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Entries in San Francisco Giants (49)

Thursday
Apr192012

Lee v. Cain

At minimum, Philly's Cliff Lee and San Francisco's Matt Cain will pull down nearly $250 million combined between now and 2018. Last night, they showed why. Lee became the first pitcher since Aaron Harang (2007) to last 10 innings, holding the Giants scoreless while whiffing seven, walking none and giving up seven hits. Cain punched out four and walked one in nine innings, allowing just two hits. 

While neither pitcher got the W he so richly deserved, Lee and Cain both produced one of the top five pitching performances of the year so far as judged by Game Score:

Highest Game Scores for starting pitchers, 2012

RkPlayerDateTmOppRsltApp,DecGSc
1 Matt Cain 4/13/2012 SFG PIT W 5-0 SHO9 ,W 96
2 Edwin Jackson 4/14/2012 WSN CIN W 4-1 CG 9 ,W 87
3 Chad Billingsley 4/6/2012 LAD SDP W 6-0 GS-9 ,W 87
4 Matt Cain 4/18/2012 SFG PHI W 1-0 GS-9 86
5 Cliff Lee 4/18/2012 PHI SFG L 0-1 GS-10 85
6 Matt Garza 4/12/2012 CHC MIL W 8-0 GS-9 ,W 85
7 Jered Weaver 4/6/2012 LAA KCR W 5-0 GS-8 ,W 84
8 Justin Verlander 4/5/2012 DET BOS W 3-2 GS-8 84
9 Barry Zito 4/9/2012 SFG COL W 7-0 SHO9 ,W 83
10 Roy Halladay 4/5/2012 PHI PIT W 1-0 GS-8 ,W 83

Source: Baseball-Reference

Lee (79 percent) and Cain (70) each surpassed the 70 percent strike mark, but they did it with contrasting styles. Lee peppered the strike zone while getting lots of ground balls. Cain, meanwhile, relied on jumpy Phillies hitting weak fly balls.

No starter has placed more pitches in the strike zone than Lee during the Pitch F/X era, and last night was no exception. Lee tossed 59 of his 102 pitches (58 percent) over the plate against San Francisco, never reaching a three-ball count while staying low and away against a lineup featuring seven hitters swinging from the right side:

Lee's pitch location vs. San Francisco, 4/18/12

Lee's "pound the knees" approach produced 18 grounders, compared to five fly balls. While Lee stayed low and in the zone, Cain often threw out off the plate to a Philly lineup with six lefty swingers:

Cain's pitch location vs. Philadelphia, 4/18/12

Only 36 of Cain's 91 pitches (40 percent) were in the zone. But Philly hitters chased 43 percent of his out-of-zone stuff. Unlike Lee, Cain took to the air with a 7-to-16 ground ball-to-fly-ball ratio.

Two aces, 19 combined scoreless frames and not a single pitch topping 92 mph on the radar gun. Lee and Cain showed different ways to dominate without elite velocity. We might not see a better duel all season long.

Monday
Mar122012

Cain Able to Induce Pop-Ups

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's fastball location, 2008-12

Fastball location for right-handed starters, 2008-12

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.

Friday
Feb242012

Lincecum Looking For More Strikes With Fastball

While he remains an utterly dominant starter, Tim Lincecum's control has slipped in recent years. The two-time Cy Young Award winner walked 7.5% of the batters he faced in 2009, 8.5% in 2010 and 9.6% this past year. To reverse that trend, The Freak is looking for more strikes with his fastball:

"I want to throw more strike ones," Lincecum said. "I want to get back to using my fastball to control the strike zone."

Lincecum said he will only throw fastballs and change-ups during his sessions "until I get my arm speed up to where it needs to be."

Over the past three years, Lincecum has thrown fewer fastballs in the strike zone. As a result, his strike percentage with the pitch has dropped to a few ticks below the big league average for starting pitchers:

YearPct. In Strike ZoneStrike Pct.
2009 53.5 64.4
2010 51.6 63.8
2011 49.4 62.7
2009-11 Avg. for SP 51.5 64.3

 

The changes are even more dramatic to start off the at-bat. His first-pitch strike rate with the fastball has slumped from 59% in 2009 down to 53% in 2011, well below the 61% average for starters. The right-hander has gradually missed more to the arm side with his heater. Take a look at the frequency of Lincecum's fastball location in 2009, 2010 and 2011:

Frequency of Lincecum's fastball location, 2009

Frequency of Lincecum's fastball location, 2010

Frequency of Lincecum's fastball location, 2011

Lincecum's strike rate on fastballs thrown to the arm-side (the outer third to left-handed hitters, and inside to righties)  has dropped from 60% in 2009 to 57% in 2010 and 56% in 2011. The average for righty starting pitchers is about 62%.

The 27-year-old's small stature, heavy workload and three-year increase in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.34 in 2009, 3.15 in 2010 and 3.17 in 2011) has some worried as Lincecum inches closer to free agency after the 2013 season. But, despite his issues with fastball control, it's important to remember that Lincecum's "decline" has taken him from best pitcher in baseball to merely among the game's greatest (his 2011 FIP was still in the top 20 among qualified starters). In other words, don't freak about The Freak.

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