 9 more games. The moral of the story: results are important, point of reference more so perhaps.
So while we are clearly focusing on the big names of the game, the Verlander's, Kershaw's, Sabathia’s, Halladay’s and even Lincecum’s, there’s someone just as, if not more impressive going on right in front of our eyes in San Francisco. There’s a guy that’s got it all: a ring, perfect game and quality attendance on the mound, a few All-Star nods, $112 million reward for it all, and now on top of it all. Let the brief torch of his most recent highlight pass and you forget again. Matt Cain is the real damn deal and it’s not breaking news. He’s been here, and it deserves to observed.
I'm a firm believer that the closest I've gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I'll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and 'Live From The Cheap Seats'.