Welcome to Stardom, Lorenzo Cain

Following the Royals’ four-game sweep of the Orioles, the ALCS MVP award was presented to Lorenzo Cain. I had forgotten that there exists such a thing as the ALCS MVP award, and relatively recent winners include Delmon Young, Adam Kennedy, and Placido Polanco. So the award itself doesn’t mean much, as cool as it is for Cain to get, but thinking deeper about Cain reminded me of one of my absolute favorite anecdotes from the regular season. From a tremendous feature by Andy McCullough:

One June afternoon during his senior year, the phone rang in Cain’s house. He was sitting on his couch, thumbs twiddling as he played Madden NFL. On the other line was Doug Reynolds, an area scout from Milwaukee. Reynolds told Cain the team had chosen him in the 17th round of the draft.

Cain didn’t know what to say.

“OK, thanks,” he replied, and hung up.

It can no longer be said that Cain is new to baseball. He was drafted in 2004. He’s well past 1,000 games of professional experience. Cain’s caught up with the rest of his peers, and more than that, he’s blown by a lot of them. It’s true with the ALCS MVP, and it would be true without it: Lorenzo Cain has blossomed into a star center fielder.

After this is all finished, there will be time for reflections on the James Shields trade. We’ll have them, and Dave will probably write them. The Shields trade is supposed to be the move that defined the new era of competitive Royals baseball, and obviously Shields and Wade Davis have been major contributors, at least after Davis was shifted to the bullpen. But just as the Shields trade had a massive impact on the current Royals roster, the same could be said of the deal that moved Zack Greinke away. The deal brought the Royals their shortstop, it brought them a piece they’d later move for Shields, and it brought them an outfielder. It’s funny where you do and don’t find Cain through his minor-league history.

Four years in a row, Baseball America ranked Cain as a top-ten Brewers prospect. Yet those years he ranked 6th, 9th, 6th, and 8th, whereas, say, Cole Gillespie ranked 5th in 2008. 2010 saw Cain rank two spots below Kentrail Davis. Never did Cain make the BA top 100. People didn’t suspect he would become this good.

Rankings, of course, always look silly in retrospect. You can always find a good player who was ranked below a bad player or a nothing player. It’s relevant that BA did, at least, recognize that Cain had a lot of ability. But still, he flew below the usual radar, and if I had to come up with a theory, I’d say he might’ve been the position-player equivalent of the pitching prospect with command and a changeup. Such pitching prospects are relatively undervalued, because of their lower ceilings. Cain was a defensive guy, with a fine but unspectacular hit tool and some injury issues. Offense moves prospects up lists. Defense gives big-leaguers a margin of error.

So Cain went to the Royals, and Cain played with the Royals, and this year Cain played in a career-high 133 games. I guess that’s up to 141. By this point, everyone who’s been watching the playoffs has become familiar with Cain’s all-around skillset. He’s been at his best for the last couple weeks, but really he’s been terrific all year long, and he was even damn good before when he was able to stay on the field. Nowhere does Cain shine as bright as he does in the field.

He can make plays to his left:


He can make plays to his right:


He can make plays behind him:


He can make plays in front of him:


He can make plays I’m including as a bonus:


I went through the logs, checking out plays Cain didn’t make in center field, and they were pretty much all either absurdly difficult or the result of miscommunications. Now, good communication should be part of the outfielder’s defensive skillset, but blame can always be shared around, and sometimes Pedro Ciriaco gets in the way, or Norichika Aoki doesn’t pull off. I don’t think there’s such a thing as a defensive play Cain isn’t physically capable of making. If there’s a ball that could be caught by a center fielder, it could be caught by Lorenzo Cain.

