As we continue our series of Hall of Fame ballot previews with the MLB season shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, we take a look at the career of Matt Cain. Cain was a three-time All-Star who spent his entire career with the Giants, who won three World Series titles during his career.
To view the full series, click here.
Why is he on the ballot?
From his debut in 2005 at age 20 through 2012, Matt Cain had the 15th-best ERA+ in the MLB among pitchers with at least 600 innings pitched at 124. From 2009-2012, he went up to 11th (min. 400 innings) at 129. He was trending up and had just completed his age-27 season. Through ages 25 and 26, Hall of Famer John Smoltz was his most similar player, per Baseball-Reference’s similarity scores.
By 2012, Cain had picked up three All-Star appearances, 1278 strikeouts, 15 complete games (six shutouts including his 2012 perfect game) and had a 3.27 ERA, with a WHIP of 1.173 and just 0.8 HR/9 allowed. That doesn’t even factor in his incredible performance in the 2010 postseason. He made one start each in the NLDS, NLCS and World Series, throwing 6 2/3 innings against Atlanta and allowing just one unearned run and picking up an RBI single at the plate, then throwing seven shutout innings against the Cardinals and 7 2/3 scoreless against the Rangers in the World Series. Choosing between him and Madison Bumgarner, who threw eight shutout innings in his lone start of the WS, for World Series MVP would have been too difficult for voters, so they went with Edgar Renteria, who was the Giants’ best hitter with seven hits and two homers in the series, instead.
Why won’t he make the Hall of Fame?
It was swiftly, steeply downhill for Cain after 2012. From 2005-2012, his ERA+ dipped below 115 just once, in his rookie year in 2006 when it was 108. From 2013-2017, his ERA+ was never over 90. After producing 30.5 pitcher WAR through age 27, he produced -1.2 over the rest of his career. His hitting even got worse, as he produced 0.3 hitter WAR through 2012 followed by -0.5 from 2013-2017. He hit seven home runs in his career, six of which came in the 532 plate appearances he had through 2012, and just one in his final 176.
In 2014, just two years after he was an All-Star and finished sixth in Cy Young voting, Cain was left off the playoff roster by San Fransisco when it won its third World Series in five years. He made just 15 starts that year and had surgery in August to remove bone chips in his elbow. He had just an 83 ERA+ that season, and wouldn’t post an ERA+ over 80 for the rest of his career.
The ineffectiveness came before the injuries in 2014 and 2015, when he made just 11 starts, so it doesn’t seem like the injuries caused his descent. They did prevent him from having a chance at a resurgence in his 30s that many pitchers have proved capable of. Cain burned bright, but the flame caught him and he burned out. His JAWS score of 29.1 sits at just 282nd among starting pitchers.
Up next: Jhonny Peralta.