A Conversation About Matt Cain

After my initial post on Matt Cain‘s HR/FB rate last week, Rory Paap responded with his own thoughts at his blog. We ended up trading emails about the subject, and the result was 3,000 words and the observation that inspired my post this afternoon. We figured you guys might also be interested in the rest of the discussion as well, so I’m posting the relevant parts here.

DC: What is Cain doing to cause his low HR/FB rate? Location, movement or something else?

RP: The honest answer here is: I have no idea. I suspect it has something to do with his fastball, being that’s the pitch he leans heavily on, but I’m not sure. It seems intuitive, to me at least, that the way his fastball moves could be a factor. Perhaps it’s the fact that it sinks less than as expected, as Dave has hypothesized. I also think there’s a strong possibility he’s very good at placing a high fastball where he wants to in the strike zone. I think if anyone knew for sure what he was doing specifically, we’d probably not be having this discussion.

DC: Let me rephrase the question a little bit, then. Do you think anyone – Cain and the Giants coaching staff included – know what he’s doing to cause this? Is it just us as outsiders who aren’t in on the secret, or do you think this is something that everyone is still trying to wrap their head around?

RP: I wouldn’t guess that either the Giants or the Giants’ coaching staff have some insider knowledge on what he’s doing to be successful, but I might be wrong in saying that.

DC: FYI, I ran some numbers tonight after sending this email, and found some interesting things.

Since 2002, the Giants have had 23 right-handed pitchers appear in both home and road games for them (a couple just pitched a few innings in one or the other). For those 23 RHPs, their HR/FB rate at home was 8.1%, way below league average. This is what I was expecting to find, and was thinking it might be evidence of a more-significant-than-we-think park factor.

Then I looked at the road HR/FB rate for those same 23 pitchers. Nine percent. Err, so much for the park factor idea.

So, now, I’m thinking we might be missing an organization factor, not a park factor. Do you know of any articles that have been written about Dave Righetti‘s coaching philosophies? Maybe I should see if I can get him to come to our little Arizona shindig. He might be the most interesting guest on the planet right now…

RP: I’d already looked at Schmidt after your response, only to learn he’d been better away than at home at limiting home runs. I was going to look at more of them, but you beat me to it. Perhaps there is something to an organizational philosophy. I do have one guess, but it’s not much. The Giants’ pitchers don’t tend to give in. Wilson, for example, has said on numerous occasions that he’d rather walk a guy than give in. He lives on the corners, but he rarely gives up long balls. He won’t pipe a pitch for fear of walking a guy. Is that his philosophy, or is he channeling Raggs? It’s an interesting question. But I also thought… the Giants pretty much lead the league (were Cubs first?) in walks last year. Could they be trading walks for long balls? Could be. I think they are pretty consistently among the leaders in walks, every year.

DC: You mentioned Cain’s low HR/FB rate and low BABiP are caused by – at least partially – a low IFFB rate. Removing 184 IFFB since 2005, his HR/FB rate is still 8.0%, so that’s not the primary driver of low HR totals. Does this make you less inclined to believe Pinto’s theory, or is there interpretation for this theory that I’m not really grasping?

RP: I agree that his high IFFB% is not the primary driver for his low BABiP and HR/FB rate. That said, while 1% is not huge, it isn’t insignificant. It has to be helping, right? It’s not driving it, but it’s probably a symptom. Can you tell me how well IFFB% correlates with a low HR/FB rate? Because as I look across the top-10 in this category since 2002, 9 of 10 pitchers have a HR/FB rate at or below the average HR/FB rate. The 10th is right there, 10.9%, just above league average.

DC: There is some correlation between IFFB% and HR/FB rate (-0.26, so the r^2 would only be .07, meaning that infield fly rate would explain seven percent of the variation in HR/FB rate), but the real correlation for infield fly rate is overall fly ball percentage. The correlation between IFFB% and FB% is .63 – much, much higher. We know that fly ball pitchers, in general, post lower HR/FB rates than ground ball pitchers, so the correlation between IFFB% and HR/FB rate could just be picking up on that effect. Essentially, we’re left with questions of causality – do the infield flies cause the lower home run rate, or does being a fly ball pitcher cause the lower home run rate and a higher infield fly rate? The latter seems more likely from the data, but it’s not entirely conclusive.

