Matt Cain, Destroyer of DIPS

I call it the Mariano Rivera rule. When explaining DIPS – the theory that all pitchers have very similar skill on balls in play – it helps to state the concept in terms of real pitchers. For most Joe Shmoes, we can expect a BABIP close to league average. Perhaps his BABIP won’t be average in a month, or a year, or maybe multiple years, but eventually we can expect it to approach around .290.

But we know there are exceptions. If a pitcher allows very weak contact, he can allow fewer hits than expected on balls in play. And what pitcher allows weaker contact than Mariano Rivera? In over 1200 career innings, he has a BABIP of .262, which is well below the league average. If we assume that this number is an accurate representation of his true BABIP talent level, which it should be at this sample size, then we can reasonably say that any pitcher with a BABIP below or approaching .262 is at least partially lucky. Of course this is not meant to say that Rivera’s BABIP has some sort of asymptotic purpose in nature, just to suggest an easy rule with a high level of accuracy.

Owner of a career .265 BABIP in over 1300 career innings, Matt Cain breaks this rule. While he pitches against easier competition in a more pitcher friendly ballpark, he is also a starter, forced to weave his way through multiple lineup turns with declining stamina. While his DIPS defying ways have been well documented, they remain fascinating.

Consider a visual inspection of his BABIP performance:

This visual depicts Matt Cain’s BABIP performance based on vertical location. The y axis represents the vertical height of the pitch, where the top of the graph is the top of the strikezone and the bottom of the graph is the bottom of the strikezone. The x axis indicates BABIP. The graph is split up into two visuals, one for performance against right handed batters (denoted by the header “R”) and the other for his performance against left handed batters (denoted by the header “L”). Cain is represented by the red line, and a random sample of 25,000 pitches thrown by right handed pitchers in 2011 is represented by the blue line. The gray bands indicate confidence.

The data used here includes all of Matt Cain’s pitches from 2008-2011, which gives us 2536 pitches that were put into play. This time range is arbitrary, but it provides the best balance of PITCHf/x data quality (2007 data is suspect) and sample size. There is a slight penalty that I am giving to Cain here simply for having pitched earlier than 2011 because the average BABIP was a little higher prior to this year, but this will not substantially affect this analysis.

For right handed batters, Matt Cain and the league perform very similarly. Indeed, for 2008-2011 I calculate his BABIP against righties to be .279, which is close to the sample’s BABIP against right handed batters.  Of interest here is his performance against left-handed batters, where he significantly outperforms the league, posting a .259 BABIP compared to .295. This means that in the past four years he has had a reverse platoon BABIP split, despite the fact that he gives up more flyballs to right handed batters. Also of note is that his BABIP advantage to left-handed batters is not concentrated in one area, but rather somewhat evenly distributed across the entire vertical spectrum of the strikezone.

Matt Cain and pitch selection

For the 14,000 pitches thrown by Matt Cain during this period, I have Matt Cain throwing the following breakdown of pitches:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL
0.14 0.12 0.56 0.05 0.13

(CH = changeup, CU = curveball, FF = four-seam, FT = two-seam, SL = slider)

These classifications are a combination of the Gameday algorithm output, manual reclassification, and some automated classification using clustering analysis. I should also remark that while his overall pitch selection has been pretty consistent across all four years, at the beginning of the 2010 he started throwing a few less fastballs which he has replaced with changeups – now about 17 percent.

But these overall numbers are misleading; after all, Matt Cain only pitches to right handed batters or left handed batters at one time.

Against righties he throws:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL
0.06 0.12 0.56 0.05 0.21

And against lefties:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL
0.22 0.13 0.56 0.05 0.05

As you can see, Matt Cain makes heavy use of either the slider or the changeup – two pitches known for their relevance to platoon splits – depending on the handedness of the opposition. Throwing more changeups instead of sliders against lefties may seem obvious, but not all pitchers capable of making this adjustment do so, like Daniel Bard who throws too many sliders to lefties despite having a nasty changeup in his arsenal. 

Since it is his performance against left-handed batters that is special, here is how his pitches against lefties perform in terms of BABIP, compared to the sample’s performance against lefties:

This graph indicates the difference between Matt Cain’s BABIP and the league’s BABIP to left-handed batters, split up by pitch type. If the difference is “-0.05″, then Cain’s BABIP for that pitches is .05 less than the league average right handed pitcher. For example, Matt Cain’s BABIP on changeups against left handed batters is .236, which is .046 less than the league rate of .282.

