Matt Cain Executes Way to Perfect Game

Matt Cain is not first on any list of dominating pitchers — not historically, not currently. He doesn’t throw the prototypical mid-90s fastball; he doesn’t bring the hammer curve or sweeping slider that defined hall-of-fame talents like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens.

Instead, Matt Cain deals in low-90s heat, sneaky changeups and get-me-over curveballs. Wednesday night, Cain was able to parlay that arsenal into the 22nd perfect game in MLB history. It wasn’t only the most dominating performance of 2012, it was arguably one of the best starts the game has ever seen, put together behind the setup and execution of his entire array of pitches.

The fastball was Cain’s definite out pitch Wednesday night. Astros hitters watched seven four-seamers go by for strike three, swung through another four, rolled into three ground ball outs, popped one up, and hit three flyouts (including Gregor Blanco‘s incredible catch in the seventh). But it wasn’t alone — Cain threw 59 off-speed pitches to go with 66 fastballs, each one with a purpose.

Cain has never been afraid to pitch backwards, using off-speed pitches to open counts and then swooping in with the fastball to finish hitters off. It’s an unorthodox method, but it may be the key behind a fastball which draws significantly more swings-and-misses than most despite high-end velocity. The average four-seamer is whiffed at 6.0% of the time; Cain induces empty swings on 9.6% of his.

Particularly in the late innings, Cain used the off-speed to set up the fastball. He is extraordinarily good at throwing his changeup (62.4%) and slider (72.5%) in particular for strikes, and he even had his curveball — arguably his worst pitch, below average in both strike and whiff rate — working well. Of his 59 off-speed offerings, 38 were strikes, including 12 on the first pitch in 15 tries.

Cain’s perfect game lends even more credence to the theory that the magic of his fastball is as much preparation as culmination. Of the 18 outs Cain earned with a fastball, 13 were preceded by some other pitch. Take a look at the location:

These pitches caught plenty of plate and not a one was faster than 94 MPH. The Astros let six of these potentially juicy pitches by for strikeouts, but when they did pull the trigger, they rarely made quality contact with quality swings. The pitch mix kept hitters off balance, and perhaps there is no more illustrative sequence than the final two pitches of the night.

Observe (and open GIFs in new window for premium viewing):



To be sure, Cain hit his spot, landing the 1-2 fastball above the belt and reaching back to 93.6 MPH on his 125th and final pitch. Still, some hitters make a living hitting 93.6 MPH stomach-high fastballs into the seats. What makes this pitch so great is the setup of a corner-painting 87 MPH changeup the pitch before. Castro is forced to prepare for that pitch again, and the jolt in both eye level and velocity is too much. He gets so tied up that the ball nearly sneaks by Joaquin Arias at third base, but the end result is a harmless ground out to seal the perfect game.

Matt Cain’s entire career has been built on the setup and execution of all his pitches, not the quality of each individually. Wednesday saw him use location and sequencing to turn his merely good stuff into one of the best starts of all time — not only did he throw a perfect game, but he joined the exclusive 100 Game Score club in the process.

Simply put, Cain’s performance sets the bar for modern pitching performances, behind a fittingly perfect use of his entire arsenal of pitches.

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Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

20 Responses to “Matt Cain Executes Way to Perfect Game”

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  1. pm says:

    **Perfect Game not no-hitter

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  2. West says:

    His wife’s perfection is more impressive.

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  3. Romogenized Melk says:

    Matt Cain.

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  4. TKDC says:

    Cue the FIP and xFIP haters in 3, 2, 1…

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  5. eastsider says:

    Cain was very complimentary of Posey in the post game interviews. Here is a quick one I found elsewhere – “I can’t thank Buster enough. I didn’t even question once what he was calling.” So for a pitcher whose success has been built on the set up of his pitches, Posey must be a on that list of great game callers.

