As I’m writing this, Matt Moore is getting annihilated by a split-squad White Sox team. Just dismantled. And I don’t care. There’s nothing I can say that will make you care, either. It’s spring. Pitchers are getting their mechanics back and shaking off the rust. The fielders behind him haven’t exactly helped, either. Again, nobody cares. They were also rusty and getting ready for the regular season. Training, if you will.
This is an article about how Matt Cain looked in a spring training start. If you close the tab right now, I wouldn’t blame you.
The results weren’t pretty — five hits and three runs allowed in two innings — but don’t get too wrapped up in that. Focus on how Cain’s pitches looked:
They sorta looked like that. Flat and away from the catcher’s target. Even in the scoreless first inning, the contact was hard and the pitches generally sailed where they weren’t supposed to. Joc Pederson’s double play came on a sub-90 fastball close to the middle of the plate. While we don’t have PITCHf/x data from the game, the broadcast was showing radar-gun readings in the second inning, and Cain’s velocity was in the mid-80s.
Again, that’s not a problem on its own. Madison Bumgarner’s fastball was in the mid-80s in March, 2010, and it was just fine by October, 2010. Just gettin’ warmed up, skip.
My point isn’t to write about Cain being finished, or the fifth starter’s race already being decided, but to remind myself what the Giants should be looking for. Four seasons have passed since the last time Cain was an effective starting. Four full seasons, most of them marred by injuries. That’s a long time. His contract has given him several chances, sure, but so has his All-Star past. If a fluffy Bartolo Colon can come back in his late-30s, why not give Cain a few shots to prove his health was the real problem?
At the start of year five, though, the Giants can’t fall back on the it’s-spring excuse. It worked for Bumgarner last spring, and it’ll work for him again this spring. Why is that okay for him? Because he has a extended and recent history of excellence. Pitchers who were recently excellent aren’t usually under intense spring scrutiny.
With Cain, though, we’re way, way, way past that point. What the Giants should be looking for are positive signs, plural. It can’t be about just velocity, and it can’t be about just results. There has to be a pattern of encouraging developments that are so overwhelming, they call the reliability of using 2013-2016 stats into question. For Matt Cain to make a rotation in 2017, he has to pitch so well, it makes sense to use that pitching as the primary evidence.
An example of this would be Ryan Vogelsong in 2011. There was no reason he should have been given an NRI, much less kept around in the event of a rotation need. But his pitching in the Cactus League supported the idea that he was better than his Triple-A stats indicated. Something had changed. The guy with the cutter and command was more important than the other guy with bad stats. Don’t know what that guy’s problem was, but this guy is rad now.
One of the most extreme cases of this was Joe Nathan in 2003. His minor-league stats were unspeakably terrible for two seasons. Then he showed up in the spring and looked like a guy who might rank in the top 10 on the all-time saves leaderboard one day. He made the team. He overcame his personal history and all reasonable expectations, and he did it by pitching well.
So far this spring? Matt Cain has not done that. On Thursday, he did the exact opposite of that, looking even worse than he did last season. That’s fine. It’s early.
But it doesn’t help that in the same game, Ty Blach looked like someone ready to flummox major league hitters. He struck out a pair in two perfect innings, and he wasn’t missing a lot of his targets.
It’s early it’s spring it’s spring and it’s early hey have we talked about it being early in the spring no well let me just point out that it’s early in the spring.
But if Matt Cain is going to be the fifth starter, he should have to prove that he’s a better pitcher than he’s been since Matt Holliday slid into Marco Scutaro. So far, he hasn’t done that. If anything, he should have to prove himself even more, now that he has two additional poor starts to add to the evidence from the previous four years.
It bugs me to talk about Cain in these terms — like a journeyman veteran on his fourth team in four years, trying to make a roster — too. This is a former postseason and franchise hero, and he’s scrapping for a fifth-starter’s gig like a schlub. That stinks, and I hate it.
But when a pitcher hasn’t been effective in four seasons, the burden of proof is on him. Last night, the dog ate his fastball. There’s still time. Hopefully, though, the Giants didn’t already make up their minds about the bottom of the 2017 rotation, because it seems like they’ll want to keep an open mind.