Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why Re-Signing Matt Cain Makes Sense (And Why Brian Wilson Does Not)

On March 28th, San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean made a big move to solidify the Giants' pitching staff: he re-signed left-handed setup man Jeremey Affeldt, closer Brian Wilson and starting pitcher Matt Cain to contract extensions.

The extensions seem to be preemptive measures by Sabean to take care of their pitching situation right away. Affeldt was in the last year of the two-year contract he signed in 2008, and Cain and Wilson were going to have be in arbitration the next couple of seasons. With these deals, he basically has delayed Affeldt's contract negotiations at least another season, and doesn't have to worry about Wilson's arbitration status until his last year in 2013. As for Cain, all his arbitration years are settled, and all Sabean has to worry about for the time being is when he becomes a free agent in 2013.

The deals aren't cheap, especially in Cain and Wilson's case. Cain is due $27.25 million over the next three seasons while Wilson is due about $19 million over the next three seasons. Considering the two were making around three million dollars COMBINED in 2009, I think it's safe to say that Cain and Wilson (and their agents) will be very happy as they start the 2010 season.

I have already voiced my opinion on the Affeldt deal, so I do not feel there is any need to go over it again. That being said, I am intrigued by the Cain and Wilson deals, manly because I have very mixed feelings about it.

My initial feelings? I like the Cain deal, but I am not sure about Wilson.

First off, to start with Cain, he may not be Tim Lincecum and I am not sure if he will repeat his 2009 numbers, especially in terms of ERA. I don't know if he will get lucky enough to be a sub-three ERA pitcher over his career. Why do I believe this? His strikeout rates aren't great (he has been only in the eight-range once in his career, in 2006 when it was 8.45) and his GB/FB rates aren't impressive either (last year it was 0.92, and that was the best ratio of his Major League career).

So why do I like Cain so much?

Because he is a proven innings eater, he is improving his control and he is only 25-years-old (he is going to be 26 in October).

Just look at Cain's numbers over the course of his career. He has pitched 190-plus innings since 2006, the first year he became a full-time starter in the rotation. In addition, Cain has never allowed more hits than innings pitched in his career. To me, that's promising, even surprising considering he isn't a strikeout artist in the Lincecum/Jonathan Sanchez mold.

However, while Cain has done well in minimizing hits as a pitcher, his control has been an issue over his career. Last year, he made great strides to take care of those problems.

In 2009, his walk rate was 3.02, the lowest of his career (in comparison, in 2008, his walk rate was 3.76 and in 2007 it was 3.56). Yes, his strikeout rate went down to 7.07 (it was 7.69 in 2008), which hurt his K/BB ratio (it was 2.34, only a 30 point improvement from 2008). However, I can live with the drop in K/9 if his BB/9 corresponds as well. Do I think Cain can continue that trend? Absolutely. Look at his first-pitch strike percentage, which jumped from 58.5 percent in 2008 to 61.2 percent in 2009 (it has improved steadily as well since his rookie season). Cain is getting ahead of batters more often, and by getting ahead, Cain is putting himself in more advantageous situations, which accordingly, leads to more success.

Now, a lot of Giants fans believe Cain made dramatic progress last season as a pitcher (mostly because his win totals jumped up). I'm not exactly in that camp, and I know some other writers out there in blogosphere believe the same. That is not a bad thing though. Cain has had a FIP under four since 2005 (the league average varies from the 4.30-4.50 range). According to Fangraphs' WAR (Wins Above Replacement) value translated into dollar amounts, Cain has been worth $16.5, $16.6 and $16 million dollars each season the past three seasons. Thus, the Giants have been getting serious return on their investment in Cain, and if anything, Cain should continue to give the Giants organization return on their investment as he continues to polish up his command and pitch more innings.

In my mind Cain is a solid investment from a baseball executive's standpoint. From a Giants fan's perspective, the deal is even better because Cain is a solid player who gets the job done (whether or not the hitters get the job done around him is a different story). Therefore, this deal not only was must-do for the Giants, but it also turned out great since I don't believe the Giants overpaid for Cain at all (if anything, they were able to get Cain at a good, bargain price).

