Lorenzo Cain Has Taken the Next Step for the Kansas City Royals
On October 3rd, Orange County Register columnist Mark Whicker tweeted out comments made by Dodgers starting pitcher Zack Greinke about the Kansas City Royals defense.
“I think they have the best defense in history,” Greinke said.
It’s hard not to smirk at the comment, considering the direct link between Greinke and the wizardry that is defense in Kansas City. If you have forgotten, two of the three anchors at premium positions for the Royals, shortstop Alcides Escobar and center fielder Lorenzo Cain, were acquired from the Brewers in exchange for Greinke back in 2010.
That defense was put on full display against Greinke’s former teammates on the other side of Los Angeles, as the Royals defense made ridiculous play after ridiculous play in their ALDS matchup against the Angels. The defense was a huge factor in the sweep, with two of the Royals wins coming in extra innings and by one and two run margins. However, despite great play by the defensive unit as a whole, Cain’s play in center trumped it all. The ALDS was Cain’s coming out party, but this type of performance is nothing new.
Who Is Lorenzo Cain?
When Cain came to the Royals in 2010, he had already been pushing for a starting gig in Milwaukee. If you’ve read anything about Cain, you’ll know that at every level of baseball he has played, there has been someone or something blocking his way to the next level. In 2011, it was Melky Cabrera. Finally, after a big spring in 2012, he had his starting job. Then he ran into a wall in Oakland just five games in, basically scrapping his season.
Finally, 2013 came. He dealt with some injuries, but played 115 games and starred in center field. His UZR ranked fifth among outfielders with at least 900 innings, at 20.0, and his 24 DRS was good for fourth among all outfielders, despite the fact that he played 407 fewer innings than the league leader, Gerardo Parra.
Cain took an even bigger step in 2014, playing in 133 games, a career high at any level, consistently being an elite outfielder. And heck, he’s even hitting better than anyone inside the Royals organization would admit they expected. Lets take a more in depth look at what kind of player Cain has been in 2014
We’ll start with what everybody is interested in with Cain - his defense. And don’t let any Royals fan tell you differently. The increased production offensively is nice, but his value is in his defense. So just how good is Lorenzo Cain? Well, his revised zone rating (RZR), is the fifth best in baseball at .939. That number is also made a little more impressive, considering he shared the outfield with arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball, Alex Gordon, and a guy in Jarrod Dyson who leads all of baseball in RZR among outfielders with at least 650 IP.
Cain also is sixth in all of baseball, with 95 plays made out of his zone, playing in 136 innings than the next fewest of the bunch. This was very evident in the ALDS. Cain had no business getting to this ball as well as getting ridiculous reads on this ball and this ball. And remember Nori Aoki’s circus catch in Game 2? Look at how much ground Cain covered just to get into a position to catch that ball. Then, there’s this catch in Detroit, which doesn't look as sexy as some of the plays we see on SportCenter’s top 10 every week, but shows just how ridiculous Cain is at reading balls off the bat and getting to them.
The Royals defense has been a huge factor in getting them to the playoffs for the first time in nearly 30 years. The offense, however, has been mostly mediocre. Although the Royals lineup is very balanced and has no hitter that is a complete black hole, it still lacks good hitters. In fact, there were only two starters with an OPS+ of over 100. One was the Royals best player, Gordon, and the other was Lorenzo Cain. His OPS+ of 108 isn't great by any means, but when you consider the defense he plays and the fact that he registered just an 80 OPS+ in 2013, his development really shows.
2014 was the breakout year that Brewers scouts imagined Cain would have at some point. The raw nature of his baseball abilities makes it easy to believe it took him this long to figure it out with the bat, although he has shown the ability in the past. Cain has always been a line drive hitter, to a fault. Similar to teammate Billy Butler, his line-drive approach also results in a very high percentage of ground balls. So his splits in 2014 aren't surprising, as he boasted a 22.8% line-drive percentage and a career high 51.1% ground-ball percentage.
However, this season, we saw three things from Cain that we hadn't seen before. First, the BABIP gods loved him. His .380 BABIP was tops in the league of hitters with at least 500 plate appearances. Second, his speed finally became an active part of his game. Not only did he steal a career high 28 bases on only 33 attempts, but he also compiled 24 infield hits, which was the most on the Royals and the fourth most in the American league. Third, he smashed fastballs. For his career, Cain had never posted a wFB higher than 2.4. He shattered that mark, posting a 14.7 wFB in 2014. That’s the highest mark on the Royals, and it’s not really that close, as Gordon pasted an 11.8 wFB in 2014.
Cain Is the Player That Best Models the Royals' System
Lorenzo Cain is a very intriguing player. At 28, he's right in the middle of his physical prime and, if he can stay healthy, could become a very solid player over the next 2-3 years. His defense has always been suffocating, but Cain has finally taken the next step at the plate and although he did get a lot of help from his high BABIP, his line-drive percentage is high enough to assume he can at least continue being a decent singles guy. His activated speed has also provided a brand new threat to his game that has attributed heavily in the Royals reeking havoc on the basepaths and in the outfield. Cain best represents what the Royals emphasis in a player and, right now, he’s a pretty good representative.