Most important here is that he significantly outperforms the league average on both changeups and four-seam fastballs, which compromise 78 percent of his pitches to left-handed batters. Before running into this analysis I also assumed that he pitches backwards much more than average, but that does not appear to be the case. He does throw less fastballs than average in hitters’ counts, but he also throws less fastballs overall than average.

It’s still not quite clear how exactly he is suppressing hits against left-handed batters, but it seems possible that is it related to the frequent usage of his excellent fastball – change combo which may help keep batters – and sabermetricians – guessing.

References and Resources

* PITCHf/x data from MLBAM via Darrel Zimmerman’s pbp2 database and scripts by Joseph Adler/Mike Fast/Darrel Zimmerman




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61 Responses to “Matt Cain, Destroyer of DIPS”

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  1. oldjacket says:

    ggplot!

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  2. Pat Corbin says:

    Perhaps I can maintain a .260ish BABIP in the majors someday…

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  3. Mr. Verlander says:

    I can do this too!

    Next year you will be writing an article about how I again, am better than Cain at a statistic. I will continue controlling my BAPIP to a much higher degree.

    Should be pretty easy.

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  4. Www.Paapfly.com says:

    Awesome.

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  5. Www.Paapfly.com says:

    Awesome.

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  6. Blue says:

    Wouldn’t playing in a smaller field (i.e. Mariano) result in a lower BABIP against? Less ground to cover. So, that would make Cain’s .265 in a bigger park even more impressive

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  7. MattM says:

    Interesting. Now what are the odds who grabs the final two wild card spots? You should do some articles on these last games of the season.

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  8. Sean O'Neill says:

    The Giants pitching staff in general doesn’t fit DIPS very well. Since 2002, the Giants staff ranks:
    #1 in BABIP (.286)
    #1 in HR/9 (0.85)
    #3 in ERA versus #18 in SIERA (#18 in xFIP as well)

    Before you say it’s the park that’s causing this, here’s just the away numbers:
    #1 in BABIP (.285)
    #3 in HR/9 (0.95)
    #4 in ERA versus #19 in xFIP (no SIERA available)

    For comparison’s sake, here’s the home numbers:
    #10 in BABIP (.287)
    #1 in HR/9 (0.75)
    #6 in ERA versus #14 in xFIP

    How they continue to do this is one of the great sabermetric mysteries.

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    • Some of the discussion on this (mainly the ones on lowered HR/9) credit this to Righetti.

      A study long ago by Rob Neyer found how Kirk Rueter alters his strategy against the batter based on the men-on-base, and his finding matches what I’ve read here about the Giants in general in keeping HR/9 lowered, even on the road.

      That suggests that this is something that the Giants coaching staff has been pushing their pitchers to do, and their guidance of the catchers on how to receive and call pitches.

      And obviously the common link there is Righetti, who has worked with three different managers now, he has been retained even though the incoming manager usually gets to chose his pitching coach, showing how much Giants management values what he does for their pitchers.

      Would be interesting to see how pitchers do after they leave the Giants but most careers are pretty much done by the time the Giants get their hands on them, Russ Ortiz is the only one I can think of who was very effective after leaving the Giants, Livan too, I suppose. Not a lot of examples, unfortunately.

      I was thinking also how catchers do with pitchers afterward, but again, most are pretty much done after the Giants.

      Sean, would be interesting to see what the average is for each as comparison with what the Giants achieved, to see scale of how different they are. Thanks for the numbers, very interesting.

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      • Bill says:

        Russ Ortiz had one good year with the Braves(Well, he won 20 games), but other than that, his success was constrained to his time with San Francisco.

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    • Xave says:

      Sean, those are amazing numbers, and ogc, thanks for the info re: Righetti. I’d love to see more investigation on this.

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      • Sean O'Neill says:

        One more number which I just came across while looking up the numbers to reply to Professor Verlander: the Giants rank #1 in team UZR from 2006-2011 at +205. Only two teams are within 100 runs of that number, the Rays (157.4) and Cubs (108.6).