That being said, my feelings about Wilson aren't quite the same.

Yes, Wilson did show tremendous upside last year. Yes, he was better in 2009 than his All-Star season in 2008. Yes, his strikeout rates were great (10.33) and his walk rates improved from 2008 (4.04 to 3.26). That being said, there are some discouraging numbers in Wilson's case.

His O-Swing percentage (pitches outside the strike zone hitters swing at) was 18.5 percent in 2009 (the league average is 25.1 percent). He has only had an O-Swing percentage in the 20 percent range in his Major League career (2007, when it was 24.7 percent).

His numbers in high leverage situations are also questionable when you look at what he did last year. His walk rate was 6.03 and his K/BB ratio in high leverage situations was 1.78 (and he had a 10.75 K/9 rate in high leverage situations mind you). Furthermore, his fly ball rates are the highest in high leverage situations (38.8 percent in high leverage situations in comparison to medium and low leverage situations, where it is 36.6 and 32.7 percent, respectively), as are his HR/FB ratios (9.7 percent).

What does this mean? Well, in terms of the first point, Wilson doesn't get a lot of people to chase outside the strike zone. That is discouraging from Wilson's standpoint mainly because he has only two pitches he throws with any regularity (he throws his fastball 69.5 percent and his cutter 24.5 percent of the time). Hence, he is not getting hitters to chase out of the zone with his off-speed stuff, and batters are sitting on his fastball because they know he has trouble locating with his off-speed pitches.

That is not good when you're a pitcher in general, but it is amplified when you are a closer, as we have seen in Wilson's case too often the past couple of seasons.

Now, I know Wilson is a likable guy. I admit he is our best closer since Robb Nen. That being said, that's why I think so many fans are in the Wilson bandwagon. The Giants haven't had an average closer since Nen was put on the shelf, and now that the Giants have a guy who is above-average, fans think he is the second-coming of Nen or worse, the next Mariano Rivera/Trevor Hoffman-esque closer.

At this point in his career though, Wilson isn't the next Nen and he isn't the next Rivera or Hoffman. He is a good closer, but that's it: a good, but not great closer.

Therefore, I don't know why the Giants can't wait until after 2010 to re-structure his contract, and let him prove this season on the field that he is getting better as a closer. They got the deal done before arbitration this year (the initial one), who says the Giants management can't do it again?

In Cain's case, I see improvement or at the very least the continued progress of his maturity as a pitcher in 2010. In Wilson's case, I can't see that definitely. He could have a great year, or he could have an off-year. He's just too much of a wild card to predict because a.) he has great stuff and velocity (a point that makes me inclined to believe the former) and b.) his performance in high leverage situations over the past two season has been wildly inconsistent (which makes me inclined to believe the latter).

What makes me less inclined to jump on this extension bandwagon for Wilson is that the Giants have good relievers in the wings. I believe Dan Runzler is good. I believe Sergio Romo is good. I believe Waldis Joaquin is good. Heck, I believe Henry Sosa can be good if moved to the bullpen.

There is a lot of wealth in the farm system in terms of relief arms, so there shouldn't be a rush to figure out Wilson's future. The same can't be said of the starting pitching, especially after Tim Alderson and Scott Barnes were dealt last July, so you can understand in Cain's case.

Of course, I am not naysaying Wilson. I am just a believer that unless a closer is "Top Tier" (in the Rivera, Nathan, K-Rod, Soria mold), then I don't believe a team should pay big bucks for that closer (look at the White Sox and Giants in 2005 who got burned on Billy Koch and Armando Benitez, guys who weren't "Top Tier" but were paid like "Top Tier" closers).

Is Wilson capable of reaching that status? Yes. He has the stuff and he has improved his command in 200 (especially in the second-half), so there is hope. That being said, he isn't there yet, and I don't know why the Giants can't be patient and just wait it out, letting Wilson prove it on the field rather than in the conference room.

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