Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cain's Perfecto

Baseball is a funny game. A series of sudden engagements separated by waiting and patience and space and idleness. Two players--the pitcher and the catcher, take up at least 85% of the activity, while everyone else tries to keep prepared for an instantaneous response to action. What the players do--throw, catch, hit, run--must be done with perfect efficiency and accuracy. Every tiny failure of precision or timing counts against you.

It's also a game of statistics. Everything is weighed, recorded, measured. The dimensions of the playing field--the diamond--are perfectly constructed to test the limits of each player's (or team's) competence to accomplish an end. But there are other things which are largely beyond control, such as the umpire's calls, the greater dimensions and conditions of different fields, and the weather.

Pitching is probably the most demanding role on the field. Certainly, that's been common wisdom since the game's inception in the 19th century. "Pitching is 90% of the game." I don't know who first said that, but it's a perfectly reasonable statement. If a pitcher can keep the other team's batters from hitting or getting on base, they won't score any runs.

How difficult is it consistently to throw a major league baseball 90 feet, with accuracy and varying speeds and spins, at a target, under conditions of stress and distraction? We can judge by the statistical averages of relative success or failure. It has been said that baseball performance is measured by degrees of failure. The best hitters, for instance, successfully get hits, on average, only about 28-34% of the time. In other words, they fail far more than 50% of the time. Successful pitching is far more difficult to measure.

The best measure of a team's success is winning. But with pitching--an individual's statistics may not truly capture his abilities and positive performance. Pitchers don't work in a vacuum: How a pitcher's team supports him in the field, and at the plate, is a major factor in how well he will do over time.

Perhaps the biggest aspect of a pitcher's aptitude and performance is how well he can respond to challenges and pressure, both in games, and over the course of a season or series of seasons. Great ability by itself may mean nothing. Strength and agility and concentration must be disciplined. Stretched out over 7-9 innings of a single game, or over a full season of starts (or appearances, as in the case with relievers or closers), the best talents will show tendencies which reveal a player's true value. Baseball is "slow"--which is another way of saying that it's a long season. Regular starters can expect to be asked to begin between 20-35 games a year. Conditioning, mental preparation, and experience are crucial factors leading up to the first pitch of a game. But once a game begins, action and changing circumstances take over, and problems and difficult situations happen fast.

And yet, as fast as events unfold in a game, it's also a "mental" contest. The time between each pitch is filled with tension. The mind, and the body, must be loose, relaxed, but at the same time intensely focused, cocked. There's a crucial balance. You want to throw fast, but not so fast you lose control. You want to put the ball exactly where you want it to go, but you can't "aim" it. You have to concentrate hard on making your body follow your commands exactly, but you also have to remain balanced, rhythmically poised, "loose." All the while people are trying to distract you, and there's the crowd noise, and the soft dirt in front of the mound where your forward foot lands is just a little too hard, and your left heel is a little sore from a misstep you took walking up the stairs last week, and your wife might be pregnant with your third child, or a bit of grit just flew into your right eye. Each batter presents a unique set of skills and abilities. The umpire may have a grudge against you, from a previous altercation last season, and not call your strikes strikes.

The delicate balance between accuracy, power, and unpredictability required for successful major league pitching is so difficult that few pitchers succeed even part of the time. In the aggregate, baseball is a zero sum game: Exactly as many wins as losses will take place in every regular season. That means that, on average, half of all pitchers will have "losing" records as winning records. And yet, we also know that the major leagues are comprised of the best talent in the sport, and that every player who reaches that level is uniquely talented and the very cream of the crop of talent. They're all "stars." From their earliest experiences as kids, these guys have been "winning"--and yet at least half, or more, of these over-achievers will have to adjust to being, at least in the statistical sense, "losers."

Baseball, then, in the main, is a matter of failure, of being beaten by the odds, the "averages." With all that failure and frustration to deal with, it's a wonder there aren't more nut cases like Jimmy Piersall. It's a wonder that more players like Jonathan Sanchez--a promising young left-handed pitcher for the Giants who threw the team's last no-hitter in 2009 before Cain's last night--don't buckle under the weight and become "head-cases" who can't realize their full potential. Or like Aubrey Huff, a key member of the Giants' World Series Championship in 2010, who finally cracked this year under the combined stress of family problems and poor statistical performance.

In the major leagues, for the vast majority of players, then, it isn't how you stay motivated by your own physical genius and ingenuity that defines you, but how you deal with the failure that, eventually, becomes everyone's destiny. Staying focused and unbowed by failure is often the defining measure that separates superior players, from all the rest.

I've followed Matt Cain's career with interest since he came up in 2005. He was only 20 then, an age when most men are still trying to figure out who they are, much less adjusting to the major challenges of professional sport. Some players are cursed with bad luck, and for the first four years of his young career, Cain seemed snake-bitten. His team seemed unable to support his efforts, and routinely scored few if any runs in his starts. By the end of his fourth season, he had a combined 30-43 record, and seemed destined to mediocrity, at least on paper. But it was also apparent, if you paid attention, that he wasn't the type to get down on himself. He possessed two character traits which are essential for pitching success in the big leagues: Coolness under stress, and the ability to ride out bad luck and come back with determination.

Pitching staffs can be constructed out of various combinations. Pitchers may have meteoric careers, with two or three great years, then fade fast or slow. Others, like Cain, may begin slowly, gaining steam and confidence, and perform very well over a decade or more. The greatest pitchers, who have long successful careers, generally have vastly superior skills, and are lucky enough to remain healthy over the long haul. Warren Spahn, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddox, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter.

Matt Cain, it would seem, may well end up having a career that resembles one of these names. Several stars would have to be in the correct alignment for this to occur. The Giants would have to remain competitive. Cain would have to stay healthy, which he has been so far. And the desire and commitment would have to be there, as well. As a person, he seems quiet and modest and humble, preferring to let his deeds speak for him. He's a country boy, a guy of few words, who doesn't crave attention.

No one deserves the success he's had more than Cain. Overshadowed by Timmy the Freak phenom, and having suffered through a very difficult time early in his young career, he's persevered to become the current ace of the staff. It would not be a surprise, given his achievement so far this year, to see him win 20 games and a Cy Young, if he is able to keep up the current pace. This may be his "year." And/or it may be the beginning of a string of great years.

Last night, Cain's perfect game showed how dominant he's become as a pitcher. As with most record games, this one included two miraculous defensive plays to save the day--in particular, Gregor Blanco's diving catch on the warning track, which might be one of the greatest catches by an outfielder in the history of the game.

Are there any lessons to be learned from Cain's example? If at first you don't succeed . . . comes immediately to mind. Just desserts is another. Poetic justice. What comes around. Certainly a heart-warming event. You can't keep a good man down.

1 comment:

Rebecca Clack said...

Good article on Cain. You should forward it to Giants organization so maybe there's a chance he could read it.
Great blog.
Good writing.
Good subjects.