Cain vs. Cahill

Posted By on April 18, 2011 10:13 am

My pal Grant Cohn (of CSN Bay Area and the Cohn Zohn) asked me via twitter yesterday:

Who’s going to be the better pitcher in three years: Trevor Cahill or Matt Cain?

It’s an interesting question, and I don’t think a no-brainer either way, but I went with Cain.

If we look simply at last year, Cain had a 3.14 ERA over 223 innings, with a 1.084 WHIP, and he was 25 years old. Cahill had a 2.97 ERA over 192 2/3 innings, with a 1.108 WHIP, and he was only 22. Right there, you can make an argument that Cahill will be better in three years, because he’s three years younger and he was slightly better in 2010.

However, I’m not ready to go that far.

Cahill was fantastic in 2010, but it was his first year being that good. Remember, in 2009 he had a 4.63 ERA and he went into 2010 competing for the No. 5 starter job, which he lost. Yes, it’s true that he was only 21 in ’09, so it’s possible (probably likely) that the improvement from ’09 to ’10 was just a normal learning curve and not a fluke. I do believe that Cahill’s career will go a lot closer to ’10 than ’09 most years.

But there was some flukiness involved in ’10. Opponents hit .237 against him on balls in play, which is far better than the norm (around .300). Even if he does prove to be one of those rare pitchers who can consistently induce weak contact year after year, he’s probably not going to be that good.

I don’t really like using BABIP (or it’s cousin, FIP) for judging past performance, as you know. And I also don’t like attributing a good BABIP to pure luck. I think there is skill involved in getting outs on balls in play. It’s just a skill that’s tough to repeat. Over the course of a year, you aren’t likely to miss the barrel of the bat and get good defense behind you so consistently. Doesn’t mean that you didn’t earn it in those rare years when you do — like Cahill last year — but it means that it’s going to be tough to do again.

Every once in a while, you find a pitcher who can consistently put up good numbers by inducing weak contact.

Like Matt Cain.

Over Cain’s five full seasons in the big leagues, he’s held opponents to a BABIP between .254 and .282 four times.

Before I lose you in statistical mumbo jumbo, here’s what that means to me: Matt Cain is The Man. He has figured out this pitching thing. It’s all about disrupting a hitter’s timing, and he does it. He’s just going to keep cranking out very good seasons until age starts to catch up to him, which is at least six or seven years away. I’ll take him over just about anyone — including Tim Lincecum — if I’m picking teams for 2014.

Cahill may turn out to be as good as Cain. Heck, he may even be better. Wouldn’t shock me. For now, though, I’m not ready to make that assumption based on one year. I’ll take the guy who has proved it over five years.

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