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The Problem with Matt Cain

So, today's suggestion in the Newberg Report of a possible mid-season trade generated a lot of talk in the comments from this morning's roundup post.  For those who missed it, this is the relevant excerpt from Jamey:

Randy Galloway said on his radio show yesterday that he asked five Rangers officials who the club’s first baseman will be in 2012: Chris Davis or Justin Smoak


According to Galloway, the leading answer: Mitch Moreland.


I have some thoughts on that, but without going into much detail today, the half-baked scenario cooking in my head is that Davis or Smoak gets traded this July, maybe with Derek Holland or Matt Harrison, plus Wilmer Font or Engel Beltre, to the Giants for righthander Matt Cain (who has a $4.25 million salary plus a $6.25 million club option for 2011 that could escalate to $8.15 million) and right-handed corner bat Mark DeRosa (set to earn $12 million in 2010-2011). 

My immediate reaction to that proposal was that I really didn't like it.  $6 million per year for Mark DeRosa to be a 4C guy who gets 200-300 PAs seems very steep, but my main issue, as I expressed in response to some folks in the comments, is that I don't think Matt Cain is good enough to warrant giving up that level of talent.

I was asked why the Matt Cain hate, reminded that there's no guarantee Derek Holland will ever be as good as Cain, etc.  And there was enough talk about this -- and has been enough talk in the past about Cain, a popular message board trade target for Rangers fans -- that I thought it was worth doing a separate post to outline my issues on Cain.

First, let me be clear -- I think Cain is a very good pitcher.  I don't hate Cain, I don't think he sucks, it isn't anything like that.

However, at the same time, I don't think he's the TORP we've been looking for -- he's a solid #2 guy, but not the Roy Halladay-type ace the Rangers have been desiring for so long.  And if we weren't willing to part with Smoak or Holland to get Halladay, I don't see that it would make sense to part with Smoak or Holland (plus other valuable pieces) for a guy who isn't an ace.

Let's look at the numbers.  Cain had a great ERA last season -- 2.89, good for 7th in the N.L.  Even taking into account he's in the N.L., that's impressive.  Given the improvement from his ERAs in previous years, one could assume that Cain had taken a step forward in 2009, had progressed to TORP status.

However...when we look at the peripherals, we see Cain wasn't really much different in 2009 from his prior years.  Matt Cain had a FIP of 3.89 in 2009, 25th in the N.L., behind guys like Randy Wells and Paul Maholm.  He also has a career FIP of 3.89 -- it has never been lower than 3.78 or higher than 4.08.

Cain's K rate and walk rate were both down a little in 2009 from previous years, and his K/BB ratio was a little better, but that was offset by a better home run rate.  His career-low ERA was driven by a .268 BABIP and an 81.6% LOB rate.  Cain's spread between his FIP and ERA in 2009 was the third highest in the N.L.

If we turn to xFIP, Cain looks even worse -- he was 28th in the N.L. in 2009, with an xFIP of 4.22.  xFIP uses flyball percentage rather than home run percentage to calculate expected ERA, and Cain's rate of home runs as a percentage of fly balls was below normal, which drives the xFIP higher.

That being said, I'm not completely sold on the idea that a pitcher's HR/FB percentage is out of his control, and Cain has had lower than normal rates of HR/FB his entire career, with 2009 actually being the highest.  On the other hand, he is a righty flyball pitcher, and TBIA is a park that can really punish those guys...I don't think it is unreasonable to believe that his home run rate would go up significantly if he were pitching half his games in Arlington.

Interestingly, Cain's xFIP of 4.22 is the lowest of his career -- he has a career xFIP of 4.49, and has been in the mid-4s every season other than 2009.

If you prefer tERA, that paints a similar picture as FIP -- a tERA of 4.03 in 2009, and a tERA of 3.92 for his career. 

Cain is a guy who, if you look at the defense-independent pitching data, comes in as a solid #2 or very good #3 starter -- not as a #1.  And if I'm giving up Smoak or Holland plus other significant trade chips, I want a #1.

There is certainly the argument that could be made that Cain is just 25, that he could take the next step and become a #1 starter.  It wouldn't shock me if that happened.  But I certainly have a lot of concerns about giving up the sort of value we're talking about and getting a guy who you hope develops into a #1, versus already being one.  And while Cain is just 25, his performance has been pretty much static for the last four years, suggesting that he may very well already be what he's going to be.  And he put over 800 major league innings over 4 seasons on his arm before turning 25, which on the one hand might point to him being a workhorse, but on the other hand could point to him being a candidate for injury.

And you know, part of the reason that the Matt Cain talk scares me is that I could see the Rangers making a move like that this summer, thinking that Mitch Moreland (who is older than Davis and Smoak, less well regarded defensively at first base than those two, and yet to play above AA) makes those guys expendable and that Cain is someone they could be getting as he's breaking through to ace-ness, that he's a guy that could be that #1 and get them to the post-season.  And that makes me think of Adam Eaton and Brandon McCarthy, two other guys in other systems that this front office went and picked up because they felt the team was a contender and those guys were on the verge of ace-ness.  And even if he does break through, you're talking about someone you only control through 2011 anyway.

So there you have it.  That's my concern, and why I shudder every time someone mentions a blockbuster package for Cain, and have since people first started kicking it around on this site at least 18 months ago. 

It isn't that Cain doesn't have value.  It isn't that he isn't a very good pitcher.  It is that he's probably not as good as he would need to be to warrant giving up the talent we'd have to give up to get him.