Barring an in-season extension, San Francisco's Matt Cain is poised to hit free agency after 2012. Cain has tossed over 200 innings in each of the past five years, and his career 125 ERA+ places in the top 10 among starting pitchers with at least 1,000 innings of work since he debuted in 2005. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal argues that Cain's combination of performance, durability and youth makes him a prime candidate to bank the biggest deal ever for a right-handed starter, surpassing the seven-year, $105 million deal Kevin Brown inked with the Dodgers prior to 1999:
Cain, 27, deserves to be among the game’s highest-paid pitchers. The possibility of him accepting the same type of hometown discount that Jered Weaver did last season surely is diminishing, particularly when Cain knows that the next deal for his Giants teammate, right-hander Tim Lincecum, almost certainly will dwarf his own.
The pent-up demand for elite starters is considerable; so few have hit the market in recent seasons. True, high-revenue clubs such as the Phillies, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are hemming and hawing about staying under the luxury-tax threshold. But the combination of labor peace, industry growth and skyrocketing local TV rights fees is increasing the spending power of many clubs.
In any case, the market is changing, and the establishment of a new standard by Cain or some other right-handed starter is overdue.
Aside from Jered Weaver, who took a hometown discount to stay with the Angels, elite righties like Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander signed extensions that will pay them around $20 million per season for what would have been free agent-eligible years. Some might not think of Cain being in that realm, but Felix had a career 125 ERA+ and Verlander a 116 ERA+ when they signed those extensions before the 2010 season. With a longer track record than those two had at the time and a few more years of revenue growth in the game, Cain could reasonably ask for $20+ million per year.
While Cain has consistently had ERA totals well below the league average, he makes some sabermatricians queasy. The reason: a disconnect between his ERA (3.35 career) and what we think his ERA should be based on strikeouts, walks and a normalized home run per fly ball ratio (4.26 xFIP). In fact, no qualified starting pitcher since '05 has a bigger difference between his ERA and xFIP than Cain.
An aspect of Cain's game that explains some of that ERA-peripheral split is his ability to induce pop-ups. Since 2008 (the first year for which we have Pitch F/X data), Cain has gotten the fifth-most pop-ups among starters. Jered Weaver, Ted Lilly, Scott Baker and Bronson Arroyo are the only starters to get opponents to hit the ball up the elevator shaft more often.
Cain gets those pop-ups primarily with his fastball (three-quarters of them), challenging hitters high in the zone with the pitch. Check out his fastball location compared to that of an average righty starter:
Cain has thrown slightly over 46% of his fastballs high in the zone over the past four years, the eighth-highest rate among starters and well above the 35% league average.
Next to strikeouts, pop-ups are a pitcher's best friend. They never leave the yard, and they're automatic outs. Less than two percent of pop-ups put in play turn into hits, so inducing pop-ups can lead to a lower BABIP for a pitcher. Hitters' weak flies on Cain's high heat could partially help explain why he has a career .265 BABIP and a 6.5% home run per fly ball rate, both well below the league average.
After 1,300-plus innings of high-level pitching, it's time to give Cain his due: He's one of the best starters in the game. Rosenthal looks right in saying Cain should top Kevin Brown's pre-millennium mega-deal.