In some ways, C.J. Wilson and Matt Cain are polar opposites. Wilson’s a lefty, while Cain throws with his right hand. Cain throws a ton of fastballs, while Wilson has basically abandoned his this year. Wilson is a guy who gets a lot of grounders, while Cain is one of the most prolific flyball pitchers in the game.
In how they achieved success this year, however, they are quite similar. Cain had the fifth-lowest BABIP (.260) of any starter in the National League. Wilson’s .271 BABIP was fifth lowest in the American League. His 5.3% HR/FB rate was lower than any other qualified AL starter, and while Cain’s 7.4% rate was only the 12th lowest in the NL, he’s posted well below-average rates in every single year of his career.
Both of these guys kept runs off the board by getting people to hit the ball at their defenders and by keeping their fly balls in the yard. As any regular FanGraphs reader can tell you, these are not things that are usually considered repeatable skills, as history has shown that most pitchers simply can’t sustain the kinds of performances that these guys put up this year.
In fact, when skeptics of xFIP want to point out why they don’t like the metric, Cain is invariably the first guy they point to. His career 3.45 ERA is nearly a full run lower than his 4.43 xFIP, and at 1,100 innings pitched, the sample size is getting fairly large. For various reasons, some of which we understand (park effects, batted-ball profile) and some of which we don’t, Cain’s continually outperformed his peripherals. Wilson was also able to pull that off this year, though he clearly doesn’t have Cain’s track record at succeeding this way.
The differences will be obvious. The similarities will be a bit more subtle. But, in the end, it should be a good match-up and a fun game to watch.