Your 2006 Giants: Cain Rising or Bust?
Cain is probably the best prospect to come out of the Giants farm system since Will Clark and definitely is the best pitching prospect to come out of the Giants farm system and do well out of the 35 seasons I have followed and enjoyed the Giants. Not that there were a lot of them, Montefusco, Bob Knepper, Scott Garrelts, John Burkett, Jerome Williams, and now Noah Lowry. He had a meteoric rise through the system since he was drafted out of high school, culminating in 7 starts at the end of 2005, to allow management to kick the tires and see how good he really is. Boy, was he good.
Late season, 20 years old, never really pitched into September before, and only two years removed from his season being cut short because of elbow problems, Cain shouldn't have the conditioning to pitch this late in the season, he should have been tiring already. However, he was strong enough to pitch well for 7 games at the MLB level: 2.33 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, extremely low H/9 (4.7), low HR/9 (0.8), but borderline bad W/9 (3.7) and borderline good K/9 (5.8). This after playing well in the hit-happy PCL: 4.39 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 7.3 H/9, 1.4 HR/9, 4.5 W/9, and superlative 10.9 K/9.
Not only that, but he also faced Colorado and Arizona twice in those short 7 games and, given that they should have learned something for the second time around plus he should have been even more tired, plus was in Colorado for the second game, he still did well against them the second time around, though just a hair worse:
1st games: 12.0 IP, 6 H, 3 R/ER, 1 HR, 5 BB, 6 K, 2.25 ERA, 0.92 WHIP
2nd games: 12.1 IP, 9 H, 4 R/ER, 2 HR, 5 BB, 7 K, 2.92 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
Lastly, you throw in a masterful 2-hit, 1-walk, 8-K complete game, giving up only 1 run on a homer, and this is against a veteran Cubs team fighting to reach .500, fighting to stay in 3rd place, and fighting to extend a 3 games winning streak into 4 games, but was shut down totally, you have a bunch of giddy Giants fans over their young prospect starting pitcher.
We'll start with the bad stuff. FIP is not kind. Whereas his actual ERA was 2.33 in 2005 at the MLB level, FIP analysis rates his performance out to be a 4.06 ERA type of performance for the average pitcher and xFIP, which takes into account standardized HR rates, his xFIP is 5.23, where FIP and xFIP are indicators of how well he pitched relative to other pitchers and are better indicators of where his true ERA lies, not his actual ERA.
Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster had a better view of Cain. This is because FIP relies only on his short MLB experience whereas his and Bill James systems should account for his AAA performance as well. The Baseball Forecaster sees Cain pitching 160 IP, 148 K, 10-6 record and 3.61 ERA, 1.18 WHIP. Rates predicted were 8.4 K/9 (very good), 3.7 W/9 (so-so, ideally want under 3.0), 2.3 K/W (good, minimum of 2.2 is best), 0.8 HR/9 (under 1.0 is good). They have a propriety Pitching Quality Starts (PQS) system where games are rated and then the games are labeled DOM (for Dominating), DIS (for Disaster), and other - Cain had 57% DOM/0% DIS for the seven games he pitched in the majors. As I had shown in the Morris post, anything over 50% appears to be the elite pitchers, over 70% appear to be the top pitchers.
Bill James was very high on Cain for 2006. His book sees Cain starting 30 games for 184 IP, 142 hits and 17 homers, with 74 walks and 181 strikeouts, leading to a 14-7 record and 3.16 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. That translate to 8.9 K/9 (very good), 3.6 W/9 (so-so, ideally want under 3.0), 2.4 K/W (good, minimum of 2.2 is best), 0.8 HR/9 (under 1.0 is good), which are all very similar to Ron Shandler's, which is not too surprising, Shandler is a disciple of James and used James' techniques to start with and went on from there.
Not that Shandler's book wasn't also high on Cain. The author, Patrick Davitt, of Cain's description noted, "Walks are a small concern, but he has the stuff to be an elite, high-K, front-of-rotation starter." Music to this Giants' fan's ears.
Hard to say since he hasn't had much MLB experience to extrapolate off of, hence why I include some predictions from a variety of methods. I expect Cain to do well, the only question is how well he will do. A 3 ERA is definite but low-3 or high-3, I could go either way - I won't dare dream of a sub-3 ERA but I think that is a possibility if he can get off to a good start.
Since he will be pitching lower in the rotation, as long as the top three of Schmidt, Morris, Lowry, do as they are expected, he should not feel too much pressure to be superlative, he should be relaxed enough to just let his talent to shine. Even then, he is finally the first Giants prospects out of the Sabean prospects that have been described to be "mature beyond his years" to actually appear to be "mature beyond his years." He appears to be a dream come true, a prospect who is good but well grounded and polite, confident but willing to learn, humble but confident of his abilities and talents.
I think the sky will be his limit. And if you point a gun to my head and force me to guess what he will do, I would say that there is a good chance that he will have a better performance than any of the starting 3 of Schmidt, Morris, and Lowry. He is that good, he is that strong, he is that smart, enough to concentrate on just how well he does, not in comparison to anyone else, not to show off anyone, just to build upon, little by little, his expertise. His goals are equally to do well and to learn something, continuously, with every game he pitches. And he has done well at every level of the game he has played at. And he's only 21 for the 2006 season, he should be the leader of the Giants post-Barry period, leading by example. I expect him to be signed to a long term contract covering his arbitration years after the 2006 season, if not during.