RP: Thanks for looking into this, and of course it makes sense the fly ball pitchers have higher infield fly rates. It will be difficult to separate what is causing what. I just found it interesting (and I probably didn’t look at ENOUGH data), that those pitchers who were fly ball pitchers and had the HIGHEST IFFB% tended to sustain their HR/FB rate better. Zito, Cain, etc. Where the players who did a better job at keeping the ball on the ground (Oswalt), had lower IFFB% and had more difficulty sustaining a low HR/FB rate.

DC: You had two problems with my sample: advancing age that could lead to decline of what was once a skill, and in a few cases, extenuating circumstances that Cain is likely not to have to deal with. What specific skill is set to erode as pitcher ages, causing his ability to limit home runs to be comprised? Is it something that you believe we could measure with Pitch F/X, or pick up by proxy in erosion of skill in another metric like walk rate or strikeout rate, or is it something we just haven’t figured out how to measure yet?

RP: I do think there must be a skill to coaxing weaker fly balls. I think there has to be. It seems likely to me that as one skill erodes, so does the other. For the most part, I didn’t have a real problem with you including aging players so long as their skills weren’t eroding. But Pedro’s rates, I thought, clearly indicated a pitcher who just wasn’t the same. His K rate was way down, his LD% way up. I think the K rate and walk rate would be an excellent place to start to determine if a HR suppressing skill exists, and if it erodes with them. We would probably want to limit the samples to players that seemingly possessed all three (or at least a quality strikeout rate and low HR/FB rate). Then see if they erode together. We may want to look at LD% as well. What do you think? Maybe Pitch F/X can help too, but I’m not well enough versed in it to say for sure.

DC: Okay, so based on this theory, you would expect that we would find rising HR/FB rates among pitchers who have regressed in the other two main components of FIP? So, if we selected a group of pitchers who got demonstrably worse in BB/9 and K/9, your expectation is that the group’s HR/FB rate would also rise in the seasons where their walk and strikeout rates worsened? If this is what your hypothesis is, we can test that and see if there’s something to it.

RP: That’s the theory I threw out, yes. I think this would be an excellent place to start. If you can, I think it might make sense to see if an increase in LD% also lends to an increase in HR/FB rate

DC: For your second objection, I’ll completely agree that a guy like Dontrelle Willis probably doesn’t inform us all that much about Cain’s future. Based on only observed skills (velocity, movement, command, etc…) and ignoring the numbers as best as you can, can you offer up some pitchers that you do think are comparable to Cain? Roy Oswalt was deemed to be an acceptable comparison, for instance – are there other pitchers that fit this mold in your mind that we haven’t talked about?

RP: First off, I liked the sample you chose. What better way to determine if a HR suppressing skill exists than to look at those players who excelled at it most in one period, then see how they performed in the next? There’s no perfect way to do it, of course, but it was as good of a place to start as any. I have an idea: mix it up a little. Try doing it 2002-2004, then 2005-2007. Then 2002-2005 & 2006-2009. And so forth. Even when including some of the players that even you had problems with including (Willis), your second sample still showed a sample of pitchers better than league average at suppressing HR/FB. But I’ve digressed…

Can you think of some pitchers that are similar to Cain? I can’t separate what he’s been able to do, so it’s difficult to pick some really good comps. It’s as if he’s living in this world of lefties and sinker-ballers, but doesn’t belong. He sticks out like a sore thumb. Why is that? He’s amongst the best pitchers in these categories:

2002-2010 – LD% Cain is 8th
2002-2010 – HR/FB Cain is 1st
2002-2010 – lowest BABiP 1st
2002-2010 – LOB% Cain is 8th
*Cain’s only been in the league since ’05, which you well know.

A handful of other players appear in the top-10 twice in these four luck-categories since BIP was available. No other player places in three of them. Cain lands in all four, twice taking top honors. It’s not wonder xFIP says he’s garbage. But is he?
*Our qualifier is 1,000 innings, the Fangraphs default.

Also:
2002-2010 – IFFB% Cain is 7th

From above: as I look across the top-10, 9 of 10 pitchers have a HR/FB rate at or below the average HR/FB rate. The 10th is right there, 10.9%, just above league average. How’s this correlate with HR/FB?

