Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Five years ago, when I was in the second semester of my freshman year of college, San Franciso Giants starter Matt Cain took a couple of no-hitters into the fifth or sixth inning in April, causing my roommate and I to declare that Cain would undoubtedly be the next pitcher to throw one.
This was before the no-no craze of the past few seasons, back when you were lucky to get one per season. From April 18, 2007 to Tuesday night, there were 20 no-hitters, none of which were thrown by Cain. He had thrown plenty of one-hitters in that span, including a shutout of Pittsburgh this past April. Every time he did that, I would tweet or text my old roommate, reminding him of the prediction we made.
Then Wednesday night that prediction finally came true.
Cain threw the 22nd perfect game in major league history in a 10-0 rout of the Houston Astros, striking out 14 batters. I won't rehash the game, as my colleague Jesse Pantuosco has already provided an eloquent look at Cain's dominance of Houston in a column earlier Thursday.
What I will say is that with this perfecto, one thing is clear: Cain (8-2, 2.18 ERA) has finally made the leap from good to great. I'm sure you're all familiar with this, as Detroit Tigers starter Justin Verlander did the same thing last season.
After going 83-50 with a 3.77 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP from 2006-10, Verlander went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 0.92 WHIP last year. Similarly, Cain went 67-72 with a 3.39 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP from 2006-11.
Despite those numbers, Cain never received the recognition that Verlander did. Verlander had a no-hitter, received better run support and didn't have to share publicity with a two-time Cy Young Award winning teammate like Cain did with Tim Lincecum.
Cain was even upstaged by Lincecum in the 2010 postseason despite going 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA in three starts. Lincecum went 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in six starts that October. But Lincecum has floundered this season with a 6.00 ERA, handing center stage to Cain for the first time.
This April should have been an indication that 2012 was going to be a special season for the Giants right-hander. After his shutout performance against Pittsburgh, Cain two-hit Philadelphia over nine shutout innings, allowing his team to win 1-0 in extras. However, that Philadelphia game also began a string of four straight starts without a win for Cain despite a 2.08 ERA in that span, and it was looking like 2007 all over again, when he went 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA.
But Cain quickly reversed his luck with a win in each of his last seven starts, capped by the perfect game last night.
Verlander similarly threw a no-hitter against Toronto during his Cy Young Award and American League MVP season, but that performance actually kicked off Verlander's dominant stretch. Prior to the no-no, Verlander was 4-3 with a 3.75 ERA. From the no-hitter on, he went 20-1 with a 1.77 ERA.
This type of leap doesn't happen often -- the natural progression of talents like Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw experienced last season at age 23 occurs much more frequently. What Verlander did and what Cain has done is transcended the line from above average to elite after spending five or six seasons as part of the former group.
Cain has done it by slashing his walk rate to 1.52 BB/9 after walking more than three batters per nine innings over his career. He also has increased his K/9 from a 7.53 career rate to 9.09 this season.
Due to those improvements, Cain's overall numbers -- 2.18 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, .192 BAA and 96 strikeouts in 95 innings read much like Verlander's 2011 line. That's not too shabby for the 14th starting pitcher drafted in Yahoo! leagues (ADP: 59).
Verlander was selected first among pitchers in 2012, and considering how Cain has pitched this year, we may see the San Francisco ace join Verlander at the top of drafts in 2013.