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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.