If you followed the Royals throughout 2014 and at this point Lorenzo Cain isn’t your favorite player, I don’t know what you’re thinking.
(I’ll listen to Alex Gordon arguments, but this is Cain’s profile. So deal with a hyperbole-packed lead.)
While Cain wasn’t able to avoid the disabled list (again), he put his early season groin strain behind him and recovered to have the best season of his career. He finished with a .301/339/.412 slash line, a .330 wOBA and a 111 wRC+. He followed up his regular season with an October to remember as he hit .333/.388/.417 in all postseason series while playing his usual stellar defense. Oh, he was also named the MVP of the American League Championship Series.
It only feels right that any profile of Cain start with his defense. Sadly, Cain he so much time between center field and right, he was ineligible for the Gold Glove due to the innings played requirement. I understand why the innings requirement is in place (thank you past voters of Rafael Palmiero) but to apply that to an outfielder is disappointing. But the neat thing was Cain won a defensive award anyway when he was named The Fielding Bible award winner for a new “multi-position” category. Kind of a cool idea to award a guy who excels across the field so to speak. Let’s look at how Cain did according to The Fielding Bible’s Run Saved metric. First in center field:
Now in right:
The takeaways from the tables above is that while Cain played two positions, he was a top five defender in both places. Sure, there are other players with fewer innings that hang with Cain, but no one is on both lists. Then, think about Alex Gordon in left. He was worth 27 Runs Saved, which set a record for left fielders. Gordon in left, Dyson and his 14 Runs Saved in just under 700 innings in center, and Cain who would be worth over 30 Runs Saved if he was a full-time right fielder… Damn. That is a defensive outfield for the ages.
Another thing to consider about Cain in right is if you extrapolate his innings to bring his playing time along Jason Hayward, Cain would have 34 Runs Saved. So as impressive as Hayward is topping this leaderboard by about 18 Runs Saved, he would likely be second best if Cain played exclusively in right.
If you’ve read this blog, you know I don’t normally engage in hypotheticals (“If he played a full season… blah, blah, blah.”), but with Cain, I just can’t help myself. It’s fun to imagine the guy as a full time right fielder. Or center fielder for that matter. Whatever. Wherever. I just want Lorenzo Cain on the field as much as possible. Old time Royals fans will remember watching Frank White make amazing plays at second base, turn an unmatched double play, and just generally appear super human with the glove… That’s Lorenzo Cain today. He’s Frank White level on defense.
How about some more defensive illustrations? How about his range in center field.
Yeah… He covers a lot of ground.
Contrast that with his missed plays.
The Inside Edge data breaks down the plays Cain made in center this way:
Routine Plays: 99.5% (Rank 14/24)
Likely Plays: 87.5% (11/24)
Even Plays: 83.3% (7/24)
The ranks can be a little misleading because some guys are up on the leaderboard having just a handful of chances even though they played a larger number of innings at the position. Such is the failing of defensive metrics. The point isn’t to gaze in wonder at his ranking. The point is to see that Cain does, in fact, cover a lot of ground. He not only makes the plays he’s supposed to make, often times he gets the difficult out. That’s why he’s a special defensive outfielder.
Offensively, 2014 was the best season of Cain’s career. He has a fine batted ball profile for the type of player he’s become, hitting grounders 51 percent of the time, while clubbing line drives at a rate of 22 percent. He has a little power potential and the ability to leverage his best offensive asset (speed) to steal a few hits or leg some singles into doubles.
Cain sprays his line drives to all fields. His doubles (and limited home run) power comes from the pull side.
There is some cause for concern going forward regarding his offensive game. Cain’s BABIP was a robust .380. His profile as a line drive hitter/speed guy means he’s always going to have a BABIP greater than the league average. A .380 BABIP is insane even for him. After his 2014 season, his career BABIP stands at .345, which has to be a little misleading considering that in the two previous seasons he posted BABIPs of .319 and .309. I know this is a lot of discussion of batting average on balls in play and often times, it’s a crutch to explain a deviation from the norm, but in Cain’s case because of his profile, it’s relevant.
