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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):

1-1

1-2:

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.