Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Lorenzo Cain's Offense: Is it Sustainable?

Today’s date is July 11th, and Lorenzo Cain is the Royals’ best hitter. He’s now sporting a 118 wRC+, which is well above his career mark of 97. That kind of offense, combined with arguably the best outfield defense in baseball, is making the 2014 season an incredible one for Cain.

As with any other time a player performs well above his career norms, one must ask the question: can this trend continue?

Cain isn’t a guy who will walk all that often, and he doesn’t hit too many dingers, so much of his value at the plate comes from the ability to reach safely on balls in play. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the biggest things helping Cain this year is his .393 BABIP. Obviously, that’s a bigger number than one tends to see from most major leaguers, so upon first glance, regression seems certain. The degree of regression, however, is much less certain.

Much like with any other statistic, BABIP requires context, so this next section should help provide that. Since 2008, there have been 44 players with at least 250 plate appearances, who had a BABIP of at least .370. That’s out of more than 2,000 player seasons. Roughly 2% of those seasons have resulted in a BABIP within 25 points of where Cain currently sits. Here’s the list, in case you think I am pulling the numbers out of nowhere, which would be a strange thing to do. Before Cain’s 0-5 last night, only Joey Votto‘s 2012 season was outpacing him, so on that level, it’s clear Cain can’t keep this up.

That being said, there are some indications that Cain can sustain a BABIP well above the league average. First of all, his batted ball profile indicates he should have a higher BABIP. He doesn’t hit many fly balls (25.1 FB%), which of course result in outs quite frequently, especially for a player with limited power, such as Cain. In fact, only 3 of those 44 players linked above had fly ball rates lower than Cain. Because of fewer total fly balls, he is able to deal with an above average infield fly ball rate (10.2%). That’s only 5 infield flies this season, which is very manageable.

Cain also has the distinction of carrying a line drive rate nearly equal to his fly ball rate. With a line drive rate of 23.6% before last night, Cain appears to be hitting the ball hard, and lots of line drives combined with few fly balls typically will result in a high BABIP.

Then, there are the ground balls. Cain hits a lot of them. When he puts a ball in play, it is hit on the ground 51.3% of the time. For some hitters, too many ground balls can be a bad thing – consider Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. For other hitters, a ground ball can be an effective means of reaching base safely. Cain is one of those hitters.

His speed gives him more opportunities for infield singles than an average hitter, as you can see from his infield hit percentage of 16%. Among players with at least 250 plate appearances this season, only George Springer has a higher infield hit percentage than Cain. Cain’s 16 infield hits are the 6th most in all of baseball this year, and he’s played in about 20 fewer games than the other leaders. Cain’s ability to beat out infield singles clearly has helped him immensely this season, and it seems unlikely his speed is going to deteriorate this season.

Despite the help from his running ability, though, it still looks like some regression could be coming in the ground ball department.

Cain’s BABIP on ground balls entering last night’s game was .350. Among the 169 players who have 80 plate appearances ending in a ground ball, that average is the 4th highest. Perhaps more importantly, that average is 40 points higher than Cain’s career average on ground balls, which suggests he’s playing over his head some. It wouldn’t be out of line to expect a BABIP above his average, but it’s tough to project that kind of spike continuing.

Don’t get me wrong, Cain should still be a good hitter, and his batting averages on the other batted ball types aren’t as out of line, so it’s not like he’ll be falling off a cliff. But it’s incredibly hard to maintain that kind of a BABIP on ground balls. In the last 3 seasons, only 16 of the 773 hitters with 80+ ground balls have been able to post a grounder BABIP above .340. Cain might do it, but the odds are certainly against him.

Because Cain only has 1100+ plate appearances in his career, it is possible some of this is simply him developing into the hitter many people expected to see. However, the numbers suggest he is overperforming some, particularly on ground balls, and he may see a bit of regression at some point this season.

Fortunately for the Royals, even if Cain does regress some, he’s still going to be a productive player. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Cain finish with a wRC+ of around 108 or 110, which, combined with his defense, would make him one of the more valuable outfielders in the league.

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