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  6. AF says:

    “It wasn’t only the most dominating performance of 2012, it was arguably one of the best starts the game has ever seen . . . ”

    One too many hedges here. There is no argument that it was *one* of the best starts the game has ever seen. Arguably, it was *the* best, though you’d ultimately lose that argument to Kerry Wood.

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    • Nathan says:

      I looked up Koufax’s 14K perfect game and was impressed that he struck out the side in both the 8th and 9th innings. Does that give him the edge over Cain? I think so.

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    • Nivra says:

      Great article, and I will add to the above nitpick the incorrect usage of not only… But also

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  7. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Cain has not always had the arsenal of secondary pitches to set up the fastball and it has still always been good at avoiding contact and solid contact. Cain’s fastball has always had late movement that is hard to see but reduces contact significantly. He also has always had great command of it. It’s a big part of the reason why his HR/FB ratio has always been so low. It looks hittable, but hitters just can’t seem to square it up.

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  8. And just inked for 5 more years . . . priceless.

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  9. Snowblind says:

    Fantastic writeup, Mr. Moore.

    It’s very rare to see an article about a feat like this that avoids spinning off into hyperbole, rambling, or pointing out the obvious. This article very neatly captures what made this specific perfect game so well-done, and makes me appreciate Cain’s approach to the game in general. And all with very accessible and simply written uses of pitch data.

    Also, I now feel like I have a better understanding for what the absolute best outcome of “pitching backwards” can be. I’ve always heard that phrase tossed around, but Cain’s work last night really demonstrated it well, as you pointed out.

    Nice work!

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  10. James says:

    Fun to see the fan in the background of the second gif raise his fist, knowing that the induced groundball would produce an out.

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  11. A lot a hard throwing guys have come into Righetti’s shop, Cain, Wilson, Casilla and Lincecum to name a few. It seems he’d rather make them pitchers and not throwers. You bet your BABip’y,

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  12. Cain’s beauty is that he is a right-handed crafty lefty. He has that “stuff” that allows him to have a much below average BABIP than the vast majority of pitchers pitching today.

    And what people who don’t know much about Cain need to know is that Cain has been like this from the get-go. Sure, he has improved himself over the years – in particularly, dropping his walk rate to minuscule levels – but he has been a no-hit pitcher from the beginning, just waiting for it to happen. He is a pitcher, not a thrower, almost preternaturally as he was like this when he was only 20 and joining the Giants, so he’ll go for the strikeout if it’s there, but he trusts his stuff enough that should they make contact, it’ll be weak contact most of the time.

    And this is not surprising to most Giants fans. In his third MLB start, he had a complete game 2 hitter with only 1 walk and 8 strikeouts. The GameScore of that game? 86, not that far away, but ultimately almost 7 years away from this perfect game. Unfortunately, 1 of those hits was a homer, so it was not a shutout, which might have gotten more national attention, but still, it got a lot of Giants fans attention. And without that homer, his GameScore would have been 90. Ironic since he has rarely given up homers over his long career, much lower HR/FB than other pitchers as well (as BABIP).

    The shocker for long time Giants fans is the perfect game. That is the big surprise as he had around a 4.0 BB/9 average in his early years. However, he has steadily improved, to mid-2’s the past couple of seasons, and now mid-1’s. Maturity and experience, paying off, so it is not a surprise now, but relative to where he was 7 years ago, big surprise.

    The odd thing is that there were a lot of Giants fans who wanted to trade away Matt the past few years because these fans wanted more offense. Us who wanted to keep him knew that he was too valuable to trade away, as pitching is the key to the playoffs and World Series championships. Luckily Sabean knows this too, as he has built the Giants around pitching and fielding (among the leaders in DRS per Fielding Bible the past few seasons).

    The Giants – potentially Team of the 2010’s Decade – is built off of stout pitching and Cain has been the stoutest of them all, Lincecum included. And with this game, now everybody knows it.

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  13. question says:

    btw this site is becoming a little bit too SFG-centric lately. 4 Matt Cain stories in 2 days? i think i now know what a Yankees or Red Sox fan feels like while watching ESPN.

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