Lorenzo Cain Hints at the Next Step

With certain players, you just don’t get the usual questions. Lorenzo Cain is one of them. By our numbers, last year, Cain was just about a five-win center fielder. In large part, this was powered by a Defense rating close to +20. UZR and DRS both absolutely loved him, and frequently that magnitude of statistical affection makes some people uncomfortable, but there wasn’t much questioning Cain’s ability, especially come playoff time. He’s obviously an elite defensive center fielder. Last year, he was an above-average hitter and runner. Put it together and you have a great player. It’s pretty easy to explain Cain’s five wins above replacement.

So coming into this year, Cain looked terrific. He stood to be a weapon for the Royals, if somewhat incomplete. Few can match him in the field. Only a few more could match him on the bases. And Cain has learned to hold his own at the plate, after some struggles earlier in his career. Yet Cain still had some room for offensive development. He was far from a finished product, and through a couple weeks now, there’s a sign that, perhaps, Cain is about to lift that part of his game. Let’s take a look at his Thursday.

Important: Cain was playing against the Twins. So, factor that in, however much you want. But there were five plate appearances. In one, Cain drew a walk, which is notable enough — he’s up to four unintentional walks, after drawing 22 all of last year. Yet this is focused more on the baseballs that Cain hit. In order:


Cain blasted this pitch out to left field, down the line, for a two-run dinger.


This pitch, he lined toward right-center, for a single.


This pitch, Cain got under, and he flew out to shallow right field.


Finally, a ninth-inning double, on a line, just fair to right. Didn’t win the Royals the ballgame, but it capped off a heck of a ballgame for Lorenzo Cain.

Five plate appearances, one walk, and either two fly balls and two line drives or one fly ball and three line drives. Doesn’t really matter. Cain didn’t put the ball on the ground, he hit to both left and right field, and he flashed his power. While Cain’s topped out at seven home runs in a season, he is stronger than that, and you wonder if this is the year that he blows through double digits.

Because, here’s the thing: historically, Lorenzo Cain has hit about 50% groundballs. Last season, he finished at 51%, which is a few percentage points north of the league average. It obviously didn’t prevent Cain from posting fine numbers, but Cain was limiting his own strength, and those same numbers came with a .380 BABIP. And that suggests two things — good quality of contact, but also, unsustainability. Hitters don’t repeat .380 BABIPs. Which means the same version of Cain probably wasn’t repeating a 111 wRC+.

Now, this season, Cain has gotten himself off to a scorching start. Not only does he have as many walks as strikeouts, but he has a 233 wRC+, with just 32% groundballs. He’s also hit just 31 balls fair, so, you know, that’s an issue, but given his career rates, you wouldn’t expect him at this point to have bounced just 10 grounders. The odds of that are pretty low without something else going on.

That something else could be somethings else. Maybe the Royals have just faced a bunch of extreme fly-ballers. Early-season samples can be weird like that. And maybe Cain has just happened to make certain kinds of contact. It’s not like he never hit the ball in the air before, and sometimes you just go on stretches. But the Royals have a few interesting things going on. Mike Moustakas is suddenly going the other way, and Lorenzo Cain is suddenly hitting the ball in the air a lot more often. These are both players who have had considerable untapped offensive potential, and they’re still young, and sometimes you look for improvements. That home run that Cain hit in the first inning — he hasn’t looked like that very often before. He had the stance and the swing and the follow-through of a power hitter. He was also swinging against Tommy Milone, but that doesn’t negate the action.

Cain is something of a late bloomer in the majors because he’s something of a late bloomer in the game. You know the story about how he didn’t follow the traditional development path, and so he still has obvious raw elements. Only a few years ago did he learn how to run. What we’re seeing now are hints of a few things: not just consistent swing mechanics, but also plans at the plate. Against Milone, he was looking for that first-inning fastball inside, and when he got it he made sure he didn’t miss it. Hitting is in large part about responding, but it’s also about showing up prepared. Cain could be the most prepared he’s ever been.

Again: hints. This’ll be interesting to re-visit in a couple weeks; this’ll be more interesting to re-visit in a couple months. We need to allow some time for the nonsense to sort itself out. For example, Ben Revere’s groundball rate is down 20 percentage points, and he doesn’t stand to gain a single thing from putting the ball in the air more often. Noise needs time to shut up, and we can’t make it shut up by telling it to. So perhaps going forward Lorenzo Cain will look like Lorenzo Cain. But if he were to take an offensive step forward, would you be surprised? If he were to take an offensive step forward, isn’t this what it would look like?

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

Welcome to Stardom, Lorenzo Cain

9 years ago
Reply to  Ronald

judging by the response so far, I’d say he’s got a long, long way to go.