Matt Cain's Perfect Game Began His Ascent Into Elite Status

  on June 25 2012 6:17 PM

     On June 13, 2012, AT&T Park in San Francisco was finally able to witness its next "big moment." In 2010, the Giants clinched each series of their improbable World Series title on the road and fans were deprived of celebrating at home. Sure, Jonathan Sanchez threw his no-hitter at home, but Juan Uribe's error at third diminished the "magic factor" of the night.

     However, with nine innings of pure dominance, 27-year old Matt Cain gave the home crowd what they'd been waiting for. Not since the days of Barry Bonds' race to become the 'Home-Run King' had the park been as electric as it was that Wednesday night. As fans began to realize what Cain was in the middle of, the cheers and chants began to pick up in intensity. Of course, no perfect game is without an amazing defensive play. Buerhle had Wise, Halladay had Castro's two spinning throws from third, and Cain had Blanco. 

     In the top of the seventh, Astros leadoff hitter Jordan Schafer hit a shot into right-center field (known as Triple's Alley at AT&T). The initial hope was that center fielder Angel Pagan would be able to get it, but it was soon realized he couldn't make up the ground. Enter Gregor Blanco. Blanco had to travel across triple's alley to somehow make a diving catch at the warning track (the catch was made more so in center than right field, so there's a bit of perspective as to how far Blanco actually had to run). How did Blanco practically end up in center? Why had the defensive alignment been made that way? Who knows, but it was just one of those things that happens on a perfect night.

     Cain received 10 runs of support that night, but ample run support has eluded Cain over the course of his eight-year career. He has a career ERA (earned run average) of 3.27 and a career WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of 1.17, both extremely solid figures. But thanks to the lack of runs the Giants have scored for him, he only has a 78-75 win-loss record. Cain has had extremely rough luck, but he goes out and pitches hard every game, competes, and does his best to put his team in a position to win. There is another young pitcher in the National League that reminds me of Matt Cain in a few ways, and that pitcher is Washington Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann (age 26).

     The first thing that draws comparison is their physical makeup. Cain is 6'3" 230 pounds while Zimmermann is 6'2" 220 pounds. Both are big, strong power pitchers. Thanks to an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery in 2009, he hasn't yet displayed the horse-like durability that Cain has shown. Cain threw four complete games in his first four years (one each year) while Zimmermann has thrown one complete game in his approximately one and a half big league seasons (Zimmermann is in his fourth year, but has pitched only one full year which came in 2011). Now that Zimmermann is healthy again, I expect his durability to mirror that of Cain's first few years.

     Another comparison is each pitcher's 'stuff.' Early in Cain's career, he was mainly a fastball guy that developed filthy secondary pitches as time progressed. Zimmermann is in the midst of developing those secondary pitches. He is one of the hardest throwers in the league, and as he develops his changeup and breaking pitches, he will have a similar repertoire to Cain.

     Now comes the biggest comparison(s): Stats and run support. Through Cain's first three years, he had a 3.73 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP, 7.7 strikeouts per 9 innings, and a 22-29 record through 70 starts. Zimmermann's career numbers so far include a 3.60 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.4 strikeouts per 9 innings, and a 15-24 record through 63 starts. The numbers speak for themselves, through the first 65 or so career starts of each pitcher, their numbers are near identical. And while they have solid numbers, both pitchers are victims of lack of run-support. This lack of run-support is a key factor in the career losing records of each guy.

     Cain has played second fiddle in the Giants rotation thanks to Tim Lincecum (not so much the case this year) and Zimmermann has done the same with Stephen Strasburg headlining the Nationals rotation. Strasburg has also had Tommy John and is subsequently an injury-risk going forward, so there's always a possibility that Zimmermann can develop into the ace of his rotation like Cain has. 

    Though similar in age, Cain has pitched longer at the big league level and has much more experience than Zimmermann. As Zimmermann enters his prime, with a bit more experience, he has the potential to be what Cain has become. He can be a guy that: you can depend on every fifth day, throws you quality innings, can be an all-star, and can become the ace of a rotation.  Is Zimmermann capable of throwing a perfect game like Cain? Sure, all it takes is 3 hours of every single thing going your way, but since there has only been 22 in over 100 years, history is against him. But remember the name Jordan Zimmermann; he might become a household name like Matt Cain in the near future.

*Statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com