Cain's record-setting deal makes sense and will impact others
Five thoughts recapping a slew of contract extensions: Giants starter Matt Cain became the highest-paid righthanded pitcher in baseball history ($127.5 million guaranteed from 2012 through 2017, with an option for 2018); two emerging stars -- Alex Gordon with the Royals and Asdrubal Cabrera with the Indians -- signed up for more years in the AL Central; and Reds first baseman Joey Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, was reported to be close to his own long-term deal.
Why Cain -- a pitcher who has never finished better than eighth in NL Cy Young voting -- is the new owner of the largest contract ever given to a righthanded pitcher in baseball history is all about timing (his) and misperception (those held by casual observers).
By becoming a full-time major leaguer at age 21, Cain was set to complete the necessary 6+ years of service time for free agency during the 2012 season when he will still be just 27. He won't turn 28 years old until Oct. 1. So while a glance at his career results suggest "very good pitcher" more than "historically great pitcher," the Giants are banking on the fact that Cain will still be in his prime for most (or all) of this new contract.
In the last six years the only $100 million contracts handed out to pitchers were for lefthanders while seven righthanded pitchers signed contracts worth more than $70 million. That list is as follows: Roy Oswalt (five years, $73 million), Felix Hernandez (five years, $78 million), Justin Verlander (five years, $80 million), A.J. Burnett and John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million), Jered Weaver (five years, $85 million) and Carlos Zambrano (five years, $91.5 million).
Cain essentially leapfrogged the salary range representing the going rate for righthanded starters. That he received more than the aforementioned pitchers is not totally surprising given considerations of age and proximity to free agency. Notably, only Burnett and Lackey were free agents at the time their contracts were signed; Hernandez and Verlander were both two full seasons away from free agency. That Cain exceeded their salaries by as much as he did, however, was unexpected.
Also, Cain is probably better than you think. Statistical baseball evaluation has come a long way since sole use of a starter's won-loss record to determine his value, but not everyone can get over the fact that Cain, now the sixth-highest paid pitcher in history by average annual value, has a career
But his 7-16 and 8-14 records in 2007 and '08 skew that number. Not only were the Giants a bad team that lost at least 90 games each season, but Cain also received by far the worst run support of any starter in baseball. The Giants scored, on average, 3.32 runs for every nine innings he pitched those seasons, more than three-quarters of a run worse than that for any other qualified starter.
Not only is Cain highly effective (3.35 career ERA) but he is also among the most durable pitchers who has earned a spot on the short list of the sport's best.
Cain has completed six full big-league seasons since 2006 while never throwing fewer than 190 2/3 innings and never making fewer than 31 starts. In the last four seasons he has averaged 220 innings with a 3.17 ERA and 1.18 WHIP. He is one of only nine pitchers to have thrown at least 880 regular-season innings over the past four years.
He is an elite starter, even if his won-loss record fails to describe that because of persistently poor run support. Consider the chart below, comparing Cain to the other eight starters who have averaged at least 220 innings every season since 2008. Those pitchers account for six of the eight Cy Youngs awarded in that time span; only Cain, Haren and Shields have never won a Cy Young.
(Note: RSA is Run Support Average, a STATS LLC measurement for the amount of offensive support a pitcher receives for every nine innings he pitches. ERA+ is a Baseball-Reference.com statistic adjusting ERA for league and ballpark with 100 as average.)
Cain's extension with San Francisco is worth a total of $127.5 million over six seasons and has an option that could raise compensation to a total of $141 million over seven years. That easily surpasses the second-largest contract ever given to a righthanded pitcher, the $105 million, seve-year deal Kevin Brown signed with the Dodgers before the 1999 season.
Though Cain is clearly underappreciated in terms of award voting, he also is clearly not the greatest righthanded pitcher in baseball history. He's not even the best on his own staff.
Lincecum, who is a negligible 108 days older than Cain, has the better career numbers (see above table), not to mention two Cy Youngs (2008 and '09) and the higher starting salary ($20.25 million average value this year and next).
While Lincecum will be one year older than Cain at the time he is originally scheduled to become a free agent, that won't be enough to change the fact that he will earn a good chunk more than Cain just received. The Giants surely understand this and will have their work cut out for them to make it happen.
• The other big beneficiaries of Cain's new contract? The Phillies' Cole Hamels and the Brewers's Zack Greinke. Both pitchers are scheduled to become free agents at the end of the 2012 season, and both can make a compelling argument that they should receive at least the same as Cain if they are in the open market of free agency. Plus, Greinke has a Cy Young and Hamels has been World Series MVP.
Here's how they stack up to Cain in the same categories outlined above:
• The biggest losers on Monday? The Dodgers and Phillies. With the Dodgers having been sold for a record $2.15 billion last week, pundits were quick to project their primary targets in their first two offseasons of free agency; that list was headlined by Votto and then either Cain or Hamels to be a co-ace alongside Clayton Kershaw. Now the Phillies' chance to sign Hamels before he hits free agency has presumably diminished. The Dodgers, meanwhile, won't be able to sign Votto and have more pressure to make sure they land Hamels.
MLBTradeRumors.com reported Monday morning that Votto and the Reds were close to an extension that CBSSports.com later said would keep him in Cincinnati for the next 10 seasons at $200 million.
If such a deal is completed, it will be a major coup for the Reds, whom few expected to have the resources to retain Votto long-term. The 28-year-old was the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2008 and has been among the game's best players ever since. From 2009 to 2011 Votto ranked third among all major-leaguers with a .983 OPS, trailing only Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera; Votto's .418 OBP is second and his .565 slugging is third. In 2010 he won the NL MVP, and in 2011 he led the league in doubles and walks while winning his first Gold Glove. His FanGraphs-computed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the last three years is 18.9, fourth among all major-leaguers.
Such two-way players are rare, and even rarer has been the player of Votto's caliber to play his whole career with one small-market team.
Lost in the shuffle were extensions signed by two core players in the AL Central: leftfielder Alex Gordon with the Royals (four years, $37.5 million with a $12.5 million player option for 2016) and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera with the Indians (two years, $16.5 million for the 2013 and '14 seasons).
For the smaller market teams looking to compete with the free-spending Tigers in the AL Central, such contracts are a key part of the blueprint because they lock up homegrown players into free agency.
Gordon's contract covers what would have been his first two seasons of free agency; Cabrera's buys out his final year of arbitration eligibility and what would have been his first free-agent season, letting him still hit free agency at age 29.
Both players took giant steps forward last season. Gordon, the highly touted No. 2 overall pick in 2005, had been labeled a bust before breaking out in 2011 with a .303 average and .879 OPS, with 23 home runs, 45 doubles (sixth in AL), 101 runs (10th), 17 stolen bases and a Gold Glove in leftfield.
Cabrera was named to his All-Star team and won the Silver Slugger at shortstop after he hit 25 home runs last season (compared to 18, total, in his previous four seasons); he batted .273 with a .792 OPS and 17 steals.