Lorenzo Cain Is Still Getting Better

As a part of their sudden organizational push, the Brewers almost simultaneously acquired both Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Yelich is only 26, but Cain is 32, yet when the Brewers gave Cain a five-year free-agent contract, they justified the investment by saying they believed his aging curve would be graceful. The Brewers were believers in Cain’s athleticism and track record, and they didn’t see him as a player likely to fall off a cliff. Every team that signs a free agent is optimistic, of course. But Cain was one of relatively few free agents whose market didn’t crater. In an otherwise challenging winter, he got what he was worth.

To this point, Cain’s been even better than the Brewers might’ve imagined. He’s 11th among position players in WAR. He’s more than halfway to his career high in stolen bases. He leads all major-league center fielders in Defensive Runs Saved, and he leads all major-league center fielders in Ultimate Zone Rating. And Cain is also showing off a new and disciplined approach at the plate. I know it’s early, and there’s plenty of contract to go. But Cain isn’t just avoiding decline — he’s taken steps to improve.

Cain has been an excellent baserunner for a while. He’s been an excellent defender for a while. He’s a huge reason why there are developing parallels between this year’s Brewers and the 2014-2015 Royals. To get right to the point, it’s Cain’s eye right now that looks markedly different. Just Sunday, facing Aaron Nola and the Phillies, Cain came to the plate five times. He doubled in a 3-and-1 count, and he made an out in a 2-and-1 count. The other three times up, he walked. Cain has drawn 42 walks; last season, he drew 53. The season before that, he drew 28. Cain has been walking like never before, while his strikeout rate has stayed perfectly stable. I shouldn’t need to explain why that’s a good thing.

Sometimes, walk rates can skyrocket for reasons that have little to do with the hitter. If pitchers just never throw strikes, hitters are given free bases. With Cain, though, his zone rate looks basically normal. It’s not that opposing pitchers have been avoiding the zone. Cain has simply made a change to his approach, that’s evident when you look at the underlying numbers. As an example, let’s use some numbers from Baseball Savant. Here are Cain’s swing rates on pitches definitely in the strike zone, on the edge of the strike zone, and definitely out of the strike zone:

Cain has become only incrementally more selective within the zone. He’s more cautious around the edges. And he’s easily the most disciplined he’s ever been against would-be balls. Switching data sources for a second, let’s use our own plate-discipline data, focusing on the familiar O-Swing%. Cain’s career 50-game rolling averages:

Compared to last season, Cain’s chase rate is down an incredible ten percentage points. The last time he was close to this disciplined was 2013, before he emerged as a dangerous hitter. Just to check, I looked at every hitter who’s batted at least 250 times in consecutive seasons between 2008 and 2018. Only once has a player dropped his O-Swing% more season-to-season than Cain has. This is a remarkable change that he’s made, and to learn more, check out how Cain has performed by count. Here are Cain’s out-of-zone swing rates with zero, one, and two strikes:

I’ll repeat: These are just out-of-zone swing rates. I forgot to include that part in the plot header. If a hitter wanted to, it would be relatively easy to drop a zero-strike chase rate. It would be only a little harder to drop a one-strike chase rate. But look at that yellow two-strike line. When Cain has been up against it, he’s still done an excellent job of controlling the zone. Cain’s two-strike chase rate is down 15 points, and yet he’s no less aggressive in the zone. Cain has defended himself against strikes, but he has very seldom expanded:

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to examine two-strike chase rates, because that seems to me like a perfect opportunity to show whether or not a hitter is truly disciplined. Hitters are coached to be more aggressive with two strikes, so if someone can protect the plate without over-expanding, that’s an indication of a good eye. Only two other guys have dropped their two-strike chase rates by about as much as Cain has — Matt Davidson and Mookie Betts. Cain has been laying off more high pitches, and he’s been laying off more low pitches. He’s also been laying off more pitches away! Cain has targeted inner-half strikes, and his discipline has allowed him to be that selective:

It’s worth noting that there are 205 hitters who’ve batted at least 100 times in two-strike counts. Among them, Cain has the fourth-highest two-strike walk rate. He also has the 34th-lowest two-strike strikeout rate. He compares favorably to teammate Travis Shaw, but also Mike Trout and Joey Votto.

Cain was already a good player before. Generally speaking, when position players are 32, they’re not making dramatic changes to their approaches. I couldn’t find much of an explanation for why Cain is now doing something he’s never before done. But there is one possibility. From Tom Haudricourt, in April:

KANSAS CITY – Lorenzo Cain admitted Tuesday it’s “definitely different” to bat in the leadoff spot with the Milwaukee Brewers.
“We have a lot of a good hitters,” he said. “I’m just trying to be more of an on-base guy now than drive in runs. I’ve got to get used to hitting behind the pitcher. I’m not used to that. It’s growing on me a little bit.”

So far this season, Cain has started 57 games in the leadoff spot. Previously, in his career, he started at leadoff a combined 47 times. He topped out at 21 leadoff starts, in 2014. He never batted leadoff in 2015, 2016, or 2017. Most of the time, these days, those of us on the outside don’t pay much attention to lineup order. I’m strongly of the opinion that lineup order doesn’t make too much of a difference. But, for certain players, it does matter where they’re batting. Different spots might come with different responsibilities. This is not to suggest that it’s easy to do what Cain has done. But Cain is tapping into an ability that might’ve always been there, lying hidden. He’s more disciplined now, because he’s more focused on reaching base. Perhaps he was able to do that all along. Just needed to change his mindset to being a table-setter.

It’s probably the lineup thing. Could be something else. Could be a blend of a few factors. Regardless, in his first two and a half months with the team, Lorenzo Cain has been arguably the most valuable Brewer. He’s brought his familiar defense, and he’s brought his familiar athleticism, but he’s also showing a more refined eye that’s allowed him to reach base almost 40% of the time. It’s simple for a hitter to decide to take pitches. It’s hard for a hitter to decide to take balls. I suppose Cain has made a career of making the difficult look easy.

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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5 years ago

Finally a NL player besides Freeman in the top 12 in the FG leaderboard.

5 years ago
Reply to  WARrior

Scherzer is in No. 2 spot for the combined WAR leaderboard.
Third just going by primary WAR.