What also strikes me in the LD% category is that the majority of the top-10 guys are sinker-ballers or guys that get ground balls (Lowe, Webb, Hudson, Hernandez). Then you have Wakefield who is there for obvious reasons. If you look at the top-20, the lowest GB% for every right-hander (excluding Cain and Wakefield) is 42.2% ground balls or better. The only other below pitcher below 40% is Kazmir, a lefty. And if you go on down the line, the majority of pitchers with low GB% AND low LD% are lefties. Why is that?

What about BABiP? Does Fangraphs have BABiP park factors? I read somewhere that San Francisco was +8. But you know what’s strange? His away BABiP is .279 and it’s just .255 at home. Odd. I’d say AT&T is definitely helping here. The positive (+) BABiP factor at AT&T is going to be driven primarily by line drives into the alley’s, given the expansive outfield. But he’s able to suppress line drives, too, it seems. So perhaps that’s not impacting him as much as others, while those fly balls that don’t make it out of the park and are caught instead are helping his BABiP AND HR/FB rate.

DC: I think we have to be careful when looking at HR/FB, LD%, BABIP, and LOB% to realize that they are interconnected. It’s not that Cain is succeeding in doing four different things that we think most pitchers can’t sustain over long periods of time – it’s that he’s doing two things (limiting home runs and preventing hits on balls in play) that drive those four different numbers. Any pitcher who posts a low LD% and a low HR/FB rate is basically guaranteed to have a low BABIP and a high LOB%, because the first two variables drive the second two to a very large degree. He’s the only pitcher who shows up in all those categories because he’s been the most extreme home run preventer and the most extreme hits on balls in play preventer. Since other pitchers who are beating the marks in those two categories aren’t doing it to the same degree, they won’t see the same impact on their resulting numbers. It is four categories, but really still only two “skills” that we’re talking about.

In terms of comparables, I think there are a few distinct traits that Cain has that we’d want to look for. The most obvious is fly ball tendencies, especially since most of the working theories on why he’s been able to pull this off have to do with locating his fastball up in the zone. That essentially eliminates everybody in the majors who throws a sinker as a comp. We want guys who also pitch up in the zone a lot. The other point seems to be velocity, as people tend to want to reject comps to guys like Jarrod Washburn, whose fastball is four ticks slower and doesn’t really look like the same kind of pitcher, even though he was also an extreme fly ball guy.

So, hard throwing starting pitchers who give up a lot of fly balls. That would give us Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang, Javier Vazquez (pre-2010, anyway), and Justin Verlander. Of those four, only Verlander has demonstrated strong HR/FB prevention. Santana is above average, but not significantly once you adjust for the Angels home stadium. Is there something about any of these four that would make you think they aren’t good comparisons for Cain?

RP: Thanks for commenting on the interconnectedness of the stats. I’d picked up on that, but you laid it out nicely so it was more clear to me (4 stats, 2 skills). I think we can add Sheets and Greinke to the comparables, and I like Greinke better out of the two given the slider, changeup, fastball combo, whereas Sheets is basically all fastball, all curve. Unfortunately, neither is an extreme fly ball guy. I think your list (and those) two is about as good as we can get. Cain is either extremely unique, or he isn’t. If he is, there is no comparable (really). If he isn’t, those guys are about as good as we’re going to get. I think people don’t WANT to include lefties, but maybe we should test them separately. Like I said before, it’s almost like Cain is living in this group of pitchers where he doesn’t belong, and lefties is one of those groups.

DC: Finally, can you give us your basic assumption how AT&T Park plays overall, and then how it affects Cain specifically? His low road HR/FB rate is often cited as evidence that the park isn’t much of a factor, but given that there have only been 78 home runs ever hit into McCovey Cove, covering a span of nearly 1,800 games, it appears that the park is one of the toughest places in baseball for left-handed hitters to hit a home run. Given that Cain is a right-handed pitcher, this would naturally be a significant advantage for him. Do you believe that his road numbers show that he’s simply not getting that much of a benefit from his home park? If so, do you have any theories on why a right-handed fly ball pitcher would not benefit from pitching in a park that is very tough for left-handed hitters to go yard in?

