Closing Time: The lesson of Matt Cain

We routinely face a dilemma in this column when a name-brand star has an amazing performance. When Josh Hamilton hits four homers, say, what can we really tell you? Go out and pick up Hamilton? Often we'll just doff our caps somewhere under the fold when franchise players do incredible things; acknowledge the game but keep it off the front page.

The rules are a little different with Matt Cain, however. We can make a teaching point as we discuss what surely was the best pitching moment of the season.

As you know by now, Cain was letter-perfect in Wednesday's romp over the Astros: 27 up, 27 down. Cain struck out 14 and only needed a modest 125 pitches (86 of which were strikes). He was in complete control from beginning to end, though this sparkling grab from Gregor Blanco came in handy. It's the first perfect game in Giants history, and the 22nd for the MLB record books.

Although fantasy owners have been hip to Cain for a while, he's been a controversial sujbect in the stathead community. Cain's been able to outperform his peripherally-suggested ERAs on a regular basis — I can't begin to guess how many calculators have been broken over this guy. Including this year, Cain's front-door ERA has beaten his FIP number in 7-of-8 seasons. He's beaten his xFIP every year, buoyed by a 6.5 HR/FB rate for his career. Cain's lifetime ERA is 3.28, though SIERA shouts out 4.11. Ace Pitcher 3, Spreadsheet 0.

I'm not meaning to denigrate any of these advanced metrics, or the very bright people who came up with the research. I couldn't be more thrilled to live in the Age of Enlightenment, and I can't wait to see what we learn in the next five years, 10 years, 20 years. Just make sure you never get married to any one stat; never make the mistake of thinking a single acronym offers you the keys to the kingdom. There will always be outliers, to the good (guys like Cain) and to the bad (round up the usual Nolasco Suspects).

A big part of Cain's success comes from his home park, of course. He has a career 3.00 ERA and 1.12 WHIP pitching in San Francisco; those numbers jump to 3.60 and 1.23 on the road. This year he's been untouchable at AT&T Park (1.45/0.61) and merely good in the other turns (3.23/1.21). But keep in mind his tidy HR/FB rate goes with him everywhere; it's 6.2 percent by the bay and 6.9 percent out of a suitcase. This deep into Cain's career, it's safe to say his stingy HR/FB rate is a skill he can call his own.

Outliers are out there, friends. While we can't strain our backs reaching for these stories, the Matt Cains of the world sometimes come around; the Jose Bautista breakouts occasionally come around; the Tim Lincecum crash-and-burn stories sometimes emerge out of nowhere. Keep an open mind.

And how about one more for the amazing file, the incomparable R.A. Dickey. I suppose his one-hit wonder at Tampa Bay (1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 12 K) is also worth a few words.

He's now carrying a 2.20 ERA and 0.94 WHIP for the year, bringing his control and his strikeout rate into startling areas. No one seems to feel comfortable predicting long-running success for any knuckler, but geesh, the guy has produced a useful fantasy turn in 24 of his last 25 starts, dating back to the middle of 2011. (Alas, I had Dickey streamed for his one bad turn in the mix, the eight-run stinker at Atlanta back in mid-April, dodging the Peachtree raindrops. I even watched the matinee and everything. Am I bitter about this? Just a little.)

Dickey's amazing season is mostly supported in the ERA estimators: 2.91 FIP, 2.86 xFIP, 2.71 SIERA. And we shouldn't hold Dickey's .258 BABIP against him; it's common for knuckleballers to have low hit rates. Dickey's career BABIP is .292, and he's been .278 or lower since joining the Mets in 2010. New York's Butterfly Effect is here to stay; this is a story worth believing in.

With all due respect to all the other MLB pitchers who were electric Wednesday (especially you, Lance Lynn), eventually we have to downshift to other stories — like the pitchers who aren't getting people out right now. Milwaukee closer John Axford has hit a rough patch of late, allowing six runs and 10 baserunners over his last four appearances (including a blown save at Kansas City on Wednesday). He's walked five men in this juncture; sometimes Axford has too much stuff in the mound and has no real idea how to command it. At least he's still getting strikeouts at an elite rate (34 in 23.2 innings) and Francisco Rodriguez hasn't been great this year (4.34/1.52, less than a K per inning). The Axman might not have an infinite leash, but it's unlikely his job is in any jeopardy.

Will a return to the No. 2 slot in the Detroit lineup fix Brennan Boesch's season? He's 11-for-21 over his last five starts, with two homers, and they've all come in that cushy spot in the order, working in front of the Motown Mashers (Cabrera, Fielder). Boesch is also starting to move well in the field and on the bases, so perhaps he's finally over that nagging ankle sprain. Market confidence has dipped on Boesch, to the point that he's available in about two-thirds of Yahoo! leagues.

Matt Garza's loss to the Tigers wasn't as bad as the five runs might suggest; only three tallies were earned, and he had five strikeouts against zero walks. Don't let the 2-5 record and 4.04 ERA fool you; Garza is currently posting the lowest WHIP of his career, he's still getting three strikeouts for every walk, and he's likely to be dangled in trade talks all summer (as an affordable No. 2 starter). Now is the time to try to get Garza on the cheap, amigos — he might be with a much better club for the final two months. Anywhere but here.

Speed Round: Scott Rolen (shoulder) is about ready for a rehab assignment and could be back with the Reds on Monday, though I can't imagine Todd Frazier losing his grip on the third-base job. … I have nothing new to add on Trevor Plouffe, just enjoy it while you can and add him where you can. He's a four-position guy and he seems to homer every day, including another blast Wednesday. He's never had a batting-average profile, but the pop has always been here. … Pedro Alvarez took the Wednesday collar and is now at .191 with 65 strikeouts. What would have to happen before this guy was handed a ticket to Triple-A? You're in contention, Pittsburgh — you don't have time for this out-machine. … I can't say much about Brandon Moss's pedigree, but he has homered three times in the Coors Field series. If you need a deep-league play through Oakland, I'm more interested in surging Seth Smith and or infielder Brandon Inge (in part because of the two positions). … Although Andy Pettitte has a minor hand injury, he did fine in a Wednesday bullpen session and should be able to start Saturday at Washington. For all the wonderful stories about the Nats this year, this is still a weak offense overall (24th in runs). Deploy Pettitte where you can. … Adrian Gonzalez collected three hits at Miami, but of course they were all singles. … I'd love to see the Padres give Everth Cabrera a shot as their No. 2 man — that's a big distinction when it comes to a National League rabbit. Cabrera is 7-for-18 in this spot (albeit with no walks); he went 1-for-4 Wednesday at Seattle. He's 8-for-8 on steals since joining the Padres 24 games back. … Doug Fister (side strain) is expected to start Saturday against Colorado. But it always seems to be one step forward, one step back in Detroit; rookie Drew Smyly (blister) is DL-bound. … Drew Stubbs (oblique) remains in limbo; you wonder why the Reds haven't put him on the DL yet. Chris Heisey hasn't done much in the meantime, going 10-for-43 in June with 14 strikeouts (against just one walk).

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