The San Francisco Giants were largely viewed as unsuccessful during the MLB hot stove season, which is the time that most free-agents sign with respective clubs. San Francisco, the reigning World Series champions, were highly active during the preliminary discussion process, but missed out on several key free-agents, including pitchers James Shields and Jon Lester, and position players Pablo Sandoval and Yasmany Tomas.
General manager Brian Sabean was able to entice outfielder Nori Aoki and third baseman Casey McGehee to come to the city by the bay, but the Giants biggest off-season acquisition may already have been on the 40-man roster.
Matt Cain, 30, will return to the mound today, March 9, against National League West rival the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is expected to throw one inning, with a pitch limit set near 30.
The 6-foot-3, 230 pound right-hander was shut down last season after bone chips in his throwing elbow were discovered. In actuality, Cain acknowledged that he has always had bone chips in his elbow, throwing with them for at least 10-plus seasons. There is some speculation that Cain started to be bothered by the ailment during 2013, although the three-time All-Star did not confirm this. The normally reliable pitcher doesn’t like to miss starts, so he tried to gut his way through until the discomfort became too much and drastically effected his pitching. Cain told the San Jose Mercury News in August of 2014 about the bone chips, “I’ve had them for 10 years. They’ve always been there. Now they’re mad and letting me know about it. For some reason something happened. They’ve gotten to a different spot.”
Before deciding to have surgery, Cain sought the opinion of three doctors in hopes of trying to avoid surgery and come back after some rest. It was determined by all three doctors that surgery was the best option. He underwent surgery performed by Giants’ team orthopedist Dr. Ken Akikzuki on Aug. 14. Timetable for Cain’s return was set for three months, which would have easily had him ready in time for Spring Training.
Giants’ Manager Bruce Bochy was amazed Cain was even able to get out on the mound and pitch with the bone chips, saying during an August 2014 interview, “They’re pretty big. It’s amazing this guy was pitching.”
While recovering from the elbow procedure, it was discovered that Cain also had a bone spur in his right ankle. The Tennessee native decided to have the bone spur removed during a procedure on Sept. 27, 2014. The estimated time of recovery for the ankle was two months, which would delay some of the pitcher’s rehab for his elbow.
With both procedures completed and deemed successes, Cain arrived at San Francisco’s spring training home in Scottsdale, AZ with the intent of being in the Giants’ rotation at the start of the 2015 season. The right-hander missed out on San Francisco’s run to a World Series title last season after being a key cog in the 2010 and 2012 championships. Cain will be making his first start of the spring approximately a week after most of the other starting pitchers, which allowed him to throw a few more side sessions and live batting practice before facing opposing team hitters.
He seems pleased with the progress he has made thus far.
“The arm is feeling good and everything is going the right way,” he said after a recent throwing session. “Now it’s just getting the repetitions, getting on the mound a lot.”
If San Francisco hopes to repeat or at least make it back to the MLB postseason, the Giants will need Cain to regain the form that has allowed him to become one of the games better pitchers prior to 2013.
During the past two seasons, Cain has struggled to a combined record of 10-17 with a 4.09 ERA. Prior to 2013, when the bone chip problem is believed to have started, the right-hander recorded his best statistical season ever in 2012, finishing with a 16-5 record with a 2.79 ERA, the lowest ERA of his career (he did have a 2.33 ERA during the 2005 season, but he made just seven starts and did not lose his rookie status at this time) and 193 strikeouts. Cain was so good during the 2012 season that he recorded the first perfect-game in Giants’ history against the Houston Astros on June 13, 2012. He finished the game with a career-high 14 strikeouts.
Cain was also named the starter for the National League All-Star team.
It appeared after the 2012 season that Cain was approaching the prime of his career, but things changed for the right-hander as he struggled during 2013.
Cain, who had become the ace of the staff during the 2012 season, was struggling to throw strikes. He normally used his fastball to get ahead of hitters, working both up in the zone and on the corners. But 2013 saw a dip in his fastball usage. According to www.fangraphs.com, Cain used his fastball just 48.8 percent of the time. The velocity average of 91.2 MPH was still on par with the previous season, but it appeared he did not trust the pitch anymore, instead opting to use his slider 28.2 percent of the time – the highest usage rate of this career with the secondary pitch.
Something didn’t appear right; some chalked it up to a World Series hangover, and others the extra innings that Cain had thrown during the previous season because of San Francisco’s postseason run. Whatever the case, when 2014 rolled around, Giant fans were hoping he would revert back to his old form.
Unfortunately, 2014 got off to a worse start.
Cain again was struggling with command, missing the strike zone and allowing 3.2 walks-per-nine-innings, a rate he hadn’t approached since 2009 when he averaged 3.0 walks-per-nine-innings. Because of his lack of command, Cain also averaged just 7.0 strikeouts-per-nine-innings, the lowest average of his career (he did average just 5.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings during the 2005 season, but did not qualify as a rookie).
When looking back at what caused Cain’s struggles during 2014, it can be traced back to his inability to establish the strike zone with his fastball and get ahead of hitters. Cain did increase his fastball usage rate to 50.9 percent and saw his velocity increase a tick to 91.6 MPH, but too often he was throwing his fastball in the strike zone after falling behind a hitter.
Another dilemma facing Cain was the drop in the use of his slider and the increased use of his change-up. After using his slider 28.2 percent during the 2013 season, Cain used the secondary pitch just 19.5 percent during 2014. Making up the difference was a jump in the usage of his change-up, which he threw a career-high 17 percent of the time. During 2013, Cain threw the secondary pitch just 11.3 percent.
It is believed that Cain increased the use of the change-up while decreasing the use of the slider because of the discomfort caused by the bone chips. Cain had tried to push through the pain, but the discomfort had become too much for the right-hander to handle. He could no longer will his way through. His performance had significantly dipped; he compiled a 1-5 record with a 5.15 ERA over a six-game stretch that finally convinced the San Francisco workhorse that a doctor’s visit was needed.
Now that surgery is complete and Cain is back throwing at Spring Training, optimism can begin for the right-hander’s season. He has had no setbacks during his side throwing sessions and should be able to build up his arm strength and stamina in time for the regular season.
His catcher and former National League MVP, Buster Posey, believes Cain should be able to regain his form.
“It’s not going to be a perfect path the whole time, but [Cain] seems to be doing great,” said Posey. “Just talking with him, he seems really happy with the way he feels.”
Cain is encouraged by the fact that he is able to let pitches go again without worrying about discomfort in his elbow.
“Everything felt good. We’re taking steps in the right direction,” he said about the ability to throw all his pitches again.
If the Giants hope to contend during 2015, Cain will need to flash numbers similar to 2009-2012, which resulted in the pitcher averaging 14 wins, an ERA of 2.93, 180 strikeouts and 220.2 innings pitched. This is something a healthy Cain should be able to accomplish, especially with the competition that will be brought on by ace Madison Bumgarner, fiery Jake Peavy, and Tim Lincecum. Throw in the unflappable Ryan Vogelsong and the Giants could make another run at a title with a healthy Cain as an important piece to the puzzle.
“Oh, it’s going to be a lot of fun throwing in the same rotation as [Cain],” said Peavy, during an interview with Giants’ Insider Andrew Baggarly. “I can’t wait to work with him and learn from him.”
I’m sure all San Francisco fans can’t wait to see that happen during the regular season as well.