RP: It plays much like you said. It’s close to neutral for run scoring, though probably slightly sub-100, but does suppress home runs. I think his home park is a factor. I think the fact that he’s right-handed increases the benefit, just like you said. One note, though: there’s an enormous distance between the home run line and McCovey Cove. I agree it’s extremely difficult to hit it into the water, but that shouldn’t matter. We wouldn’t say it’s difficult to hit it out of Fenway based on how many flies landed outside the stadium. Which is not to say it isn’t difficult to hit a home run over the right field wall at AT&T, it is. A better example is that a right-handed hitter has hit a home run over the right field wall about once per season. No joke.

I simply feel Cain’s ability to carry his low HR/FB rate on the road is evidence that he is largely responsible for his low rate overall, but his home/road split proves there is some benefit to his home park. What that benefit exactly is, I can’t put a number on it.

DC: (I’m going to lump all the park factor stuff in here). I feel like this is the area that needs the most exploration. My gut feeling is that the park is playing a bigger factor than might be believed otherwise. After all Jason Schmidt had a similar run of success from 2002 to 2006, posting a .272 BABIP and a 7.6% HR/FB rate. Right-handed power flyball pitcher in the same park getting similar results… it’s really a shame that Schmidt blew out his arm, as his transition to Dodger Stadium would have been a pretty interesting test case.

I do think that perhaps the road numbers are being given too much credit as evidence that the park isn’t helping Cain that much. After all, we’re only talking 500 road innings. Brett Tomko threw 378 innings – not the same sample, but close-ish – for the Giants in 2004-2005 and posted better than average HR/FB and BABIPs while on the team. I don’t think anyone believes that he has the same innate skill that Cain does, right? Yet he’s another right-handed fly ball pitcher who limited home runs while pitching half his games in San Francisco. Toss in a bigger collection of small samples from guys like Russ Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, Matt Morris, and all of the sudden we have a pretty large amount of innings thrown by right-handers for the Giants, and a strong trend towards low HR/FB rates.

RP: I agreed with you that this needed more exploration (and it still does), but your email from last night sure did make it more interesting. I was open to the idea that, yes, maybe AT&T is helping more than we think, even though the road numbers aren’t bearing it much with Cain. But now that you’ve looked at more right-handers over a significant period, and the data still isn’t bearing out a pronounced home/road split. I like the organizational philosophy direction.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


59 Responses to “A Conversation About Matt Cain”

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  1. quincy0191 says:

    I’m surprised defense didn’t come up as a factor in this discussion. The Giants have had superb defense the last two years, both of the seasons Cain has had a low BABIP and high LOB%. I have to believe this is a factor; AT&T does suppress home runs, particularly to right field as you guys said, but the RF gap means double+mediocre or better speed = triple. However, over the course of the last two seasons, guys like Andres Torres, Nate Schierholtz, Randy Winn, and Aaron Rowand have been manning the outfield, particularly CF and RF. In fact, looking at the 2009 and 2010 seasons, there has been exactly one qualified player with a negative UZR, and that’s Cody Ross in 196 innings, both a small sample and a guy who was very new to playing RF consistently in AT&T’s weird outfield. The Giants as an outfield are tied for the highest UZR/150 and have the second highest UZR from 2009-2010.

    This must be relevant to Cain’s luck stats, and would go a long way towards explaining the team-wide luck stats on flyball pitchers (Sanchez and Zito also have very low BABIPs). For example, Cain allows hit/walk, then a couple fly balls and he’s out of the inning with a higher LOB%. It’s more difficult for a runner to advance on a fly ball than a grounder, too, so he’s probably helping himself a lot with the LOB% by not allowing productive outs (if there’s some data on that, I would bet Cain’s up among the league leaders in non-productive outs).

    Good OF defense doesn’t explain everything, but the Giants lead the majors in UZR (3rd in UZR/150) from 2002-2010, the same period as that crazy low HR/FB rate. And since defense is largely park-independent (or so I would imagine), this could help explain that. Basically, I think the Giants pitchers are being helped out quite a bit because their defense is making a lot of outs that other defenses aren’t, and that’s driving up their LOB% and driving down their BABIP. Cain does seem to be benefiting more than a lot of pitchers have, but defense has got to be factored into this discussion.

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    • Norm says:

      Well the subject is HR/FB for the most part, so defense is irrelevant.

