Matt Cain: Giants Overpay for Quality

Categories: Business, Sports
Matt Cain baseball card.JPG
Matt Cain can afford it...
The news that Giants stalwart right-hander Matt Cain is the new beneficiary of a five-year, $112.5 million contract extension will, inevitably, be greeted by analysis of whether the team overpaid or not.

There are three ways to answer that: "Yes"; "yes with explanation"; and "baseball salary numbers have grown so astronomical that you'd have to resurrect Carl Sagan to answer that properly." 

Let's focus on the first two of those.

Yes. There's no way around it -- when you award your no. 2 starter $22.5 million a year, you've entered into a strange new realm. You also ensure that when Tim Lincecum comes eligible for free agency in 2013, he's going to be able to essentially assume control of the mint atop Mint Hill. Soon, perhaps, it shall be known as Lincecum Hill.

While it's hard to not be a Cain fan, the following breakdown is still warranted:

  • Over the past three years, Cain has averaged 221 innings pitched per season. If he duplicates this in 2012, he'll be earning $101,810 per inning. That's $33,937 per out recorded.

  • If Cain matches the 33 starts he made in each of the past three seasons, he'll earn $681,818 for each appearance. If he were to record a career-high 15 victories next year, that'd be $1.5 million per win.

Yes with explanation. Noting the statistics above, it's hard to say any player "deserves" this sort of money. Fair enough. On the other hand, any player being offered the moon and the stars by an owner would be foolish not to accept; the notion of whether he "deserves" the payday is irrelevant. (Unlike, say, the director of the Municipal Transportation Agency, you and I don't have any skin in the game when it comes to paying Cain's salary. It's not our money).

The Giants paid exorbitantly to obtain the services of Barry Zito -- seven years, $126 million. That was a stinker contract that had its share of naysayers at the time; Zito's career was on a downward trajectory when the team chose to make him the highest-paid player in baseball.

With Cain this is not the case. You could argue that the Giants have overpaid for quality. Cain's statistics -- which you can see here -- are remarkably steady. He's an innings-eater who makes 33 starts a year like clockwork. His walk totals are getting lower and lower. Last year he better than halved the number of home runs allowed. His win totals are always low -- he's actually lost more games than he's won in his career -- but that's largely due to some of the worst run support imaginable. (You'll notice that Cain had the sixth-lowest run support in all baseball last year. The worst -- by a large margin -- was Lincecum).

Cain is a damn good pitcher. And now he earns elite pitcher money. Or, perhaps, this is a sign of what's to come, and we'll have to adjust our notions of "underpaid" and "overpaid" accordingly.

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