Lorenzo Cain's Season Has Gotten Off to a Very Interesting Start
When the Kansas City Royals reached the World Series in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015, center fielder Lorenzo Cain was a crucial piece to their success. He contributed solid defense and above-average offense each season, compiling 11.2 total fWAR during that time.
So, should it be shocking that a down year from Cain in 2016 coincided with the Royals going 81-81 and missing the playoffs? There's a lot more that went into Kansas City's performance, but having their center fielder healthy and productive is an important piece of that. Cain wasn't healthy last year, missing a month with a hamstring injury before getting shut down in September with a wrist injury.
While the Royals are just 6-7 entering action on Wednesday, Cain has been back in the lineup on an everyday basis and has been productive -- through his first 56 plate appearances, he's slashing .356/.482/.400, good for a wRC+ of 159. Outside of a power outage (just two extra-base hits so far), he's been great, and his 0.7 fWAR is among the best in baseball.
It's not at all sustainable unless he starts making more solid contact, though.
Plate Discipline Has Improved
The biggest positive from Cain's start has been his improvement in plate discipline. We know we're still a ways away from seeing his walk rate stabilize, but there's a very noticeable difference in his approach. Entering this year, he never produced a walk rate higher than 7.5% as a big leaguer, which came in 2013. But so far in 2017, he's walking more often (19.6%) than he's striking out (17.9%).
He's swinging less frequently overall compared to what he's done since 2014, but he's making more contact across the board. We can see that in the table below, which shows how often he's chasing pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) and swinging at strikes in the zone (Z-Swing%), along with the corresponding contact rates.
What's interesting is that these early-season numbers look very similar to what he did through his first 55 plate appearances last year. He boasted a 14.5% walk rate at that point before it dropped back down to 7.1% for the year, which was the second-highest mark of his career for a single season.
These plate-discipline numbers look great, but we'll have to keep an eye out for exactly how they stabilize and if the trends seen over the last few years continues.
So Have His Batted Ball Numbers
In today's game, it's all about getting the ball up in the air. Cain isn't a home-run hitter by any means -- he's hit more than 10 homers in a season just once so far in his career -- but he has flashed the potential of racking up 30-plus doubles, and lofting the ball can help that.
While his current infield-fly rate (IFFB%) is a bit inflated, he's hitting fewer ground balls (GB%) and more fly balls (FB%) without sacrificing any line drives (LD%).
This all checks out, so what's up with his lack of power up until this point? Well, he's not making the kind of contact he needs to in order to make that all a reality.
The Quality of Contact -- Yikes
After posting a hard-hit rate of just 21.6% in 2014, Cain watched his hard-hit rate climb to 32.2% in 2015, followed by 30.0% last season. So far this year, though, his hard-hit rate has settled in at just 17.1%. What's even more staggering is his soft-hit rate, which is currently 40.0%. Only Jarrod Dyson (43.2%) and Marcus Semien (41.7%) are above him in this category, but they're not seeing nearly the same kind of luck that Cain is.
Among the 15 players who have produced a soft-hit rate above 30.0% at this point, only four have a BABIP above .300 (Cain, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dee Gordon and Eduardo Nunez). Cain is on another level, though -- his BABIP is currently .457, while the next closest is Ellsbury at .385.
Cain's super-inflated BABIP is the sixth-highest in baseball right now, and it's actually very impressive that he's experienced such a positive start despite his lack of solid contact. However, it's obviously a trend that's not at all sustainable.
His overall numbers are bound for regression as his plate-discipline numbers stabilize. So, if this current level of production is going to continue to some degree, Cain must find a way to make solid contact as often as he did in each of the previous two years.