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      • Nathaniel Dawson says:

        Well that’s not quite right. There was a lot of dialog there about BABIP and LOB%. The issue that started the conversation was about HR/FB%, but both authors discussed other factors as well.

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    • Graham says:

      Hmm — I wonder if AT&T is a place where defense is less park-independent? It would seem that places with pronounced structural idiosyncracies (Mirabelli Alley in this case, or the Monster at Fenway as another example) might encourage home-team/away-team discrepancies in defensive efficiency. Not that this is especially relevant to the topic at hand, but it did interest me….

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      • Chris says:

        It’s been brought up in the past that OF’s in parks like AT&T tend to be over rated by UZR while parks like Coors Field tend to be under rated by it. One of the prime examples used was Willy Taveras as he went from being an elite defensive CF in Houston to being a poor defensive CF in Colorado, back to being a good defender in CF in Cincinnati. Of course, I doubt that there’s enough data (one year in Cincy, two in Denver) to draw strong conclusions, however, the only Rockies defender last year to post a positive UZR was Seth Smith (Gonzalez did post a positive UZR in LF).

        I’d be interested to see some sort of historical UZR data on Giants OF’s who have moved on to other parks to see if they struggle and see if the opposite continues to happen at Coors field.

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      • CJ says:

        I think that is very possible. Minute Maid Park has unusual outfield configurations, for example, and I think home team outfielders are more experienced in those features. For example, Carlos Lee is an outfielder with poor range, but he is better than almost all visitor left fielders in playing fly balls off the Crawford Box wall. I think it is conceivable that home infielders also know how to deal with the ground conditions of the infield.
        This article discussed the large home / road differentials of Wandy Rodriguez and pointed out the large variance in Defense Efficiency Ratio for Wandy Rodriguez’s home vs road starts.
        http://www.crawfishboxes.com/2011/1/27/1958576/looking-at-wandys-home-road-split
        As noted in that article, Wandy also has below average HR/fly ratios at home and above average HR/fly ratios on the road, despite the normal assumption that lefthanders are disadvantaged by the short left field at Minute Maid Park. This is consistent with the idea that pitchers can learn to pitch to the configuration of their home park.

        Given the recent discussion of home advantages in calling balls and strikes (due to the book “Scorecasting”), that is another home ballpark effect to take into consideration. Perhaps some pitchers are better suited to take advantage of home umpiring advantage for balls off the outside corner (a pitch location discussed in Scorecasting).

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  2. Chadam says:

    Klaw tweeted a link to an article that’s related to this discussion:

    Interesting analysis from @crazycrabbers on the relationship between fastball movement and HR/flyball rates: http://t.co/ZqxK0yM

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  3. Erik says:

    I hate these cliffhanger movies. Was Matt Cain the good guy or the bad guy? And is Jason Schmidt going to be the sequel?

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  4. Jason says:

    Can’t you use Jason Schmidt as a test case based on his years before the Giants? why are you just focused on the years after?

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    • Graham says:

      If I recall correctly, Righetti helped Schmidt refine the changeup that turned him into a dominant pitcher; so his years in Atlanta and Pittsburgh aren’t all that instructive, given that he had yet to mature into the pitcher he became in San Francisco.

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      • Matt says:

        And if it is some organization philosophy/skill that the Giants teach, it wouldn’t be present before he joined the team.

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  5. bender says:

    Cain’s H/R BABIP=.255 vs .279= fairly large…

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  6. DrBGiantsfan says:

    This can all be boiled down into one simple concept that should be provable from PitchFx data, but will take a tremendous amount of time to process: Many more HR’s are hit off hanging offspeed pitches(sinkers, curves, sliders, changeups) than off high fastballs!

    Corollary: Of HR’s hit off fastballs, way more are hit off fastballs between the top of the knees and the belly button than on ones up at the letters.

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  7. Jeffrey Gross says:

    “DC: There is some correlation between IFFB% and HR/FB rate (-0.26, so the r^2 would only be .07, meaning that infield fly rate would explain seven percent of the variation in HR/FB rate), but the real correlation for infield fly rate is overall fly ball percentage. The correlation between IFFB% and FB% is .63 – much, much higher. We know that fly ball pitchers, in general, post lower HR/FB rates than ground ball pitchers, so the correlation between IFFB% and HR/FB rate could just be picking up on that effect. Essentially, we’re left with questions of causality – do the infield flies cause the lower home run rate, or does being a fly ball pitcher cause the lower home run rate and a higher infield fly rate? The latter seems more likely from the data, but it’s not entirely conclusive.