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    • Gomez says:

      One factor is their home park, along with sharing a division with LAD (Dodger Stadium) and SDP (Petco Park). Sure, there’s COL and Coors Field, though the humidor’s muted the effects of that park a bit. Add in the talent of their rotation and I can see how it’s possible to manage it.

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  9. Hurtlocker says:

    On any given day, Lincecum, Cain, Baumgarner and this year Vogelsong were unhittable. I only need my eyes to see that, nothing to do with stats. I still say that the Giants starters are better than the Phillies.

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    • Harry says:

      I still say that Hurtlocker is butthurt.

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    • Santos says:

      It’s not hard to see if a pitcher is unhittable. It’s hard to see how unhittable a pitcher is, especially in relation to all the other pitchers in the league.

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    • Hurtlocker says:

      Don’t be haters because my Giants pitchers are better than yours.

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      • matt says:

        You have different Giants pitchers than I have?

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      • cuck says:

        oh, and your dismissal of stats as a legitimate way to compare the rotations shows that you actually know the phillies rotation is better. if you were actually convinced that the giants had better starters you would have checked out their stats.

        also, if youre just using your eyes to compare them, (instead of legitimate performance tools) you would easily see that the phillies are better as well. why? the giants have under 90 wins, the phillies have over 100, they may have more run support, but it also shows that the phillies were likely more unhittable that your giants.

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    • Kenley Jansen says:

      Yeah, Bumgarner and his unhittable 8.9 H/9. You say it has nothing to do with stats; well, if there’s a stat that tells you how many hits a pitcher gives up, that goes a long way towards countering someone’s claim that a pitcher is unhittable.

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    • cuck says:

      false. before the season giants fans were shouting that their rotation is better to the high heavens. you are near the only one left. why? because its not true.

      it may be mlb.com but look at this article http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110926&content_id=25221214&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

      here’s the important component: the phillies rotation stats
      “The stats (ranking among MLB teams): ERA (1), innings pitched (1), quality starts (1), OPS against (1), WHIP (1), strikeout-to-walk ratio (1).”

      you can argue ERA is flawed, that quality starts are basically flawed the same way as ERA, that by limiting walks they lowered K/BB, WHIP, and OPS against all at once, but it doesnt matter. they are still the best.

      side by side comparison:
      roy halladay vs. tim lincecum
      WAR: 8.2 > 4.6
      FIP: 2.20 > 3.17
      SIERA: 2.64 > 3.31
      victor: roy halladay easily

      cliff lee vs. matt cain
      WAR: 6.8 > 5.4
      FIP: 2.61> 2.92
      SIERA: 2.57 > 4.18
      victor: cliff lee with the acknowledgement that matt cain is better than SIERA gives him credit for

      cole hamels vs. madison bumgarner
      WAR 5.0 < 5.7
      FIP: 3.00 3.03
      victor: madison bumgarner with the acknowledgement that cole hamels has better conventional stats

      roy oswalt vs. jonathan sanchez
      WAR: 2.5 > 0.7
      FIP: 3.45 > 4.30
      SIERA: 3.68 > 4.05
      victor: roy oswalt with the acknowledgement that neither of these guys really had a full season, and that a standard oswalt season is better than any sanchez has ever had

      vance worley vs. ryan vogelsong
      WAR: 2.5 = 2.6 (the margin of error is too large, they are the same)
      FIP: 3.31 > 3.67
      SIERA: 3.55 > 3.82
      victor: vance worley by more than you think. he totaled really the same WAR in 7 less starts

      who’s better? some of the comparisons are not on completely (oswalt and vogelsong should have been paired and worley and sanchez by rotation order. also if i ranked the pitchers 1-5 with WAR on each team the results would be different. it would have been a clean phillies sweep) but they are sorted by ones with the most similar role. 1-3 line up, then vogelsong and worley were rookieish players and oswalt/sanchez did not complete full seasons.

      its obvious, the phillies are not only the better of the two rotations by both skill, how well they pitched, and their success, but theyre also the best in the league.

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  10. oldjacket says:

    How is it that Cain’s BABIP against RHP is above league average in every position of the strike zone, yet he has .268 career BABIP versus RHP?

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  11. This has been debated here for a while – Barry Zito is another low BABIP pitcher and they are not the only ones – and I applaud Fangraphs for taking the initiative to keep this discussion moving forward with more analysis.

