Thursday, November 6, 2008

Razing Cain

My dad and I have an ongoing debate. Or, to be more precise, we have an annual debate that begins around July and proceeds until October. It's started earlier the last couple years because the official starter's gun goes off once the San Francisco Giants surrender for the season.

It goes like this: my dad thinks the Giants should trade Matt Cain and I do not.

The problem is that pops is very smart and an avid baseball fan, but not a fan of one team in particular. It's the product of loving the game, but spending the first 40+ years of his life in St. Louis and the last 20+ in San Francisco. Both strong baseball towns (although SF doesn't get the credit because a lot of the die-hards are priced out of Pac Bell) that pulled his allegiance until they obliterated it.

It's a problem because his background makes him objective and objectivity plus intelligence usually equals an accurate assessment. If that's the case here, Cain would be better off in another uniform.

His argument is that pitching for the no-margin-of-error Orange and Black for too long will do irreparable damage to Cain's approach and psyche. In essence, the team behind him is infecting his career.

That is a truly horrible prospect.

One made all the more horrific because it has happened in the past. How many times do we see a change of scenery revive an otherwise flat-lining career? It doesn't always happen, but it happens enough to seriously consider the idea.

Matt Cain deserves that much.

In a lot of ways, the Big Boy is more freakish than the Freak.

Although Tim Lincecum is actually several months older than Cain, Cain has three years and change in the Show, which is two more than Timmy's got. It might not seem so significant, but it means that Cain debuted at the tender age of 20. He underwent baptism by professional fire right out of high school while the Franchise got to hone his craft against the aluminum bats of college players - more dangerous weapons it is true, but wielded by vastly inferior opponents.

It means that the Franchise got to work on his mental development far from the spotlight of Major League Baseball while Cain was forced (and chose) to work on his in its glare.

It means that Lincecum takes the mound with the same margin for error (virtually zero), but does so with the confidence born of several years of domination.

Matt Cain does not.

And it is that intangible but profound difference that can perhaps account for the enormous difference in numerical performance between the two pitchers despite a similarly dominating arsenal.

For instance, imagine both pitchers facing a hitter's count in the early frames of a game with a dangerous hitter on deck.

Lincecum can draw on an experiential reserve of facing dangerous hitters in college and dominating them. True, that is a far cry from dominating Major Leaguers, but it's funny how effectively and quickly the subconscious can rationalize things to facilitate success. Such instantaneous processing allows Lincecum to take some edge off the pressure and make his pitch.

Even if he fails, the extra years of confidence maturation allow him to continue working under less oppressive circumstances and minimize any subsequent damage. Something evidenced by the astonishing rarity with which the wheels totally come off a Lincecum start.

Now imagine Cain in the same situation.

His experiential reservoir tells him that, if he makes a couple mistakes (like walking this hitter and making a single bad pitch to the guy on deck), he and his team will lose the game. He has no recent history of domination except in high school. He has done so at the pro level in spots - far more frequently than a pitcher of his years should - but he has been inconsistent.

That inconsistency is the only major hole in the dike against debilitating self-doubt, but it is sufficient.

Cain's experience puts an extra edge on the pressure and makes it even more difficult to throw his pitch. The pressure gets exponentially worse as the situation deteriorates.

Yet, more often than not, Cain makes his pitch. More often than not, Cain thrives working without that margin for error. Like I said, his numerical performance doesn't show it, but that is because he faces the above hypothetical every time he takes the mound.

Furthermore, his numbers do show it if you look closely.

In his three years plus seven starts, Matt Cain has compiled a record of 30-43. In 104 starts (105 appearances), he has pitched 654 2/3 innings. Consider what that means. It means the Kid averaged at least six innings per start between the ages of 20 and 23. During the Steroid Era. For a very bad team.

In those 650+ innings, Cain struck out 558 batters while walking 276; almost a perfect 2:1 K to BB ratio. He turned these numbers into an earned run average of 3.74 and a WHIP of 1.277, both substantially better than the league averages over those same years.

Again, from a guy between the ages of 20 and 23. Right out of high school.

Just for good measure, he's done his part to carry on the legacy started by guys like the Caveman and Livan Hernandez. The legacy of stout hurlers who just might yank one out.

The only category that lacks real luster is his winning percentage. That is obviously a factor of his team, considering who he pitches for and his peripherals.

Which brings me full circle because that is what my dad (and others) would point to.

How long before that won-loss record gets inside Matt Cain's head? How long before that winning percentage begins to define him?

I say it never will. I say the Kid is too mentally tough, too much of a psychological horse for that to ever happen.

But I have to consider the possibility if for no other reasons than baseball and Matt Cain deserve better than such a tragic fate. A fate that has befallen others before him.

Cain is a special talent, which is why I am so happy to read that Brian Sabean and the organization consider him untouchable. But it is a talent too special to waste.

Even if it means it has to be realized in another uniform.

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