    RP: Thanks for looking into this, and of course it makes sense the fly ball pitchers have higher infield fly rates. It will be difficult to separate what is causing what. I just found it interesting (and I probably didn’t look at ENOUGH data), that those pitchers who were fly ball pitchers and had the HIGHEST IFFB% tended to sustain their HR/FB rate better. Zito, Cain, etc. Where the players who did a better job at keeping the ball on the ground (Oswalt), had lower IFFB% and had more difficulty sustaining a low HR/FB rate.”

    Thanks for addressing this. this is what i was trying to get at earlier…

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  8. Fergie348 says:

    I think Verlander is a pretty good present day Cain comp in terms of pitching style. Both pitchers have good command of their fastball, and they’re not afraid to locate up at the top of the zone because they can give the hitter so many other looks with curves, sliders and changeups. What I don’t know is if they both feature 2 and 4 seam fastballs (I would assume they do), and if they mix those two fastball grips on pitches up in the zone. Mixing the grip from the same arm slot would result in enough of a break difference that it would be harder for the hitter to make solid contact even if they were looking fastball up. I don’t believe PitchFX makes the distinction between 2 and 4 seam fastballs. Anybody know if this data is available on an aggregate basis?

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    • Scott says:

      Yes pitch fx does differentiate between 2 and 4 seam fastballs at least it has since 2009.

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      • Graham says:

        Well, it TRIES to — but I wouldn’t put very much stock in it. Take Lincecum as an example. It’s well-known that Tiny Tim throws two-seamers the vast majority of the time — but that’s news to PitchFX. (Incidentally, I’ve never really heard talk of Cain throwing a two-seamer. If he does, I don’t think it’s really a part of his game. The key to his fastball is his short-arm delivery, which results in pitches getting to hitters faster than they expect visually.)

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  9. Scott says:

    On the subject of Cain or the Giants having an idea about how this is possible they seem to be in the dark or playing it close to the chest.

    I asked Matt Cain at the Giants media day what he did to keep homers in check and he was surprised to hear that he was good at limiting homeruns.

    I can’t tell you for sure if it was false modesty or not wanting to give away his trade secret but it seemed that he had no idea.

    So I think that the Giants have seen that he is an effective pitcher and the coaching staff hasn’t really questioned why or how he limits homers. I don’t know on the stats people in the front office.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      Matt Cain and the Giants pitchers in general may not set out with the express purpose of preventing HR’s. I’m guessing the terminology they use is something along of the lines of “don’t give in to the hitter! Make him hit your pitch!” Preventing HR’s is one of several byproducts of that underlying philosophy.

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  10. deadpool says:

    I wonder if there is some artifact of sample size that we’re missing that might inform whether or not limiting HR/FB is a skill. Maybe its not a skill, but rather the skill. While we feel like we’re looking at a relatively huge group with a persistant range of HR/FB, we have to keep in mind that there are two other groups of FB pitchers who aren’t being included in the sample. K oriented RP tend to be fly ball pitchers. In fact, just a cursory examination of releivers (excluding the top handful as they don’t tend to fit the mold we’re looking for being that skill isn’t necessarily the reason they’re releivers) it looks like the HR/FB rate for that group is somewhere above 11%. If we assume that washouts who don’t succeed at the MLB level would hover around 12%+ that changes the pitcture a little.

    I guess what I’m saying is that if HR/FB rate is not just a skill, but a really important skill, then our data is skewed. We get that with every skill naturally, only the best of the best make the bigs, but if HR/FB rate is even more selective for this group of pitchers then we’re studying variation within the top 10%, which won’t tell us much about how much that skill varies overall. We just wouldn’t be able to tell because we never see anybody who’s not already near the absolute best.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      I think this is an important point.

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    • AJS says:

      I see your point, but you can make that same argument about a lot of stats. BABIP, in particular — the average is around .300, the best are .270, the worst are around .330. We don’t see anyone with a BABIP of .400 because if they can’t keep BABIP near the league average, they don’t make it.

