The meaning of Matt Cain

Gwen Knapp on the meaning of Matt Cain's big win Tuesday:

    Nobody looks as great on the mound and as mediocre on paper as the Giants' big right-hander. But Tuesday's win began dismantling the funhouse mirror that routinely distorts his accomplishments.

    Consider his results over the last two starts, games that carried as much weight as any he had pitched in five full seasons in the majors. On his birthday Oct. 1, Cain had a chance to beat the Padres and clinch the National League West. He lasted just four innings, only the second time all season that he hadn't gotten through at least the fifth, and lost 6-4.

    His start in Game 2 of the playoff series with Atlanta yielded a more characteristic Cain disappointment: 6 2/3 innings, seven hits, no earned runs, one unearned and a no-decision in a 5-4 defeat. Great effort, no W. It had become the Cain special, and the explanation for his incongruous career stats: a 57-62 record and an impressive 3.45 ERA.

    Giants fans know all about Cain's misfortunes and respect his refusal to let frustration devour him. But a defeat in Tuesday's playoff game, even if he hadn't taken the loss, would have generated suspicions about his ability to nail down the big win. Instead, he pitched like a champ, reasserting that while Tim Lincecum is the heart of the Giants' rotation, he is the spine.

I'm not sure where to start ...

Matt Cain hasn't had many chances to nail down a big win. He debuted with the Giants in 2005. The club wasn't competitive in 2005. Or 2006, or 2007, or 2008.

In 2009, the Giants did have a shot at the wild card down the stretch, and it's true that Cain did not pitch particularly well. There wasn't any one particularly big game -- the Giants finished four games behind the wild card-winning Rockies -- but he did go 1-4 with a 5.60 ERA in his last five starts.

So maybe that's what we're talking about.

I don't think so, though. I think in this context, "big win" is a stand-in for wins, generally. And it's certainly true that Cain doesn't have as many wins as he should. According to his ERA, anyway.

Over the past five seasons, Cain's adjusted ERA is about 25 percent better than league average. That puts him in a group, roughly speaking, with Felix Hernandez, Roy Oswalt Dan Haren, and Justin Verlander. Here are those five guys, ranked by winning percentage:

.624 Verlander

.604 Oswalt

.578 Hernandez

.577 Haren

.474 Cain

In fact, among the 15 pitchers who have pitched at least 1,000 innings over the past five seasons, Cain is the only one with a losing record.

I don't see any good explanation other than poor luck. Sure, the Giants were a pretty lousy team until last year, but even pitchers on lousy teams will often have winning records when they pitch as well as Cain has pitched. Meanwhile, in 2007 and '08 Cain went 15-30 with ERAs significantly better than average. Sometimes life just isn't fair.

And sometimes it's more than fair. Because for every bit of bad luck Cain has been stuck with, wins-wise, he seems to have been blessed with good luck, ERA-wise.

Matt Cain is not a dominant pitcher. He's pretty good at striking hitters out, and keeping the ball in the park. His control is decent. But he doesn't do anything brilliantly. Verlander, Oswalt, King Felix, Haren ... You know what makes those guys great. Do you know what makes Matt Cain great?

That's a trick question, because he's not great. Cain's got a 3.45 career ERA. But if you look at just the things pitchers are generally able to control, his career ERA should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 (maybe a little lower, maybe a little higher, depending on how you look at these things).

Now, it's tempting to argue that Cain's been "lucky" for enough seasons that he hasn't really been lucky; that we're just not smart enough to figure out why his ERA is consistently lower than we think it should be.

But it seems to be we've got a choice here. We can assume that Cain's got some magical ability to outperform his underlying performance, but "doesn't know how to win" ... Or we can follow the Rule of Parsimony, and assume that Cain just happens to have been quite lucky in one area, and quite unlucky in another.

It's a free country. You choose.