The numbers tell us how valuable defense can be. The eyes, this month, have confirmed how valuable defense can be. Let’s do something. We have full UZR and DRS data stretching back to 2003. I looked at center fielders, and set a minimum of 1,500 innings. For all those players, I calculated both UZR/1000 and DRS/1000, and then as a compromise I averaged the two. Here’s the top five I got:

  1. Juan Lagares, 26.7 runs per 1,000 innings
  2. Craig Gentry, 20.7
  3. Lorenzo Cain, 17.2
  4. A.J. Pollock, 15.5
  5. Jarrod Dyson, 15.4

Out of that group, Cain has the biggest playing-time sample. Lagares, Gentry, and Pollock are still shy of 2,000 innings. And what if we just focus on running around, eliminating the arm factor? The arm matters, without question, but here’s the top five by the same numbers, if we’re just evaluating range ability and error avoidance:

  1. Craig Gentry, 18.1
  2. Juan Lagares, 17.4
  3. Lorenzo Cain, 16.8
  4. A.J. Pollock, 14.7
  5. Jarrod Dyson, 14.0

By running and catching, Cain has been just about the best defensive center fielder in baseball. Remarkably, he’s done this despite a history of injuries, affecting his groin, hamstring, knee, and oblique. Lagares deserves those extra points he gets for throwing so well, because that’s part of playing defense, but with regard to the part where Cain excels, he’s as good as anyone else. The numbers match the eyes: Cain catches almost everything.

What does that do for him? That does a lot for him, statistically. With great defensive numbers at a premium position, Cain’s inarguably valuable, and for his career he’s been about an average hitter. This year, he was 11% better than average, having made some interesting changes: he doubled his rate of first-pitch swings, and overall he swung considerably more often. With his speed and ability to drive liners to all fields, Cain’s offset some drawbacks with a high BABIP, and we can look at the overall numbers from the past three calendar years. These are the years during which Cain has been either a Royals regular, or an intended Royals regular.

Over the span, Cain’s been worth 9.2 WAR. That’s quite good. That’s 60th in baseball, around names like Anthony Rizzo and Justin Upton. But remember, there have been injuries. Let’s give everyone a common denominator, of 600 plate appearances. Where do we find Cain in terms of WAR/600, from 2012 – 2014?

He’s 24th, out of 223 names. He’s right behind Manny Machado. He’s dead even with Paul Goldschmidt, at 4.6. And, interestingly enough, he’s also dead even with Alex Gordon. He’s ahead of Chase Utley and Evan Longoria. Not that WAR is really all that good to the tenths, but this establishes Cain’s group of peers, if you consider just his performance when he’s been able to play. You can’t just dismiss the fact that he’s been hurt, but when he hasn’t been hurt, he’s been one of the better all-around players in the game, and that was true even before Cain started drawing attention to himself in October. The difference is, now, when people see Cain’s numbers presented like this, they’ll be more likely to believe them.

There’s no questioning Cain’s defensive ability. There’s no questioning his value on the bases, and there’s no questioning that he’s at least a pretty decent hitter. When you hit enough and also catch everything, you’re a star when you can be on the field. Cain’s been on the field this season more than ever, and he’s been out there long enough to capture national attention. The Royals, presumably, have known what they had for a while. Now the rest of us know what they have. These Royals were built around getting an ace, and they were just as much built around losing one.

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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7 years ago

“These Royals were built around getting an ace, and they were just as much built around losing one.” – both #2 starters. This is an entertaining playoff run but you are succumbing to the power of NARRATIVE.

7 years ago
Reply to  Sean

This really depends on how you define “ace,” which has no agreed upon definition. Are we only allowed one ace per team, and that’s what disqualifies Greinke? So that means if the first and second best pitchers in the game were on the same team, one of them doesn’t get to be an ace?

7 years ago
Reply to  Sean

You’re a #2

7 years ago
Reply to  Sean

Sean, I guess you’re thinking of right now, but looking at Greinke’s 2009-2010, there was no question he was a #1 starter. Jeff’s point is that even now he is paying the kind of dividends of a #1 starter – almost 5 WAR from Cain, 2+ from Escobar, and imagining that Odorizzi was the piece that got the Royals Wade Davis, let’s toss in his 3 WAR. And that’s just this year!