      So how do we know that limiting BABIP isn’t the distinctive skill, rather than limiting HR on FB? And generally, if your point is correct, wouldn’t limiting HR in any form be the skill? Meaning high GB% pitchers would make it in MLB at rates far higher than high FB% pitchers — but it doesn’t seem that’s the case.

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      • test says:

        There’s a lot of chicken vs. egg going on in this type of analysis. How would we determine whether GB% pitchers make it to the majors more often than FB% pitchers? Looking at minor league numbers would help, but hitters have different skills as well – those with higher LD%, HR/FB, etc…tend to make it higher up in the minors and majors too. Being a GB pitcher is likely just harder to do (think about an extremely bad pitcher – they will give up a lot of HR and FB), so the more limited population of them tends to do better.

        It’s also conceivable that Cain benefits from the novelty of his approach – almost no one pitches up in the zone like he does, so maybe it’s just the contrast from almost everyone else that throws off hitters (that and his odd looking delivery – I’ve only seen in from the CF camera view, but it appears a little strange). Look at Rivera – he throws the same pitch over and over, it’s just that it’s well located and hardly anyone else can throw a cutter like his. His BABIP is .261, and I don’t think anyone thinks that’s luck.

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      • deadpool says:

        Couldn’t it just be that HR rates are more important to FB pitchers and BABIP is more important for those who rely on GB%? Similar to how guys with speed tend to have a higher likelihood of making the show if they put the ball on the ground more often than their more powerful counterparts, who tend to need patience to make the show.

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  11. Dave Cameron Needs a Wikipedia Page says:

    Dear Dave,

    There should be a long wikipedia page in your honor. I want to know why none has been made yet. You are by far the most trusted sabermetrics, fratastic brother out there and you’ve been at the forefront of using sabermetrics in the mainstream.

    Thanks,
    Wes

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  12. EDUB says:

    “RP: I do think there must be a skill to coaxing weaker fly balls”

    I agree with this, and I dont believe it is just limited to weak fly balls. A big reason why I am not a fullblown FIP subscriber

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  13. KyleJo says:

    Matt Garza seems like a pretty good comp. Hard throwing FB pitcher and has been able to limit line drives below league average, while doing the same with HR/FB.

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  14. tyler says:

    Not sure how everyone missed the most obvious comp: Mike Pelfrey. Check the #s, and the repertoires

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    • Graham says:

      Really? Doesn’t Pelfrey rely heavily on a high-velocity sinker? In the starts I’ve seen from him, he’s either effective (locating his fastball below the knees) or terrible (unable to keep the ball down). Cain, on the other hand, makes a living above the belt like few pitchers out there — which is all the more amazing given that he’s now throwing in the low 90s, as opposed to when he firts came up.

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      • DrBGiantsfan says:

        I believe as Cain’s velocity has declined(slightly) he has gained in command. He’s no longer firing pitch after pitch at the letter in the middle of the plate. He’s much better at keeping the high hard stuff on the edges of the plate.

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  15. The Ancient Mariner says:

    Interesting to see Vazquez on the list above, since he’s been sort of the anti-Cain, consistently underperforming his FIP over the course of his career. It might be productive to pair the two and look at them as yin and yang — perhaps in the comparison, we might find the Tao of HR suppression.

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  16. David says:

    I have 2 questions.
    1. Should his division be considered when discussing his home/road split. Coors is a launching pad, sure, but PetCo suppresses power as much as any stadium. Are Dodger Stadium and Chase Field tough places for lefties to hit home runs?
    2. We tend to think about pitchers as being in one of two categories: ground ball pitchers or fly ball pitchers. I think we forget that it is a more complete spectrum than that, but line drive pitchers don’t tend to last very long. Could it be that Cain is simply much farther to one extreme of the spectrum than anyone else? If we think of the average trajectory of a ball off the bat for these pitchers as we move from one end of the spectrum to the other, the ground ball pitchers will start with low trajectory which increases as we get to line drive pitchers, and increases further once we get to fly ball pitchers. Could Matt Cain’s average trajectory just be farther to this extreme, which causes the additional IFFB’s as well as functions to suppress homers?

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  17. bcp33bosox says:

    This is a really cool discussion and study…I was including a majority of the comments in there as well. Good stuff.

