PHOENIX, AZ: Starting pitcher Matt Cain #18 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the Major League Baseball game at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Matt Cain has signed a long-term contract extension with the San Francisco Giants, avoiding free agency. Inspired by this news, we reflect upon a single home run he allowed.
This is not a post about a home run that Matt Cain hit. And, in case you didn't know, Matt Cain has hit a home run. He's actually hit five of them in the major leagues, all since 2007. Matt Cain has taken deep Brandon Backe, Tim Redding, Esmil Rogers, Todd Wellemeyer, and Carlos Zambrano. It's not the greatest group of opposing pitchers, but it's not bad for a pitcher.
This is not a post about a really excellent home run that Matt Cain allowed, either. Here, when we say "outstanding", we're referring to a home run that stands out. "Extraordinary" or "exceptional" would have also worked.
This is a post about the following home run, at least in part. I'll go ahead and embed the MLB.com video:
That's a home run that was hit on June 9, 2009. A decent Giants team was visiting a struggling Diamondbacks team, and Matt Cain took the mound opposite Billy Buckner. This was only a few years ago, but it feels like so much more. The Giants had Randy Winn starting in right, and Fred Lewis starting in left. The Diamondbacks were managed by A.J. Hinch. Aaron Rowand wasn't terrible yet.
In case you're having trouble viewing the video, Cain pitched to Mark Reynolds leading off the bottom of the second. Cain got ahead 0-and-1, then fell behind 2-and-1, and then eventually the count ran full. Cain threw a fastball that Reynolds hit.
Why am I highlighting a home run from June 2009 now, after Matt Cain and the Giants agreed to an extension? Maybe you've picked up on it. Mark Reynolds is a righty, and against Cain on June 9, 2009, he homered to right-center field. That is an opposite-field home run - the only opposite-field home run Matt Cain has allowed.
That's why this home run is outstanding, extraordinary, exceptional. It is the exception to all of the other home runs Matt Cain has allowed, and he has allowed 108 of them. Not counting the playoffs. Counting the playoffs, he has allowed 108 of them. Well, would you look at that?
It's no secret that Matt Cain has been confusing analysts for quite some time. Since 2005, 54 pitchers have thrown at least 1,000 innings. Cain's ERA ranks ninth-best, between Jered Weaver and Cole Hamels. His FIP ranks 15th-best, between Weaver and Chad Billingsley. And his xFIP - that nasty one - ranks 33rd-best, between Kevin Millwood and Aaron Cook. According to some numbers, Matt Cain should allow more homers, and therefore more runs. But he doesn't, and he's been disobeying for long enough that it all seems pretty sustainable.
It's not just a home-ballpark thing, either. Let's look at the 50 pitchers who've thrown at least 500 innings on the road since 2005. Cain's ERA ranks tenth. His FIP ranks 15th. His xFIP ranks 30th. This is just a thing that Matt Cain does, and it's led to countless online investigations. People want to know how Matt Cain can be Matt Cain, instead of somebody markedly worse. Why is he so special?
If somebody's identified the answer or the answers, I wasn't clued in. Or I was clued in and then I forgot because I have the memory of a box of crayons. But Cain's an unusual guy who makes what he does work. It's interesting to note that he's not particularly adept at preventing home runs on pulled batted balls. When righties go to left or lefties go to right, Cain gets killed, like everyone else. Yet Cain has more success when batters go up the middle, and he has tremendous success when batters go the other way.
Combining lefties and righties, Cain's allowed a .236 batting average to the opposite field for his career. The National League average in 2011 was .299. More impressively, the 2011 National League slugging percentage to the opposite field was .431. Cain, for his career, comes in at .320.
With the one home run, by Mark Reynolds on June 9, 2009. One home run, out of 682 balls hit the other way. Zack Greinke's allowed six, which isn't a lot, but which is a lot more. Cole Hamels has allowed 12. Felix Hernandez has allowed eight. Justin Verlander has allowed 15.
Matt Cain hasn't been Matt Cain because he's limited opposite-field home runs. There's more to it than just that. But I think the limited opposite-field home runs are one of the results of whatever it is that Cain's doing right. Cain's kind of baffling, and analysts have yet to figure him out. Analysts also have yet to figure Brian Sabean out. For a number of reasons, Matt Cain fits well where he is.