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What to do about Matt Cain?

5/17/2013

By the second inning of Thursday night’s game between the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies, the concerned, panicked and, let’s face it, angry tweets about right-hander Matt Cain started flowing in consistently. Cain allowed three home runs early in what ended up as a victory in Coors Field, as Todd Helton, Nolan Arenado and Wilin Rosario each took him deep. But still, I’m neither concerned, panicked nor angry, despite the fact Cain leads the big leagues in home runs permitted with 13.

It’s dangerous to make major decisions from start to start with reliable pitchers who were perhaps originally drafted as a team’s ace. Yes, Cain had some hiccups in April, posting a 6.49 ERA and serving up nine home runs in six winless starts, though his reasonable 1.29 WHIP and strong strikeout rate alleviated worry for me. In two May outings before Thursday, Cain righted the ship, so to speak, winning twice and permitting eight hits and one long ball in 15 1/3 innings. So we weren’t particularly worried entering Thursday, but an outing at Coors Field changes that again? Fantasy can be a roller coaster, but outings in Denver should be considered part of a different ride.

Cain’s staff mid-May rankings reflected his underachieving start to the season, as he fell to No. 47 overall after being 29th on our preseason rankings. But trying to deal this proven, durable pitcher at this point isn’t wise. Anything is possible in trade talks, but the time to deal Cain was before Thursday, if you were truly concerned. I wasn’t. Cain has annually outperformed his metrics; his career ERA of 3.35 doesn’t match up with his 4.19 xFIP, but he takes advantage of his spacious home ballpark and the fly ball pitcher has never allowed more than 22 home runs in a season. He might do that this season before June, but still, expect better days. After all, his WHIP is 1.21. Trust the WHIP, not the inflated 5.43 ERA.

Cain’s metrics point to the same ol’, same ol’, except for the skyrocketing HR/FB rate, and after all the homers Thursday he settled down, allowed nothing else and earned the win. The walk and strikeout rates are on par with past seasons. He isn’t allowing more fly balls than usual, they’re just going farther. His velocity is about the same, and he’s throwing more sliders, which isn’t really proof of anything. Batters aren’t swinging at as many of his non-strikes, and they’re making more contact with strikes, but it’s tough to call nine starts a worrisome trend.

There’s plenty of starting pitching these days, but there’s little reason to believe Cain is not the same guy you trusted in March drafts. Expect solid numbers from here on out. Now as for colleague Ryan Vogelsong, well, run away!

Box score bits (NL): So much for that pretty ERA for Rockies right-hander Jhoulys Chacin. He gave up eight runs to the Giants in 5 1/3 innings, and his ERA rose from 2.70 to 4.07. Let’s just say he’s a better play in road games. &#133 New York Mets lefty Jonathon Niese was oddly better in road games last year, and he seemed to get back on track Thursday in St. Louis, allowing two runs over 7 1/3 innings for his third win. Niese’s command was much better than recent outings, and his fastball velocity was up. If he pitches like this moving forward, he’s a top-50 starting pitcher option. &#133 Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce hit a two-run double in the 10th inning, giving him 24 RBIs on the season. Bruce is striking out in a shocking 30 percent of his at-bats and walking less; I wouldn’t necessarily buy low, assuming he’s a top-50 player the rest of the way, but he can still provide a solid season. &#133 Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Travis Snider hit his first home run and stole a base Thursday. You might not believe this, but Snider is also hitting .292. I wouldn’t sound the breakout alarm yet, but at least he’s in the majors, right? Take a shot in deeper formats, he’s only 25. &#133 That’s two solid outings for Bucs lefty Francisco Liriano. How many will I need before I believe? Talk to me in July. &#133 The very available Adam LaRoche has homered in consecutive games and is hitting .386 in the past fortnight. Yeah, you bet I think what he did last season was legit.

Box score bits (AL): What’s wrong with Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander? Nothing, probably, but the Texas Rangers teed off for eight runs Thursday. Verlander was off; he issued two bases-loaded walks in one inning and Geovany Soto homered. Geovany Soto! Don’t assume Verlander is hurt or sliding. &#133 We can assume New York Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte is hurt after he left Thursday’s start early with a sore muscle in his back. Even if he doesn’t end up on the DL this weekend, he’s a poor play next week. &#133 Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin went six weeks without a stolen base but now has steals each of the past two days, three total. There’s talent here, buy low. &#133 Anyone who tries to trade Rangers ace Yu Darvish because he threw 130 pitches Thursday doesn’t understand that pitchers used to do this routinely! He’ll be fine. &#133 Chicago White Sox infielder Jeff Keppinger drew a walk Thursday, his first of the year. About time! &#133 Don’t be fooled by Los Angeles Angels right-hander Jerome Williams, despite pitching well against a poor White Sox offense twice in a week. There’s no strikeout -- or any -- upside here.