Statistical Perspectives on Cain's First Outing

So the Reign of Cain started with a somewhat impressive but losing effort. How does his first start compare to those of other highly touted youngsters? Let SFDugout show you.

As has been discussed on this site and presumably many others, San Francisco Giants 20-year old rookie Matt Cain’s first Major League start earlier this week was received with mixed reviews. Some love his pitching repertoire – Giants catcher Mike Matheny called Cain’s stuff “electric, the kind of stuff you don’t see very often” – while others in the media questioned his ability to get the third strike. Many others still caution about anointing the youngster as the future hope of the Giants (see Jerome Williams, Jesse Foppert, and Kurt Ainsworth, in any order).

Sure, the kid’s only one start into his big league career at the age of 20 (he can start drinking beers legally on October 1), but that’s the whole intrigue of the debate, isn’t it? Even in a mostly lost season, it’s fun to ponder the future of a highly touted prospect. Was Cain’s outing really that good or bad? How does it indicate future success? Does he stack up historically with other past blue-chippers? Let’s take a brief comparative look at other recent young starting pitchers’ first outings:

The Good

Felix Hernandez: 8/4/05 at Detroit. 5 IP, 3H, 1ER, 2BB, 4K. Detroit Tigers 3, Seattle Mariners 1. Took the loss for the Mariners. A good leadoff comparison for this article, as he and Cain debuted within a month from one another, and in similar fashion. The 19-year old Venezuelan has since pitched four more starts, winning two and looking impressive every time out. Thus far he has a ridiculous Ks/BB ratio of 38/5. We’ll see if he can live up to the Doc Gooden comparisons (hopefully sans the cocaine habit).

Mark Prior: 5/22/02 at Chicago. 6 IP, 4H, 2ER, 2BB, 10K. Chicago Cubs 7, Pittsburgh Pirates 4. Winning pitcher for the Cubs. Prior had about as good of an outing as you can expect from one of the highly touted minor league pitchers ever. The second overall pick out of USC in 2001, he went on to start 18 more games in 2002, going only 6-6 while sporting a 3.32 ERA with 147Ks in 116 2/3 innings. Prior finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2003, but has been plagued by arm trouble since.

Barry Zito: 7/22/00 at Oakland. 5 IP, 2H, 1ER, 6BB, 6K. Oakland Athletics 10, Anaheim Angels 3. Winning pitcher for the A’s. Aside from the walks, the USC product baffled many an Angels hitter with that big curveball. He went on to have 13 more starts in 2000, and finished the year with a 7-4 record and an impressive 2.72 ERA. Zito won the AL Cy Young Award two seasons later, hurling an amazing nine shutouts. He hasn’t been able to consistently regain the dominance of that season since, but is still a top-flight pitcher.

Kris Benson: 4/9/99 at Pittsburgh. 6 IP, 2H, 1ER, 3BB, 3K. Pittsburgh Pirates 2, Chicago Cubs 1. Winning pitcher for the Pirates. The supposed savior of the beleaguered franchise, Benson was selected first overall in 1996. He started 31 games in his rookie season, and pitched decently for a sub-.500 Pirates squad by going 11-14 with a 4.07 ERA. Trouble is, he never got much better, and was eventually shipped to the New York Mets, where his wife makes more headlines than he does.

The So-So

Rick Ankiel: 8/23/99 at Montreal. 5 IP, 5H, 3ER, 2BB, 6K. Montreal Expos 11, St. Louis Cardinals 7. No decision for the Cardinals. The Minor League Player of the Year in 1999, Ankiel pitched effectively in his first start, then was a swingman for the rest of his rookie season. He had a decent follow up to his rookie campaign in 2000 (11-7, 3.50 ERA, 194Ks in 175 innings), but the infamous control problems that surfaced during that year’s postseason (9 wild pitches in four innings) eventually derailed his career as a pitcher. He is currently attempting to make a comeback in the Cardinals organization as an outfielder.

Kerry Wood: 4/12/98 at Montreal. 4.2 IP, 4H, 4ER, 3BB, 7K. Montreal Expos 4, Chicago Cubs 1. Took the loss for the Cubs. Aside from the strikeouts, Wood had slightly inferior numbers to Cain’s debut. He got much better, though, as he went on to start 25 more games in his Rookie of the Year campaign, striking out 233 batters in 166 2/3 innings (including a memorable 20 Houston Astros in his fifth start). Wood did have to sit out the entire following season due to arm trouble, however, and like his fellow Cubs ace Prior, injuries have thus far plagued his career.

Paul Wilson: 4/4/96 at New York. 6 IP, 6H, 3ER, 2BB, 6K. New York Mets 10, St. Louis Cardinals 9. No decision for the Mets. The first overall pick for the Mets in 1994, Wilson, along with fellow young flamethrowers Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher, became the face of the Mets future. How quick a face can change – Wilson and Pulsipher suffered numerous arm and shoulder injuries, and an oft-inconsistent Isringhausen only found his stride as a closer after leaving New York. Wilson is now currently a back-end starter for the Cincinnati Reds, where he again on the disabled list with shoulder tendonitis.

The Ugly

Jerome Williams: 4/26/03 at Philadelphia. 4 IP, 5H, 5ER, 5BB, 3K. Philadelphia Phillies 10, San Francisco Giants 2. Took the loss for the Giants. Everyone from John Sickels to Peter Gammons raved about this young kid in the Giants farm system with the live arm. Williams went on for 20 more starts in his rookie campaign, and finished with a more-than-respectable 7-5 record with a 3.30 ERA. But he was less effective in his sophomore season, and with his 2005 season off to a troubled start due to family illness, Williams was traded to the Cubs earlier this season. Williams showed great promise then (and to some extent still does), but as it stands now, it can’t be helped to view him as a disappointment.

Chris Carpenter: 5/12/97 at Minnesota. 3 IP, 8H, 5ER, 3BB, 5K. Minnesota Twins 12, Toronto Blue Jays 2. Took the loss for the Blue Jays. Carpenter followed up his debut with a few more stinkers, and finished the 1997 season at 3-7 with a 5.09 ERA. Much like his former Blue Jay teammate Roy Halladay, Carpenter experienced a few seasons of inconsistency before establishing himself as a top-line starter. As recently as 2000, Carpenter led the AL in earned runs allowed, but after a season lost to injury in 2003, he rebounded nicely with the Cardinals, going 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA in 2004 before succumbing again to arm trouble. Fully healthy this season, Carpenter is leading the race for the NL Cy Young Award.

Bottom line – we’ll see. Not every pumpkin turns into Fernando Valenzuela, and there are a few Todd Van Poppels out there as well. Only time will tell.

Don Shin eats, breathes, thinks, and bleeds in Orange and Black. Pac Bell Park officially opened on his 25th birthday (the one year he decided to move out of the Bay Area!!!). For the 2000 playoff drive, he dyed his hair orange while studying in Korea. He watched Game 6 of the '02 World Series at a restaurant in LA, and couldn't finish his meal afterwards. Feel free to write him at to commiserate, cheer, and complain.

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