Forget 2014 — Matt Cain‘s revival tour as the ace of the San Francisco Giants is well underway.
Remember the guy who went into the All-Star break with a dismal 5.06 ERA with 1.18 WHIP that just didn’t seem quite right, despite a .257 BABIP that was a tad lower than his career average? You know, the same guy who started 19 times, but was only as valuable as Chad Gaudin‘s six starts at 0.4 fWAR?
Well, after a roller coaster ride that saw two month of brilliance in May and June sandwiched in between two months to bookend his first half, it seems that the righty may finally be ready to settle down.
In fact, with a 2.34/1.09 ERA/WHIP anf a .226 BAA, he’d be the Giants’ best starter since the All-Star break if it weren’t for some guy named Madison Bumgarner. Including his latest dominating performance on the mound on Wednesday against the New York Mets, the 28-year old has now thrown quality starts in eight out of his last turns.
These aren’t just your vanilla, by-the-book quality turns either. He’s pitched into the seventh inning in all eight, and has allowed more than two runs in just one of them (two times in the last 10 total).
So, what’s been his secret to success?
One quick glance would suggest that he’s made a major adjustment in allowing fewer home runs, doing so at a 0.69 HR/9 rate through 65.1 innings in the second half, including no home runs allowed in his last four. While that certainly helps, it is worth noting that he also didn’t allow a single homer in the month of July, where he was essentially BABIP’d to death at a .353 clip.
No, it’s not as simple as it seems, and one would have to look deeper to see just what adjustments he’s made. While there’s been no substantial change to his velocity or anything like that, he has tweaked his repertoire a fair bit. The usage of his slider (27.9 percent in first half vs. 26.8 in second), curveball (13 vs. 11.6) and changeup (12.2 vs. 9.4) all saw a decrease, while his two-seam fastball usage saw a big spike, going from 7.7 percent to 21.3.
This new mix has actually benefited his off-speed stuff perhaps as a result of opponents getting fewer looks, particularly with his changeup, which has gone from a 0.36 runs below average (per 100 pitches) offering to a 2.47 one. His two-seamer, while still 0.43 runs below average per 100 pitches, is also much improved from the 1.79 in the first half.
On top of changing up what he’s showing opposing batters, Cain has also found more success in going back to his bread and butter — control.
Getting first pitches in at a rate of 52.7 percent in the second half compared to 49.9 percent in the first half, the ace has not only cut down his BB/9 by nearly a full walk from 2.97 to 2.07, but getting ahead of the count more often has also led batters to swing more (48 percent in second half vs. 46.3 in first). More importantly, it’s helping his outside pitches induce more contact (66.2 percent vs. 60.1).
Let’s just put it this way — the fact that his HR/FB rate has dropped from 12.7 to 6.6 percent in the second half is no fluke, as he’s generating popups at a fantastic, team-leading 19.7 percent rate vs. 7.1 in the first half.
Would it have made much of a difference if he’d figured out these adjustments in the first half? Probably not. Given the Giants’ questions marks at the starting rotation looming over the 2014 season, however, that Cain is back in form to take his name off that list couldn’t have come at a better time.