Is Matt Cain His Generation's Bert Blyleven

Last year the San Francisco Giants won their first World Series due largely to extraordinary pitching. The pitching rotation was led by Tim Lincecum, a two time Cy Young Award winner who is also one of the game’s most colorful and recognizable stars. Lincecum did not disappoint in the post-season posting a 4-1 record with a 2.43 ERA and 43 strikeouts against only nine walks. Madison Bumgarner, a twenty year old lefty was almost as good posting a 2-0 record with a 2.18 ERA including eight shutout innings in a hugely important win in game four of the World Series in Texas. A third Giant starter, Matt Cain, who as the longest serving Giant was something of the old man of the staff, although he is actually younger than Lincecum, was as good as any pitcher on the team. Cain started one game in each series, and pitched at least 6.2 innings each time without giving up a single earned run.

It is easy to overlook Cain on a team full of more media friendly pitchers. The Giants best pitcher has the longest hair in the game, has been caught possessing marijuana, can walk on his hands, is a great interview and a natural fit for the Giants’ Northern California fan base, but is not even the being the biggest media star on the pitching staff. That title goes to closer Brian Wilson, he of the beard, sailor suit and spandex tuxedo. The quiet and consistent Cain cannot compete with characters like that.

Cain is, however, an intriguing pitcher from a statistical angle. His career win-loss record is an unimpressive 65-67, but this is largely because during 2007 and 2008, he got very poor run support posting a 15-30 record despite an ERA+ of 120. While Cain has been unlucky in one area, some argue that he has been lucky in others, because he has managed to post a lower ERA than his other numbers, such as walks and strikeouts would suggest. Cain has consistently managed to hold his opponents to a lower BABIP than most pitchers, as when Cain is pitching more batted balls turn into outs than might be generally expected.

Despite competing views of Cain as either unlucky, based on his win loss percentage or lucky based on BABIP when he is pitching, he has been a very good pitcher for several years. Cain has only won 65 games, but by some other measures, he has put together a very strong career and is a potentially interesting Hall of Fame case. Midway through his sixth full season with the Giants, Cain has pitched 1228 innings with 1020 strikeouts and 445 walks. His career ERA+ is 125. Cain is only one of 24 pitchers to have amassed more than 1100 innings, 1000 strikeouts with an ERA+ of 120 or more before turning 27 years old. Cain has handily surpassed these numbers and is likely to run up even higher innings and strikeout totals before turning 27 in October.

Thirteen of these 24 pitchers are members of the Hall of Fame including Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Jim Palmer and Dizzy Dean. Three more of these pitchers, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens are very likely to make it to the Hall of Fame unless, in the case of Clemens, steroids stop him. Three more, Felix Hernandez, Jake Peavy and Carlos Zambrano are still active. The remaining four, Bret Saberhagen, Jim Maloney, Dean Chance and Nap Rucker, were good pitchers but not Hall of Famers. Cain’s presence on this list does not mean that he embarking on a Hall of Fame career, but simply that he has had a similar start to his career to a number of Hall of Famers. If Cain remains healthy and continues to pitch at this level, he will be a viable Hall of Fame candidate when he retires.

Cain is far from the first active pitcher to come to mind when thinking of potential Hall of Famers. CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, even Cain’s teammate Tim Lincecum have more impressive Hall of Fame credentials at this time. Cain is, however, poised to be something like his generation’s Bert Blyleven, who is also one of the 24 pitchers on the list, a favorite of the more quantitatively minded but largely overlooked by most fans.

In the future, those opposing Cain’s candidacy will cite what will likely be a low win total since Cain will probably not get close to 300 wins. Moreover, if Lincecum and Cain stay with San Francisco for at least a few more years, as most Giants fans hope, Cain will have spent his prime years being the second best guy on his own pitching rotation. This will be another argument used against him. Cain has nonetheless gotten his career off to a start where some Hall of Fame credentials are within reach. If Cain has a normal career path, given the first part of his career, he could well retire with more than 2,500 innings pitched, more than 2,500 strikeouts and an ERA+ higher than 120. Those are not numbers that guarantee election to the Hall of Fame, but all pitchers except for four, David Cone, Mike Mussina, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling, who have achieved those milestones are either in the Hall of Fame or almost certain to end up there. There are no guarantees, but if he stays healthy, Cain is on a path to a great career and perhaps an even better Hall of Fame debate.