    This phenomenon has finally seem to reach a point where the general public is ready to acknowledge that pitchers like this exists – FYI, Tom Tippett showed in his great study in the mid-2000′s that such pitchers exist, so it is not just pitchers like Cain but knuckleballers and crafty lefties and all those categories that Tippett found to be the exception to the DIPS rule, and this is not something new that people just discovered but rather a process of educating people over time.

    Given that this is being recognized, how can Fangraphs start to recognize this in their WAR metrics? Is there any way to create either a tool or a button for each player, where the user can find out how the pitcher’s WAR is properly accounting for his lowered BABIP?

    Given that TangoTiger says that it takes roughly 6-7 full seasons for a starting pitcher to get a large enough data set to say that the pitcher has the ability to keep his BABIP lower than then usual .300, shouldn’t there be a way to weigh a pitcher’s WAR statistically based on the odds that he hews to DIPS and the odds that he defies DIPS?

    Right now, the assumption is 100% that a pitcher is DIPS. Even better than a button, given that everything is computerized, it should be easy to program in a way to weigh his WAR assuming .300 BABIP and his WAR assuming he has the ability to keep his BABIP that low, based on how many batters he has faced (or whatever the proper metric to weigh by, IP, AB, PA, ??). And once he goes past a certain threshold – the 6-7 seasons noted above – then the weight is 100% on his career BABIP.

    Then all pitchers would have a blended WAR metric, instead of some of the best pitchers in the majors being very underrated by a world of sabermetrically minded baseball fans, as both Matt Cain and Barry Zito have been during their careers.

    If such a tool is too hard and adjusting all WAR is too much work, perhaps one of you could just at least do a study comparison of what Matt Cain’s WAR currently is and what it should have been given that his BABIP level should have been credited for being lower than .300 BABIP.

    Then we can at least have an idea of how much undervaluing is being done. If it is small, then such an effort would be obviously not cost effective. If a lot of his value is being overlooked because the current model is flawed in this way, then perhaps that will convince Fangraphs (and Baseball-Reference.com) to improve their WAR calculations to account properly for these bumblebees who don’t fit the DIPS model.

    I believe it is large enough to warrant changing the calculations in some way to acknowledge this. Again, this is not new stuff, it has been almost 10 years since Tippett showed this – pitchers who provide value beyond DIPS – to be true over the history of baseball (he studied all pitchers in his study, not just a subset of some sort). Sabers constantly berate those who don’t understand sabermetrics for being too slow to change, so I find this reluctance to change ironically funny. Hopefully this series of Matt Cain, poster child for non-DIPS, articles can get something to happen.

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    • Xave says:

      I guess the question I’d like to see answered is whether Cain’s BABIP skill is purely a result of his arsenal, the “Giants effect” mentioned above, pitch sequencing, or something else. As with anything, the way to check is to find pitchers with similar attributes for each possibility. The answer is probably a complex combination of things, though, in which case the only way to incorporate the skill into the calculation is the 6-7 seasons of data you mentioned.

      Anyway, I look forward to more investigations on this stuff.

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    • Toffer Peak says:

      Actually Voros McCracken himself noted that knuckleballers had lower BABIPs so this has been known since the very beginning of DIPS.

      As to WAR at Baseball-Reference they don’t actually use DIPS for their calculations so no change is necessary. Really for all of the people who don’t like FIP for WAR (including myself) the solution is quite simple, simply don’t use Fangraphs numbers but rather B-R’s. No point getting worked up about something when FG will clearly not budge on this issue.

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      • DCN says:

        Also, just keep stats in perspective when you’re using them as part of an argument about a pitcher’s effectiveness (and I think they tell you a lot, but pitching WAR is far from a bottom-line stat).

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  12. Slartibartfast says:

    Really, really like the last graph.

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  13. Lex Logan says:

    “…we can reasonably say that any pitcher with a BABIP below or approaching .262 is at least partially lucky.” I assume you meant “skilled” ?

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    • delv says:

      nah, he meant that Mo is anomalous and stats approaching his should not be assumed to be “deserved” so to speak. If Livan Hernandez puts up a 2.62 BABIP through half a year, we can reasonably assume that he has been at least PARTIALLY lucky, though perhaps also partially skilled (though the skills may not be repeatable, which is the real question that arises in 1-year-long “low BABIP” performances).

