Matt Cain is a .500 pitcher.
Well, just a little better than .500.
If Cain had lost to the Astros Wednesday night in San Francisco, he would have been a .500 pitcher, exactly: 76-76.
But instead he won. I mean, he really won. So now he's 77-75 in his career: .500, give or take.
We think of a .500 pitcher as a sort of plowhorse. Dependable enough, sure. Especially if he's durable. But we certainly don't think of a .500 pitcher as a star. We don't think of .500 pitchers as Cy Young candidates, let alone Hall of Fame candidates. They're just sort of there. You plug them into the No. 3 slot in your rotation and you let them go.
But Matt Cain's been a LOT better than most .500 pitchers. A few rudimentary statistics tell a story of ill fortune ...
- Since 2006, his first full season in the majors, Cain ranks seventh in the majors with 26 Wins Above Replacement;
- among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings over that span, Cain ranks 24th in wins (75) and 34th in winning percentage (.503).
You're supposed to occasionally be particularly unlucky in a season, maybe even two or three seasons in a row. But until this season, Matt Cain had been unlucky in a number of seasons and lucky in none.
Well, it wasn't all bad luck. Some of it was teammates who didn't score runs for him. Is that bad luck? And he's been healthy for his entire career. Is that good luck?
Either way, before this season one could reasonably argue -- as I did, actually -- that Matt Cain ranked among the unluckiest pitchers in major-league history. Before this season, he'd pitched exceptionally well yet was somehow a losing pitcher.
No longer. He's a winning pitcher (if just barely). And he's pitched a perfect game. Can you pitch the 22nd perfect game in major-league history and still be considered among the unluckiest pitchers ever?
You can. You may. You might. I'm just not sure that you should.
For one thing, Cain's come along in an era in which most people are smart enough to look past wins and losses. These days, you don't have to win 20 games to win a Cy Young award. Who knows? Maybe someday a .500 pitcher will get elected to the Hall of Fame. Is that good luck?
Cain's come along in an era in which hitters swing hard all the time, and strike out nearly as often. Is that good luck?
I don't know. But I know you don't pitch a no-hitter without a lot of good luck. I know you don't pitch a perfect game without a LOT of good luck. The Giants have been around for a long time. Before they were the San Francisco Giants, they were the New York Giants, and before they were the New York Giants they were the New York Gothams, going all the way back to 1883.
In all those years, a lot of pitchers could have pitched perfect games. A few of those pitchers were even better than Matt Cain. None of them did it. Matt Cain's lucky, in a number of hard-to-quantify ways. These two things, though, you can see with your own eyes ...
That was in the fourth inning. Maybe it was really foul, or maybe it wasn't. Umpire called it foul, but if he'd called it fair nobody would have complained for long.
And then there was this, in the seventh:
From 2006 through 2011, Matt Cain was among the unluckiest pitchers ever.
But he's been gaining ground all season, and Wednesday night he might have pulled even. Cain still doesn't qualify as a lucky pitcher. Not with his career statistics, and that barely-.500 record. But it's going to be a while until he can complain in good conscience about being unlucky.