Matt Cain, Thy Name Is Unlucky

WASHINGTON - JULY 09: Matt Cain #18 of the San Francisco Giants reacts after giving up a home run in the seventh inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on July 9 2010 in Washington DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Thursday afternoon, it almost happened again.

One medium-depth fly ball, just one measly can of corn, and it would have happened again. Matt Cain would have been deprived of yet another victory that should, by all rights, have been his.

The details, briefly ...

Thursday afternoon in San Francisco, Matt Cain carried a 3-0 shutout into the top of the eighth inning. He got a couple of quick outs, but two singles followed and Cain was lifted from the game in favor of lefty reliever Jeremy Affeldt, who gave up an RBI single and was lifted in favor of Ramon Ramirez, who gave up another RBI single before finally escaping the inning. Cain still was in line for the win.

The Giants threatened in the bottom of the eighth, but couldn't add any insurance. Given that paltry 3-2 lead, the top of the ninth usually would have meant closer Brian Wilson, but he'd worked in four straight games and wasn't available. Instead, Sergio Romo trotted in from the bullpen, then trotted to the dugout after allowing a leadoff single to Ryan Roberts. Next up: Javier Lopez, who first induced a routine fly ball and second induced a ground ball that squirted through the infield and sent Roberts scooting to third base.

And there it was. One out, first and third, and just a little fly ball would have scored Roberts and stuck Matt Cain with a no-decision. Again.

In the event, Lopez struck out the next two batters and Cain got the W he so richly deserved. But far, far too many times it hasn't gone that way.

A casual fan, even a casual Giants fan, might be surprised by this fact: Matt Cain, a good pitcher for a number of years now, is a losing pitcher: 60-64. He's never won more than 14 games in one season. In 2007 and '8, he won 15 games and lost 30.

Snakebit? Yeah, maybe just a little. But it's not until we look at the numbers that we really just how unlucky Cain has been.

First, let's set our parameters. Cain has started 178 games in the majors, and his ERA+ is 126. Just so you know, 126 is outstanding; there are many Hall of Fame pitchers who can't match that figure. Obviously, Cain's winning percentage is slightly worse than .500.

So let's see how many pitchers we can find with a similar combination of starts, ERA+ and winning percentage. We want to cast a wide net, so I searched for post-World War II pitchers with at least 150 starts and a winning percentage lower than .510, and sorted by ERA+.

Care to guess who sits atop that list?

Yeah. Matthew Thomas Cain. And in terms of ERA+, nobody's close to him.

The nearest are Frank Sullivan and Zack Greinke.

Sullivan (1953-1963) was a huge power pitcher who finished his career with 219 starts, a 97-100 record, and a 116 ERA+.

Greinke, you know; he's made 171 starts, and is 61-68 with a 116 ERA+.

Taking another run at this question ... There are 30 postwar pitchers with at least 150 starts and an ERA+ between 120 and 130 (inclusive). Matt Cain is the only one of the 30 with a losing record. Ewell Blackwell is the only other pitcher in the group with a winning percentage lower than .550.

All of which is largely a fluke, and Cain's luck is bound to change if he keeps pitching so well. What makes this particularly interesting is that any number of analysts -- including this one, I suspect -- have actually labeled Cain as a particularly lucky pitcher, because his "peripheral" statistics have never seemed to quite match his fine ERAs.

Specifically, Cain's career ERA is 3.44, his career FIP is 3.83 and (most damning) his career xFIP is 4.33.

That last number is so high, relative to Cain's ERA, because he's either been exceptionally lucky or exceptionally good when it's come to fly balls becoming outs rather than home runs.

That's an argument for another day, though. Purely in terms of wins and losses and earned-run average, Matt Cain ranks as one of the unluckiest pitchers of this or any other time.

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