Cain's Overlooked Arrival
by Sahadev Sharma
A water-to-earth-like coverage of the outfield, a menace on the basepaths, and a bat that has proved to be quite valuable. All that was on display over the past three weeks during Lorenzo Cain’s national coming out party, culminating in his well-deserved ALCS MVP honors. However, many of us—including myself—were snoozing on his real breakout, which took place over the previous six months.
During October, we’ve grown to expect a highlight-reel-worthy defensive play from Cain. This isn't a new phenomenon, it was a habitual occurrence in the regular season.
Nobody has denied Cain’s value in center field, and it's not just because of the flashy glove work; whether looking at the advanced stats or talking to a scout, one would be hard-pressed to find negative marks for how he handles his business in the field. Cain belongs in the debate for best defensive outfielder in baseball, a discussion that includes two of his teammates, one of whom, Jarrod Dyson, is actually good enough to push Cain to right late in close games.
Cain is also a strong baserunner, rarely getting thrown out trying to steal (87.2 percent rate) while exhibiting the ability to take the extra base (according to Baseball-Reference, he does so 55 percent of the time when presented with the opportunity, firmly above the league average of 40 percent).
So Cain possesses one elite skill (defense) and one above-average skill (baserunning), but what about the bat? This is where the true emergence took place. Cain posted a solid .301/.339/.412 line on the year, nothing special, but when you add in the other components of his game, you get a hugely valuable player.
There are a couple questions that arise after contemplating Cain’s breakout. The first one, which I feel is less interesting, is whether his offensive performance is sustainable. It’s easy to point to Cain’s .380 BABIP and immediately assume that his 2014 isn’t repeatable*. And quite possibly, suggesting he won't do it again is an accurate assessment. However, we all know that speed is a factor in BABIP, so add in the fact that Cain hit the ball on the ground at the highest rate of his career (51.1 percent), while also dropping both his fly ball and infield fly rate and more than doubling his previous career high of 10 infield hits to 24, and suddenly, accepting a high BABIP for Cain becomes a little easier. But .380? Probably not something he’ll do consistently.
*Seriously, people don't still just say, "But BABIP!!!" anymore, do they? Hopefully we're past that nonsense. We should know it's much more complicated than just pointing to BABIP. Doing so is just as lazy as suggesting that Billy Beane is a failure or that statheads hate steals.
Knowing this, we’ll either have to see a continued improvement of his offensive skill set, which is possible, or a slight dip in his production at the plate should be expected. Which is fine; as long as Cain can hang around an average level offensively (he posted a .269 TAv this season, so a slight drop would get him to average), he still is a very valuable player on defense and baserunning alone. Ultimately, since I believe Cain is still pretty special regardless of the bat, I find the question of whether his 2014 can be repeated less interesting than why it went overlooked.
My very unscientific research to determine if Cain’s great season actually did go unnoticed consisted of a cursory Google search (I couldn’t find any national articles trumpeting his great season) and a glance at the current state of the Internet Baseball Awards. As of Wednesday night, he sat at 40th for American League Player of the Year (while 16th and 17th for position players in both Fangraphs and B-Ref WAR, respectively), eight spots behind Brock Holt and two ahead of Sean Doolittle and Sam Fuld, who appear to have each gotten a first-place vote from some hilarious jokesters. So maybe not everyone is taking this as seriously as possible, but it's clear that the vast majority are, with Mike Trout a clear number one, MIchael Brantley's breakout season hardly going unnoticed as he sits comfortably in the second spot, and the rest of the top 10 looking legit.
It’s probably fair to say that outside of some in the Kansas City media and Royals fans who were paying close attention, Cain’s success has largely been missed by the masses. But why did this happen? Well, one obvious reason has already been stated multiple times in this piece: He gets a ton of value from skills other than his bat. As much as we try to appreciate just how significant an up-the-middle plus-defender with plus-speed really is, many still often discount these factors. Cain appears to fall into that bin, and one could even argue that his real breakout came in 2013, when his two primary skills were on full display, and the key to his future success isn’t his bat, but rather his continued health—something that’s been a slight issue for him in the past.
Cain was also ignored because his teammate, Alex Gordon, was garnering much of the national attention for a Royals team that was surging toward its first playoff appearance in nearly 30 years. Gordon’s value was hotly debated, with much of it coming from his stellar defense in left field. Gordon is certainly worthy of praise and will rightly earn some down-ballot MVP votes for his strong 2014 campaign, but was he really that much better than Cain this summer? Gordon’s bat has the edge, but just slightly, this year (.286 TAv) and his defense in left is the best you’re gonna get. It really comes down to whether Gordon’s advantage on offense and the extra 23 games he played are enough to outweigh the benefit of Cain's baserunning abilities and the gap of an elite defender in center over a top glove in left. It’s debatable, but that’s the point—one could make the argument that Cain was as valuable, if not more so, than Gordon, so it would be completely justifiable to put Cain in your top 10 for AL MVP.
That’s what really struck me: Not only did Cain have a wonderful season, but it was arguably one of the best in the league.
So while some failed to take proper notice of Cain’s star turn, we were all lucky enough to get this in the playoffs to help ensure he’d be ignored no longer.
Sahadev Sharma is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @sahadevsharma