Another trend that should set off an alarm bell or two is his proclivity to swing at nearly everything. Last summer, Cain swung at 50 percent of the pitches he saw. (OK, he didn’t swing at everything. How about half of everything?) Cain isn’t Sal Perez (56 percent swing rate) or Pablo Sandoval (60 percent swing rate) but again, given his profile as a speed guy with line drive potential, it would behoove him to be a bit more selective. He certainly took the Royals offensive mantra of making contact to heart. Cain’s walk rate dipped to a career-low of 4.8 percent. Keep that in mind the next time someone who doesn’t read this blog suggests Cain would be an ideal candidate to bat leadoff.
According to data collected by Brooks Baseball, Cain has a poor eye on identifying fastballs in the zone. In 2014, he swung at 66 percent of fastballs in the strike zone and 34 percent of fastballs outside the zone, which is a below league average ratio. The good news, his fastball discipline has actually improved over the last couple of seasons. While he shows below average discipline on the fastball, he can still rip the heck out of the heater. Last year, he hit .352 and slugged .520 on four-seamers. On two-seam fastballs, he hit .379 and slugged .448. It probably won’t surprise you he saw fewer fastballs last summer than at any time in his career.
I suspect the black line will continue to decline while Cain will start seeing more breaking stuff to keep him off balance. Last year he hit just .243 with a .341 slugging percentage against breaking balls.
Now, let’s talk about an unpleasant subject: Injuries. From Baseball Prospectus here is Cain’s injury history going back to his minor league days. A trip to the DL is denoted by an asterisk.
4/9/09 – Hamstring strain. Missed 11 games.
4/24/09 – Knee strain. Missed 88 games.
4/26/10 – Groin strain. Missed 17 games.
4/7/11 – Groin strain. Missed 7 games.
4/11/12 – Groin strain. Missed 88 games.*
4/27/12 – Severe hip flexor strain. (Occurred during rehab for above injury.)
9/14/12 – Hamstring strain. Missed 19 games.
7/28/13 – Groin strain. Missed 3 games.
8/9/13 – Oblique strain. Missed 26 games.*
4/17/14 – Groin strain. Missed 17 games.*
Quite the injury past. A couple things stand out. First, let’s just get the guy through April, is that too much to ask? Second, all of these aside from the oblique injury in 2013 are leg issues. And third, he has yet to play a full major league season without spending time on the disabled list. In what should have been three full seasons with the Royals, Cain has missed 153 games due to injury. In other words, in three seasons, Cain has been healthy enough to play two.
Cain is eligible for arbitration for the first time and has asked for a $3.6 million contract. In the current market, his defense alone is probably worth $15 million. That’s not crazy. The Royals countered with $2 million, which is their prerogative. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Cain would make $2.3 million. The guess here is they will settle just above the halfway point. Figure Cain will earn $2.65 million next summer.
He is an exceptional defender at a premium position. The bat showed life last year. He also was relatively healthy for the first time in his career. Is Cain a candidate for a contract extension? I’m skeptical. He turns 29 next April and the Royals control his rights for the next three seasons. That means he won’t hit the free agent market until his age 32 season. While his offense was improved in 2014, he doesn’t have a track record of success with the bat at this level that would warrant a meaningful extension. Plus, I’m doubtful he can repeat his offensive output next year. Or in the next three.
Having said that, I could see the Royals, in an attempt to control costs over the next three years, try to sign Cain to a long-term deal to lock in his arbitration years. Of course, if they were going to do that, they would have to tack on at least a year of free agency at what could be a premium (for them) cost. It sounds good, but as much as I love watching Cain play, I think the Royals should at least see how this season goes before they commit big money long term. Sure, if he’s successful the cost will go up and may move the Royals out of their comfort zone. But that injury history scares the hell out of me. Yes, the frequency is a concern, but his legs have too often been what’s failed him. For a guy who relies on his speed in the outfield, that’s a massive concern.
Cain is an exciting, yet offensively flawed, player. His 2014 season was a delight to watch. I’m skeptical that he can keep his offensive performance at the level he found last year, but his defense and speed will keep me coming back for more.