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  18. Pierre says:

    Is it possible to subject Jim Palmer to this sort of analysis or does the data not go back that far? You would have a hard time convincing me that Palmer did not have this ability. And the gap between his ERA and FIP is huge (although obviously his defenses were great).

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  19. Jackal says:

    Matt Cunt is not a very good ballplayer.

    -14 Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. Dwight Schrute says:

    Could it be that he is working ahead more often or in 2 strike counts which causes more emergency hacks or unbalanced swings which leads to more weakly hit flyballs?

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  21. slash12 says:

    I’d be interested in seeing how Cain and these other pitchers hold up when looking at their HR/OFFB rate. This isn’t a stat that fangraphs uses, but IMO they should. An IFFB is essentially a win for a pitcher, even better then a ground ball, it’s very weak, non-damaging contact, and i don’t think these should be considered balls that “could” have been home runs (which is what’s being implied by the HR/FB statistic)..

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    • CJ says:

      I think Cameron indicated that removing infield flies didn’t change the results for Cain (relative to league average).

      Infield flies are an interesting statistic, because it’s unclear how much skill is involved vs. luck. Looking at hitter’s batted balls types, infield flies appear to be an erratic percentage from year to year. Maybe it’s just because the number of infield flies tned to small at an individual player level. While I have seen some studies which indicate that a few pitchers seem to induce more infield flies on a consistent basis, it seems to me that the difference between an outfield flyball and an infield fly, from the pitcher’s standpoint, is mostly luck.

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      • slash12 says:

        It’s a matter of the angle the ball hit the bat…LD is obviously the best, where a strongly hit groundball, or OFFB is the next most solid. A weakly hit groundball chopped into the ground, or an infield flyball is the weakest type of contact, and the closest to a complete miss. An infield flyball was nearly a complete miss, so I don’t feel like it should be considered as a potential home run. I guess you have to consider foul balls/foul tips too, which is even weaker contact (and certainly aren’t considered potential home runs).

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  22. lex logan says:

    Has anyone looked at Travis Wood of the Reds? I’ve read he is a flyball pitcher who limits homeruns both in the minors and, in a partial season, the majors. I would expect there are other such young pitchers (including Cain) who could be used as a test of whether a low HR/FB rate one year predicts the same thing the next year, prior to any general decline in skills.

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  23. Andrew says:

    Just to throw this out there, Cain said he was disappointed in his offseason workouts over the past few years because he didn’t throw as much as in the past. He said this offseason he’s kept his arm in good shape, so I’m wondering if we’ll see an increase in his velocity (93-94 instead of 90-92) – so that might mean he has less of a disparity in his ERA and FIP in 2011.

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  24. balfourvanvleck says:

    Does anyone know if there is a place where you can look at home/road splits broken down by batter handedness? I’d like to take a look at Cain’s LH/RH splits on the road only.

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  25. B says:

    It’s too bad we don’t have FB% info for Dave Righetti himself – but it’s interesting that he was also able to sustain a very low HR/9 and BABIP throughout his career – at least until the end, when his K rate also dropped significantly.

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  26. MrKnowNothing says:

    Odd as this may be, perhaps it’s psychological. Cain can throw a bit “freer” at home, because SBC helps him out. He then gains confidence in this approach and takes it on the road where maybe he’s a bit of an abberation because there aren’t a ton of guys throwing like he does, so he catches hitters off guard.

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  27. ElJimador says:

    I wonder if we aren’t making all this too complicated. Cain is an extreme flyball pitcher. Extreme flyball pitchers are known to maintain lower HR/FB rates and lower BAbip against, since balls hit in the air are more likely to be converted into outs. In addition he also has the benefit of pitching in a home park that supresses home runs, especially for LHH who have a platoon advantage. So why isn’t that enough of an explanation? Instead of looking to pitchers who posted low HR/FB rates over a period of years to try to deduce if hat’s a skill in itself, why not just study extreme flyball pitchers as a group and see where that leads us first? Or has someone already done that?

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  28. Samregens says:

    Somebody posted something above like “when discussing HR/FB, defense is mainly irrelevant”, and thereby summarily dismissing the defense factor, but is that conventional sabermetrics gospel, really true?

    Wouldn’t good OF defense increase the denominator “artificially” because the OFs get to more balls (i.e. increase the number of FBs more than otherwise expected)?

    Isn’t this a simple answer to the question?

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