A Bad Night For Baseball Atheists

2012 June 14

A headline inspired by this tweet (I just want to utilize WordPress 3.4′s new simple Twitter embedding):

I know I’m feeding the troll here, but it reminded me and another person on Twitter of the “bad night for atheists” line during Josh Hamilton’s amazing HR derby display at Yankee Stadium a few years ago. But at least Heyman’s tweet has a bit of truth to it. Up through the 2010 MLB season, most sabermetric-loving fans didn’t believe in Matt Cain’s success. Even I criticized my own pick of Cain in a Roto Hardball mock draft before the 2011 season, citing his “unsustainable” home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB%). Well, over the past two years, Cain’s HR/FB% has remained in line with his career numbers and this year he’s made the leap to total dominance when you consider his improved strikeout and walk rates. The Giants choosing to give him a big contract extension — while postponing a decision on Tim Lincecum — is looking better every day.

Yet Heyman is unsurprisingly off when it comes to referencing the right stats to put down. While Cain’s career batting average of balls in play (BABIP) is pretty low, that’s not unusual for a fly ball pitcher. What’s extraordinary is the low HR/FB%, which is reflected in his constantly higher expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) numbers. xFIP regresses HR/FB% to league average, utilizing strikeouts, walks, and fly ball rate; but at this point it looks like Cain has no inclination to adhere to that rule. He just keeps getting better while Lincecum keeps getting worse.

Those last two paragraphs cover one interpretation of the headline, the one often joked about by @waxinthaksin on NeoGAF and Twitter to describe saber fans. This is the interpretation Jon Heyman would subscribe to. We — True SABRs like myself — have no faith, we only believe in the numbers. Only a couple of years ago, the numbers told us that Matt Cain was only good, but he’s turned out to be great. Where are your numbers now?

The other way to take the headline is to think it’s talking about people who aren’t into baseball. People that don’t believe in its awesomeness. There were almost two perfect games tonight. Both R.A. Dickey and Matt Cain are former first-round draft picks, but they couldn’t have taken more divergent paths to their pitching gems tonight. Dickey made it to the majors with a traditional pitch arsenal 11 years ago, but he never succeeded until he perfected his knuckleball with the Mets as a 35-year-old. Cain stormed to the majors at 20 years old and has been a 200-inning workhorse ever since. Dickey looks like the mountain climber he was this offseason, and shouldn’t even be able to pitch, as he has no UCL in his right elbow. Cain, meanwhile, is a solidly-built 6’3″ and has never given anyone a reason to doubt his ability. The only thing that stopped these two completely different pitchers from forever being intertwined in baseball history were a couple of David Wright miscues.

That’s the great thing about baseball. You watch as many games as you can because you know at any time you might see something that’s either never been done before or has only happened a handful of times. Matt Cain’s performance tonight is one of the best in baseball history; he struck out 14 batters in a perfect game. The only other pitcher to accomplish such a feat is some guy named Sandy Koufax. R.A. Dickey dominated a game like no other knuckleballer has ever done. 12 strikeouts, 0 walks, and 1 hit that shouldn’t have been ruled a error. And we already had a perfect game and two no-hitters this year. And a 4-HR game. I’ll throw the coming-out parties of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout in this paragraph, too. Baseball is amazing.

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