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      • B N says:

        A 2.62 BABIP? That’s crazy. So he’s giving up more than two hits per ball in play? I knew Livan was getting a little long in the tooth, but that is something I have got to see!

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  14. delv says:

    great stuff, Josh. You know I’m big fan of the post-DIPS approach to pitching stats. One small writing booboo, though: you wrote “less fastballs” three times. Fewer* fastballs. Keep up the good work.

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  15. James M. says:

    Looking at his entire career, his BABIP differential between LHB’s and RHB’s is a modest -6 points (.262 vs. .268) and is almost entirely a result of this season’s extreme -75 points (.223 vs. 298). In 2009 and 2010 the differentials were moderate, -6 and -11 points respectively. And in 2007 and 2008 they were extreme in the opposite direction (+42 and +35). So unless you believe he has completely changed his pitching style I’d be cautious about drawing conclusions from that.

    OTOH, his career Home/Away BABIP differential is much greater, -21 points (.255 vs. .276) and much more consistent. Only once, back in 2007, was he “luckier” on the road. Does he pitch differently at Home? It sure looks that way.

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  16. Mr. Verlander says:

    I’m actually serious here guys.

    My BAPIP this year is .236.

    Where is my article?

    Maybe I haven’t done this consistently yet, but I think if you do some further research, it will be quite obvious that every year in which my BAPIP has been high, it is a direct result of the fielding behind me. I’m not one to throw my teammates under a bus, but in this case, having guys like Maggs, Inge, Cabs, etc. behind me makes it very easy for me to do so.

    How I have managed such a low BAPIP this year with the addition of V-Mart, Perralta, Betemit, Delmon, etc. is really quite astounding. I know, I know, everything I do is astounding which makes this believable, but I don’t think you guys comprehend how well I am able to control my BAPIP.

    I expect a rough draft of such an article on my desk by sundown.

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    • wat says:

      Dude, Cain has had Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff in his outfield for the past two years and a mixture of Orlando Cabrera and Miguel Tejada at SS this year. Please stop.

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    • Jeff says:

      There’s something to it, especially considering he’s significantly altered his pitching strategy since 2009 (he essentially has a reverse changeup now that his FB velocity has been sitting at 92 in the early innings and he’s ramping it up to 101in the 8th).

      That said, there’s no reason to suspect that it has everything to do with his pitching skill rather than a combination of skill and a lot of luck. If his BABIP stays this low next year, you might have something.

      Also, re: Verlander’s defense behind him… It’s true that he has some bad defenders behind him (Inge has never fit into that category, BTW – not even this year), but he has flyball tendencies and an incredibly good CF out there.

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    • Sean O'Neill says:

      Hey Professor,

      I don’t know why you’d include Inge in that group, given he’s been an above average defensive 3B for the duration of his time at that position. For the record, over the course of your career the Tigers have been 9th in team UZR. Hardly horrible.

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      • Professor Verlander says:

        I have included Mr Inge in there for one very obvious reason.

        I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me.

        I am aware of how he grades out defensively.

        However, if you analyze the games in which he plays behind me, he does not try, and fields like a rabid baboon (which is not a good thing in baseball).

        As such, my statement is still flawless, and actually your’s that lacks merit.

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  17. Mr. Verlander says:

    It’s not “dude”.

    Please refer to me by either “Sir” or “Professor”.

    Your choice from there.

    Perhaps after that I will consider rebutting your flawed analysis.

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  18. Matt Cain says:

    I am become Outs.

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  19. elooie says:

    Dudes a bum isn’t even a .500 pitcher.

    /lol

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  20. DCN says:

    Even more impressive is his HR/FB% – he’s at 6.5% for his career, 3.7% (!) this season. xFIP predicts 10.5%, so you can see how low that is – extremely. Tops among starters across that span. He’s almost Rivera out there (6.2% since 2002 when we had the data).

    That’s why his xFIP is so much higher than his FIP. He outperforms FIP, sure, because he keeps his BABIP low, but the gap between his FIP and xFIP is even higher than between ERA and FIP.

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  21. nice article, but IMO stata > R

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  22. Jay says:

    Dear hurtlocker,

    Please stop.

    Signed,

    Every other Giants fan

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