In three seasons from 2009-2011, Matt Cain was a great fantasy option for his perennially low ERA and WHIP. Unfortunately, his strikeout totals were lacking and kept him from being an SP1 in all but the deepest fantasy leagues.
That changed last year as Cain’s Ks finally made the leap. From 2009-2011, those three great years I mentioned in the first paragraph, Cain’s best K/9 was 7.27 (2011) which led to a a three-year-high of 179 strikeouts. Last season his strikeout rate rose to 7.92 K/9 yielding 193 strikeouts.
Well as usual, these sort of spikes don’t come out of nowhere. According to PitchF/X data provided by Fangraphs.com, Cain has rapidly decreased his four-seamer usage over the last three seasons, which coincides with increases in his strikeout rate (see the table below). In its place Cain has featured some more two-seamers and a lot more sliders.
In particular, BrooksBaseball.net tells us that this increased slider usage has come almost primarily with two strikes. In 2011 Cain used his slider 12% of the time he had two strikes on a left-handed batter. In 2012 that rate jumped to 28%. Is it surprising that Cain’s strikeout rate versus left-handed batters jumped last year from 7.02 K/9 in 2011 to 8.55 K/9 in 2012?
Assuming he approaches batters the same way this year, we should see similar results.
At a Glance
- Strengths: W, K, ERA, WHIP, QS, IP
- Neutral: L
- Weaknesses: none
- Best-case scenario: David Price (TB)
- Likely scenario: Cliff Lee (PHI), Madison Bumgarner (SF), Felix Hernandez (SEA)
- Worst-case scenario: Mat Latos (CIN)
Matt Cain 2013 Fantasy Projection
There’s no mystery when it comes to Cain’s ERA and WHIP. He’s among the best in these areas, and while some pitchers that rank right around Cain (Felix Hernandez, David Price) will certainly strike out more batters, they’ll do it primarily at the expense of their WHIP.
Now that Cain has closed the strikeout gap, he can be viewed as a legitimate ace. It’s also possible that the slight decrease in strikeout rate that we project in 2013 (down to 7.69 K/9) is too pessimistic, and if that’s the case Cain could look a lot more like a top-five option, similar to last season when he ranked 32nd overall.
Will the 16 wins he tallied last year carry over? That’s a lot harder to project. Despite the improvements that the Dodgers have made, I still think the Giants are the best team in the NL West. With an offense that now boasts the ability to pile on runs versus score just enough to help their elite pitching staff, a run at 18 wins isn’t out of the question. We projected 17, but even if Cain falls short of that mark anything less than 15 or 16 would seriously surprise me.