Cain's perfect game much more than just latest pitching gem
San Francisco's Matt Cain threw the first perfect game in Giants franchise history
He struck out 14 Houston Astros in a 10-0 win for the year's fifth no-hitter
Cain may finally be emerging from the shadow cast by teammate Tim Lincecum
Matt Cain threw a perfect game at home against the Astros on Wednesday night. There have now been five no-hitters through the first two and a half months of this season, including two perfect games, 14 no-hitters dating back to the start of the 2010 season, including four perfect games, and five perfect games thrown in the last 36 months. Such performances are still rare enough that their recent frequency registers as little more than a random clumping, but it's understandable if fans are starting to get a bit blasť about no-hit games.
What Cain did on Wednesday night, however, was special even in that context. He didn't just throw a perfect game, he turned in one of the most dominant nine-inning performances in major league history.
Cain not only retired all 27 Houston hitters he faced, he struck out 14 of them, tying the record for strikeouts in a perfect game set by Sandy Koufax in 1965. Of the 227 no-hitters in major league history, only five of them (including three by Nolan Ryan) saw the author record more than 14 strikeouts, and none of those games were perfect. According to Bill James' "Game Score" statistic, the most dominant nine-inning performance in major league history was Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout, no-walk one-hitter in 1998, which resulted in a game score of 105 (out of a maximum 114 points). Cain's performance on Wednesday night tied Koufax's perfect game and Ryan's seventh and last no-hitter in 1991 (16 K, 2 BB) for second place with a game score of 101.
So go ahead and grouse about the frequency of no-hit games in recent years (heck, this was the third no-hitter this month) or about no-name pitchers like Philip Humber and Dallas Braden throwing perfect games, but don't begrudge Cain. What he did Wednesday night was a step above the other no-hit games in recent years. It was also completely in character.
After Jered Weaver threw the second no-hitter of this season back on May 2, my editor asked me to speculate about who might throw the next one. That seemed like a fool's errand at first, but it didn't take me long to settle on Cain as the most likely candidate. Here's what I wrote at the time:
"Looking at the period from Opening Day 2010 to the present, among pitchers with 250 or more innings pitched, those who have the lowest batting averages against have been:
1. Justin Verlander, .207
2. Clayton Kershaw, .209
3. Jonathan Sanchez, .211
4. Matt Cain, .214
5. Jered Weaver, .214
Three of those guys -- Sanchez, . . . Weaver and Verlander -- have thrown no-hitters. Cain, the Giants' star righthander, already has a one-hitter and another nine innings of two-hit ball to his name this season. He faced just 28 batters in shutting out the Pirates . . . on April 13, but rather than an error or a walk, the only baserunner he allowed came on a single (on a weak groundball by the opposing pitcher, James McDonald, no less). In his next start, Cain faced just 29 men while holding the Phillies scoreless for nine innings, allowing just two singles and a walk, the last of which was erased by a double play. He came out for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the ninth, while [Cliff] Lee, his opponent that night, pitched 10 scoreless innings.
Cain has thrown two other one-hitters in his career and one other two-hitter and has consistently held his opponents to a low batting average on balls in play (BABIP). From the start of the 2009 season through the present, Cain's opponents have just a .257 BABIP, the lowest mark against any pitcher with 300 or more innings pitched over that span."
There's no such-thing as an inevitable no-hitter, but Cain was beginning to have the look of a pitcher for whom it was just a matter of time, much like Tom Seaver or Dave Stieb, both of whom came close several times before finally adding their name to the no-hitter scroll.
You might have noticed that Cain is keeping some pretty heady company in these paragraphs: Koufax, Ryan, Seaver, pre-injury Kerry Wood and Stieb (who, for those willing to look past pitching wins and losses, may have been the best pitcher of the 1980s), not to mention three of his four his contemporaries on that list above of the lowest batting averages against, Verlander, Kershaw and Weaver. It could well be that Wednesday night was the night that Cain officially became an ace.
For years Cain has been considered a step below, be it because he was overshadowed by two-time Cy Young-winning rotation mate Tim Lincecum, because of the poor run and bullpen support that has too often saddled him with underwhelming won-loss records or because of the low BABIPs that have made advanced calculations and advanced analysis diminish his performance as overly dependent on luck or fielding. It might be time to do away with all of that, however. Since the start of his age-24 season in 2009, Cain has posted a 2.87 ERA (better than a 132 ERA+) across 757 2/3 innings. Over that same span, only seven pitchers with 600 or more innings pitched have posted a higher ERA+: Roy Halladay (who tops the list at 154), Kershaw, Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Weaver. Those are the best pitchers in baseball over the past three-plus seasons, and Cain is one of them.
With Lincecum suffering through a disastrous season, Cain has emerged as the Giants' ace. On Monday, I wrote about where the Giants would be if Lincecum was pitching well; just imagine where they'd be if Cain, whose perfect game moved San Francisco within 3 1/2 games of first place in the NL West, wasn't.
Cain is now 8-2 with a 2.18 ERA on the season, the latter the second best mark in the National League and third-best in the majors, and he leads the major leagues in both innings (95) and innings per start (7.3) among qualified pitchers. Whatever you thought of the six-year, $127.5 million extension the Giants signed him to at the start of the season, that contract looks a lot better now. Cain will be just 32 in the final year of that deal, 33 if his option for 2018 vests, and a little more than a third of the way through year one, he has been the best pitcher in baseball.
Sometimes, as in the case of Humber and Braden, the perfect game is bigger than the pitcher that threw it. In this case, the perfect game, one of the handful of the most dominant nine-inning games ever pitched, could prove to be just another artifact of a tremendous career.