Justin Verlander vs. Matt Cain, by the numbers
Justin Verlander and Matt Cain will start Tuesday night's All-Star Game in Kansas City. What do the numbers say about their chances?
|Detroit's Justin Verlander and San Francisco's Matt Cain will match pitching wits and skills in Kansas City. (Getty Images)|
They have some similarities, these two. Both are hard-throwing right-handers who also feature wipeout breaking pitches. Both are former first-rounders who have spent their entire professional lives with the same organization, and both made their major-league debuts in 2005. As well, both are defensible, if debatable choices for the honor of starting this, the 83rd All-Star Game.
Verlander, of course, is the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, while Cain, in addition to authoring a perfect game earlier this season, has established himself as one of the top hurlers in the NL. And so the question at hand: What can we expect from them on Tuesday night in Kansas City?
Pronouncing what any pitcher will do over an isolated span or an inning or two is undeniably a fool's errand, but where's the harm in a few numbers, right? So let us make with the numbers ...
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In terms of park- and league-adjusted ERA, Verlander this season is 59 percent better than than the league average, while Cain is "just" 34 percent better than the mean.
Of course, it's usually wise to try to separate, as best we can, a pitcher's performance from the defense behind him, and that's especially the case in the All-Star Game, when a pitcher isn't surrounded by the usual supporting cast.
On that front, we can turn to fielding-independent pitching, or FIP. FIP evaluates what a pitcher's ERA should be based on the things over which he exerts the most control -- i.e., strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. Verlander boasts an FIP this season of 2.94, while Cain, again in terms of FIP, is at 3.12. So there's not much difference in terms of their underlying numbers.
Strength of opposing hitters? Courtesy of Baseball Prospectus, we learn that the batters faced by Verlander this season have an average OPS of .764, and those opposed by Cain check in at .752. So a slight edge there for Verlander.
These, of course, are the days of interleague play, which means that hitters and pitchers across leagues usually have at least some exposure to each other. So let's start with Verlander's career numbers (including any postseason encounters) against the NL starting nine ...
|NL Hitter||PA vs. Verlander||AVG/OBP/SLG vs. Verlander||HR vs. Verlander|
And here's the same for Cain against AL hitters ...
|AL Hitter||PA vs. Cain||AVG/OBP/SLG vs. Cain||HR vs. Cain|
As you can see, in every instance the sample size of plate appearances is vanishingly small -- too small to mean much of anything, really. In the aggregate, the NL starting lineup, in 47 total plate appearances, has hit .143/.213/.214 against Verlander, while the AL lineup, in 53 total plate appearances, has hit .244/.340/.289 against Cain. Even the team totals, though, don't provide an adequate data sample. But there it is just the same.
Now let's give some thought to the (imposing) repertoires of Verlander and Cain. This season, Verlander's top three pitches, according to FanGraphs data, are his fastball (58.5 percent of his total pitches), curve (14.8 percent) and changeup (16.5 percent). So how have the hitters he'll face on Tuesday night fared against these three offerings?
To get a rough answer to this question, we'll turn to something called "pitch-type linear weights." If you're interested in a more in-depth exploration of what these are, then give this a quick read. For our purposes, though, just have a look at these figures, which estimate, in run values per 100 pitches, to what extent a hitter has handled a given pitch. To the NL numbers for 2012 (the higher the number, the better a hitter has performed against that particular pitch type) ...
|NL Hitter||vs. FB
As you would expect with an All-Star lineup, they know how to hit fastballs. There are, however, a few NL hitters who have struggled with the curve. And, of course, Verlander's curve and change are better than those of the average bear. It'll be interesting to see whether Verlander's approach to the hitters he faces on Tuesday night bears any relationship to the chart above. Sould he reach the bottom of the NL order, of course, there's no reason for him to abandon what may be the best fastball in the world.
Cain this season has leaned most heavily on his fastball (50.8 percent of his total pitches), slider (19.7 percent) and changeup (16.7 percent). And the AL batters against those pitches in 2012 ...
|AL Hitter||vs. FB
Might you see more sliders than usual from Cain in Kansas City? Perhaps.
On the subject of platoon splits, the NL lineup features two left-handed bats, four switch-hitters and, thus, three right-handed bats. In other words, six NL batters (and four of the first five) will face Verlander from the opposite side. A concern for the decorated right-hander? Not especially. Verlander has, generally speaking, been equally affective against right-handers and left-handers, both in 2012 and throughout his fine career.
The AL lineup has four right-handed bats and five lefties in it, and three of the first five hitters bat from the left side. While Cain has shown a healthy split this season, over the course of his career he's been roughly the same pitcher regardless of batter handedness.
Cain does, however, all but abandon his slider against the opposite side, which might not be such a bad thing against the likes of Cano, Hamilton and Fielder. Verlander also adjusts his approach, going from a fastball-breaking-ball approach against right-handers to fastball-changeup against lefties. Will he stick to that, even though opposite-siders like Gonzalez, Cabrera, Votto, and Beltran have all feasted on changeups in 2012? That'll be something to watch, particularly since Verlander, unlike Cain, won't be working with his regular catcher.
Let's not forget that each pitcher will, in essence, be making a road start. I won't even mention Verlander's career numbers in Kauffman because, let's be frank, facing a lineup of Royals has but the most basic similarities to facing a lineup of All-Stars. I will, however, note that Verlander, both for his career and in 2012, has been substantially more effective at home than elsewhere. The same goes for Cain.
It's of course highly possible that neither Verlander nor Cain stays around long enough to make a complete pass through the opposing lineup (not since Greg Maddux in 1994 has an All-Star starting pitcher gone more than 2.0 innings). If either does, it'll likely be because he got cuffed around in the first inning. It goes without saying that a second time through the order is an impossibility, barring sinister malice aforethought on the part of the managers.
Rest? Cain will be pitching on his usual four days, but Verlander will be starting on five-day's rest. For his career, Verlander has a 3.81 ERA on five days (81 starts) versus a 3.19 career ERA on the industry-standard four days of rest (119 starts). Significant? Maybe.
Finally, let's eyeball how the hurlers of note tend to do early in their starts. Here, in terms of the OPS of opposing hitters (so the lower the better, from the pitcher's standpoint), is how Verlander and Cain, throughout their careers, have performed overall, the first time through the order, through the first 25 pitches of a start, and in the first inning ...
|Pitcher||Overall OPS||OPS 1st time through order||OPS pitches 1-25||OPS in 1st inning|
It seems that Verlander, relative to his overall numbers and relative to Cain's, is more prone to early struggles than you might think. Those trends, in tandem with the possibility that some early opposite-side NL hitters may actually prefer what Verlander tends to throw in those situations, could be factors.
Add it all up, and it might be that Cain, despite the controversy and despite Verlander's superior body of work, is slightly better positioned for success on Tuesday night. Again, though, we're talking about an inning or two in an exhibition game.
So let's play some baseball, shall we?