The three-time All-Star and three-time World Series champion will hang up his spikes at the age of 32 after one final start in San Francisco.
The sterling career of Giants starter Matt Cain has come to an end. On Wednesday afternoon, the 32-year-old righthander announced that he's calling it quits at the end of the season, with one final start on Saturday at home against the Padres. It's a sad departure for Cain, who has struggled through the last five seasons due to injury, but it caps off a tenure with the Giants that saw him help the franchise win three World Series titles, as well as throw a perfect game in 2012, as one of the National League's top pitchers during the late 2000s and early 2010s.
A native of Alabama and first-round pick in 2002 (No. 25 overall, between Joe Blanton and John McCurdy, who were both picked by the Moneyball A's) out of high school, Cain rocketed through the Giants' system despite his youth, impressing enough to be named San Francisco's top prospect before the 2005 season. He made his major league debut that year at the tender age of 20; at the time of his call-up on Aug. 29, he was the second-youngest player in MLB.
Cain finished the season in the Giants' rotation and quickly became a dependable fixture in the team's starting five: Over the next seven years ('06–12), he averaged 33 starts and 213 innings a season on a 3.30 ERA. Among all starters with at least 1,000 innings thrown in that span of time, his 1,490 are sixth most, with his ERA+ (123) and Wins Above Replacement (30.1) also ranking sixth.
During that run, Cain made the All-Star team three times and finished in the top 10 of the NL Cy Young voting three times as well, with a high of sixth in 2012. That season also saw him throw the 22nd perfect game in major league history and the first in Giants franchise history. In a completely dominant outing against the Astros on June 13, Cain struck out 14 Houston hitters, tying Sandy Koufax for most punchouts in a perfect game, and even contributed a single in a 10–0 Giants win.
Beyond the perfecto, Cain was also a monster in the postseason for San Francisco. A key part of the 2010 champions, he didn't give up an earned run in 21 1/3 innings that October, including seven shutout frames against the Phillies in Game 3 of the NLCS and 7 2/3 scoreless frames against the Rangers in Game 2 of the World Series. He wasn't quite as sharp in '12, stumbling in both of his Division Series starts against the Reds and in his first NLCS turn against the Cardinals, but his 5 2/3 shutout innings in the deciding Game 7 helped San Francisco complete a 3–1 series comeback. Against the Tigers in the World Series, he allowed three runs in seven innings in Game 4 as the Giants won in extra innings to sweep Detroit for a second title in three years.
Unfortunately, 2012 was the beginning of the end, as all the innings caught up to Cain in a hurry. His '13 season was his first under 200 innings since his sophomore season in '06, with his ERA spiking from 2.79 to 4.00, and from there, he was constantly beset by arm troubles. Bone chips in his right elbow ended his 2014 season in July, leaving him unable to contribute to that year's World Series run, and a forearm strain before the '15 season limited him to 60 2/3 innings; when he did take the mound that year, he was awful, posting a 5.79 ERA and a career-low 6.1 strikeout-per-nine rate and allowing nearly two homers per nine. Things were no better in either '16 or this season: A hamstring injury cost him two months of the former, during which he was lit up for a 5.64 ERA in 89 1/3 innings, and he's managed only 119 1/3 frames in the latter with a 5.66 ERA between the rotation and bullpen.
What made Cain's decline all the worse is that it began just a year after he signed a five-year, $112.5 million extension—at the time the largest deal ever given to a righthanded pitcher in MLB history. As such, the Giants ended up shelling out $20 million a year, from 2013 to this season, for Cain to throw only 544 innings (or 109 a year) and put up a 4.86 ERA. Cain's contract was set to expire after the season, with a $21 million team option that was going to be declined, and rather than take to free agency as an over-30 pitcher with a history of arm troubles and a fastball that can't break 90 mph any more, he apparently elected to hang up his spikes instead.
It's a shame that Cain fell so far and hard and struggled through all those down seasons, but at his peak, he was easily one of baseball's best pitchers for a seven-year span—the guy you dreaded to see coming up against your team. Cain was never a hard thrower, averaging just 92–93 mph on his fastball, but he was a master of precision and location, limiting home runs and walks and getting tons of soft contact. His perfect game will go down as one of the best ever, and his contributions to two World Series winners can't be overlooked. Together with Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Brandons Belt and Crawford, he was part of a tremendous homegrown core that was the envy of every general manager in baseball, and he helped lift the franchise out of its post-Barry Bonds malaise. As is the refrain from San Francisco fans whenever a key member of those championship teams moves on or retires, he was a Good Giant.
It's never fun to see an athlete fade away, but Cain at least gets to walk out on his own terms and give the home fans one last chance to salute him before he moves on. So let's say so long to Matt Cain: He was a man in his time, and he's a man today.