San Francisco Giants and the Matt Cain Dilemma


When the San Francisco Giants were able to add both Matt Cain and Jake Peavy from the disabled list very early in July, it was like a gift from the Baseball Gods. Their rotation was in disarray, and two veterans with strong track records were sure to be able to stabilize things. Peavy has been very solid in his second season in orange and black, but Cain’s performance has left the Giants with a dilemma.

After missing 358 days following surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow and a subsequent forearm strain (plus an ankle surgery thrown in for good measure), Cain returned to the mound on July 2nd against the Marlins. Cain’s pitches have looked good. His breaking balls have sharp movement, his fastball velocity is the same as it was prior to the injuries, and his changeup is still the same good, hard, change-of-pace pitch it’s always been.

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The problem that has arisen with Cain is that he has no idea where those pitches are going. His location, or lack thereof, has been evident since his first game, and it has not improved since. He misses his targets far too often, and a lot of times, the pitch ends up in the middle of the plate before landing in the seats.

The Giants have dealt with pitchers who have suffered from the same affliction. Tim Lincecum became a master of missing his spots in recent years, although his locational issues have been compounded been an extreme dip in velocity. Luckily for Cain, his velocity is still there.

Cain’s problems with the strike zone are understandable. When the bone chips were removed from Cain’s arm, he was given the ability to completely straighten his arm. That means Cain is throwing from a new release point, about an inch or two farther away from his body. Unfortunately, Cain hasn’t been able to adjust completely to that new release point yet.

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The inconsistencies are obvious. In his second start following his return to action, he threw six shutout innings against the New York Mets with seven strikeouts. In his fourth start, he threw six innings of one-run ball against the San Diego Padres to earn a win. Between those starts, he allowed four runs on eight hits in five innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks. In three starts after the San Diego game, he allowed 13 runs in 15 innings.

The disparities aren’t just between starts, but between innings as well. In his sixth start, Cain shut out the Atlanta Braves for five innings, pitching through jams like the Cain of old. But in the sixth inning, he faced four batters, allowing two singles, a three-run home run, and a double before he was pulled.

In his most recent start against the Washington Nationals, he allowed one run, one hit, and one walk in the first four innings, and entered the fifth inning with a big cushion. In the fifth, Cain blew up again, allowing a home run, a double, and a single before recording the first out. With two outs, he placed a first-pitch fastball on a tee to Bryce Harper, who mashed the pitch into the arcade for a three-run homer that made what was once a five-run lead into a single run deficit. Cain didn’t make it out of the fifth.

Manager Bruce Bochy has a feeling that Cain is close to returning to his old form. On Saturday, the day after Cain’s Friday night fifth-inning debacle, Bochy had some encouraging words.

"“Matty last night, I thought he had great stuff. He’s close, I know he’s real close. I think he feels that.”"

But until Cain shows consistency from start to start, and from inning to inning, it’s not easy to run him out to the mound every fifth day. With the Giants locked in a tight race in the National League West, and the August “schedule of doom” in full effect, they can’t afford to be treating these game like Spring Training games for a pitcher.

The Giants’ dilemma will be exacerbated in the next few days, as Mike Leake, the Giants’ major trade deadline acquisition, is scheduled to start on Tuesday in his return from the disabled list. Leake is starting in place of Ryan Vogelsong, who has been quite solid this year as a starter for the Giants. In 18 starts this year, Vogelsong owns a 4.00 ERA, 1.283 WHIP, and .228 opponent batting average.

As of right now, Vogelsong gives the Giants a better chance to win than Cain does. Vogelsong’s numbers are more than solid for a fifth starter, and if Cain continues to travel down his path, Vogelsong would present an adequate fill-in.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman presented an intriguing, albeit unlikely scenario for Cain.

Cain, because he’s never been optioned to the Minor Leagues before, still has options available. If the Giants are so inclined, and Cain is willing to accept (he has the right to refuse an assignment, because of his veteran status), the team could send Cain to the Minor Leagues for a short period, giving him a lesser platform with which to work out his issues while still facing live-game scenarios. It could be thought of as a rehab assignment of sorts, but without the time on the disabled list.

The Giants have already made some tough roster decisions this year, especially with their pitching staff. Lincecum was on his way out of the starting rotation before a line drive off his forearm altered those plans, instead putting him on the disabled list. Tim Hudson has been removed from the rotation twice this year, being placed on the DL both times, and will almost certainly not be a starter when he returns again. He eased the burden regarding those decisions, as he was well on board with putting team first. Vogelsong has bounced back and forth between the rotation and bullpen this year. Travis Ishikawa, Joaquin Arias, and Jean Machi have all been designated this season.

Cain has done a lot for the Giants in the past, but this year, things are different. Cain is not the Cain of old, not yet at least. Could he return to that form? Sure, it’s possible. It’s not a guarantee, however. At some point, the team will have to make a change, if it makes the team better, no matter how much it hurts.

Next: Gregor Blanco Has Earned his Spot