After 13 seasons and 3 World Championships, San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain has announced that he will retire at seasons end. In order to provide a proper sendoff, Giants manager Bruce Bochy shifted the pitching rotation and shut ace Madison Bumgarner down for the season, to ensure Cain gets one final start at AT&T Park. Regardless as to how he performs, it will be an emotional afternoon for the players and fans as yet another centerpiece of the Giants historic run, has decided to call it a career.
Over the last 4 seasons, Cain has struggled to recapture the dominance he displayed during the prime years of his career. Since 2014, Cain’s 5.18 ERA is the 2nd worst in all of Major League Baseball, and his 5.66 ERA this season, along with an opponent’s batting average of .316, are also amongst the worst in baseball. With his constant struggles, it has become so easy to forget how good Cain was, and not just during the Giants’ three championship runs. As much as Cain is grouped together with Linecum and Bumgarner because of their successes, the reality is that Cain had already established himself as one of baseball’s best when Linecum arrived in 2008.
From 2005 to 2012, Cain proved to be amongst the most effective and reliable starting pitchers in all of baseball. His 228 starts over that time were the 4th most in all of baseball (behind Dan Haren, Bronson Arroyo, and Justin Verlander), while his 3.31 ERA was also the 4th best amongst starters with at least 1320 innings pitched. Cain went to three All-Star games, received Cy Young votes on three different occasions, and threw the only perfect game in Giants history back in 2012.
As much as I’ll appreciate Cain for his accolades and postseason dominance, what sets him apart (at least in my mind) as one of my all-time favorite Giants was what he did for the franchise when the team was acting as a perennial bottom-feeder in the NL West. Cain’s promotion in 2005 coincided with a 4-year stretch in which the Giants never finished above 3rd place in the division, and compiled a 294-353 record. Cain, however, gave both the Giants and their fan base something to be excited about despite their struggles. And because of that, Cain’s performance metrics were drastically skewed, and significantly misrepresent how good Cain truly has been over the course of his career.
In his first 3 full seasons in the Big Leagues, Cain’s 606 innings were the 18th most in all of baseball (which is amazing in its ownright), and of the 17 pitchers ahead of him, Cain was the only one without a winning record. In fact, Cain’s 42 losses were the 3rd most in all of baseball during that time, an eye-popping statistic when you factor in that he also sported one of the 25 best ERA’s during the same time period. Perhaps the most striking statistic? Since 1995, Matt Cain has received the lowest run support (3.96) of any starting pitcher in baseball with more than 800 innings pitched. Conversely, had Cain received close to the 5+ runs per game that 81 other pitchers received during the same time-period, perhaps Cain’s career numbers would resemble the way he actually performed for the franchise.
Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum will likely get a lions-share of the credit for altering the trajectory of the Giants franchise, and that’s difficult to argue . In my estimation, however, nobody was more important to the Giants turnaround than Cain. Similar to the way Robb Nen sacrificed the backend of his career to pitch in the 2002 World Series, the Giants rode Matt Cain through their darkest days, and is an overriding factor as to why, at the young age of 32, Cain is retiring. Cain never once complained about the losing or poor run-support. Instead he always appeared level-headed, and competed to the best of his ability, regardless as to whether it was as an All-Star game starter or a long-reliever just trying to mop up innings for the betterment of the team.
As has often been my gripe with baseball, numbers rarely tell the whole story, and Matt Cain’s career, more-so than any I’ve ever come across, is indicative of that. When he throws his final pitch on Sunday, he’ll not only be closing the book on his career, he’ll be marking the end of the Giants coming full circle (as he was the only one who went from worst to first). With the future of the franchise now in question, it becomes imperative for the front office to find young talent to take the torch from Cain and ensure that the Giants become competitive once again.