One of the projected major starting pitchers in next winter’s free agent market, Matt Cain removed his name from the list, agreeing to a five-year, $100M extension. Adding this year’s $15M salary, a $5M signing bonus, and a $7.5M buyout (or $21M team option in 2018), he is getting a minimum of $127.5M guaranteed. The worth of this contract will depend greatly on Cain’s ability to continually defy BABIP and HR/FB theories.
At age 27, Cain is squarely in the middle of his peak, meaning there shouldn’t be much of a decline phase during the contract. He has not had any problems with injuries, making at least 30 starts every year since 2005. At 6’3″ and 230 pounds, he has the body type not expected to break down. His 3.35 adjusted ERA is 20% below average, a great value for a starter. These factors make it seem like this is obviously a great deal for the Giants, but as stated above, there are some oddities to sort through first.
Cain’s BABIP has been unbelievably low, at such a level it’s usually called unsustainable. The past three seasons, he’s had a BABIP allowed about 35 points below league average. There have been moderate home/road splits, but even the road values are below average. He has always been a flyball pitcher, though his GB% exceeded his FB% for the first time last year. This would lower his BABIP allowed a bit, but not 35 points. These possible skills have created an 8% difference between his FIP and ERA, though there is no real explanation of such skills.
Even more of an anomaly, Cain’s HR/FB% is extremely low, dropping all the way to 3.7% last year. League average has been right around 10% during his career, and his yearly figures have never exceeded 8.4%. AT&T Park does limit HR to lefties at a fairly significant rate, but his home/road splits have shown nearly no difference lately. Flyball pitchers usually allow a slightly lower HR/FB rate, but much like the BABIP, there is more to this difference. His xFIP has essentially sat right around league average his whole career, while SIERA is only slightly nicer to him.
These are two of the most volatile statistics for pitchers, normally centered near the mean, yet Cain has found a way to lower his “skill level” for these qualities. It is quite the risk to give someone over $100M with such methods, but if it is truly a skill of his, the Giants have made a wise decision.
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