The Milwaukee Brewers didn’t win the World Series in 2018, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a successful year. After several frustrating seasons of rebuilding, a division title (in a one game playoff against the hated Cubs, no less!) and a trip to the NLCS felt like huge strides in the right direction. It seemed as though the team had arrived a year early in a manner reminiscent of the 2015 Cubs, with better-than-expected seasons from young players and star turns from big offseason additions. In 2019, their young pitching staff would have another year of experience, and by adding Yasmani Grandal, the front office kept the talent pipeline primed.
144 games later, things haven’t gone as planned. The Brewers are out of playoff position, though they have lately gained ground, with only a 25% chance of reaching the postseason. Christian Yelich’s season-ending fracture adds injury to insult — a second straight MVP season would be a fun September storyline, and without Yelich’s bat, the team’s chances seem even more remote. Before his injury, however, Yelich was absolutely carrying the Brewers, improving on his MVP 2018 nearly across the board. Grandal has been magnificent as well, walking and slugging his way to a 123 wRC+ in addition to his usual excellent framing.
If those two have done so well, why aren’t the Brewers having a better season? Injuries have taken their toll. The pitching staff hasn’t developed as hoped, but that’s hardly shocking given how volatile pitching can be. More surprisingly, Lorenzo Cain has gone from down-ballot MVP contender to merely another guy, and on a team without much outfield depth, the decline has been particularly tough to deal with. While he’s been slowed by a knee injury since early August, his season was hardly better before then — his wRC+ has actually increased since sustaining that injury. What’s wrong with Cain?
One look at that oldest of statistics, batting average, will tell you something’s not right. From 2014 to 2018, Cain hit .300 or better four times and had an overall .301 average to pair with a .361 OBP. His .253 and .321 marks in 2019 are near career lows. The last time he was hitting like this, he wasn’t Lorenzo Cain, star outfielder. He was simply Lorenzo Cain, Royals prospect with a good glove. The gap between this Cain (0.9 WAR) and star-turn Cain (5.7 WAR in 2018) is so wide that it’s hardly believable.
Batting average isn’t the most valuable statistic, but the three components that make it up are all trending in the wrong direction for Cain. First, there’s strikeout rate. Strikeouts count against average without giving you a chance for a hit, so limiting strikeouts is a key component to hitting for a high average. It’s a part of the game that Cain has often excelled at — he hasn’t struck out more than the league average since 2014, and he actually got better at it as the league has gotten worse, posting a career-low 15.2% rate last year. This part of Cain’s game is worse, but that’s hardly surprising given the high bar he set last year, and his 16.9% strikeout rate is still tremendous.
If it’s not the strikeouts, is it the home runs? Home runs are hits that don’t give fielders any play on the ball, an automatic outcome not subject to the vagaries of defense and luck. If Cain lost a lot of home run power, we’d see it in batting average, and it would also sap his overall value tremendously. Read the rest of this entry »