Lorenzo Cain as a potential Lorenzo Cain as a potential Lorenzo Cain as a potential

Lorenzo Cain: Defense Leads the Breakout


Aug 1, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain (6) shows left fielder Alex Gordon (4) that he caught a fly ball in the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Back in March, I tabbed Lorenzo Cain as a potential breakout candidate in 2013. I didn’t expect him to push Mike Trout for best outfielder in baseball, but I thought that with good health, he could put his skills to use.

And to this point, he’s been pretty good. His .258/.323/.359 line isn’t going to wow a lot of people. That gives him an 88 OPS+, so he’s a bit below league average in that regard, but he’s a player who’s walking more than average (8.2% of the time, vs a 7.8% league average), he’s hitting line drives (23.1%), and his biggest deficiency is in the home run department.

That’s a legitimate criticism of Cain’s offensive skills. Back in March, I posited that doubling Cain’s 2012 stats (compiled from 61 games) would yield a .266/.316/.419 line with 14 homers. So far, he’s just missing the homers, with four this year only. He’s carrying a 5.5% HR/FB percentage, which is lower than usual, so some of his fly balls seem to be going for doubles instead of homers. Nearly 50% of his balls in play are hit on the ground, so he’s also missing out on fly ball opportunities. Cain has speed, though, and has gotten hits by using his legs. He also hits line drives. Perhaps his home run ceiling is just 15 homers. That won’t be elite, but it’s still productive considering his other contributions.

Despite those offensive questions, Cain is among the best defenders in baseball. His speed gives him great range and his height and leaping ability allow him to get to plenty of fly balls in the outfield. The best example of this is his highlight grab in Chicago.

That’s a ridiculous play, and it’s just one of many highlight reel catches that Cain’s made this year. That series in Chicago saw him make three or four catches that prevented extra base hits in key moments while the Royals were piling up wins.

Baseball-Reference has him second in total zone runs saved in all of baseball in the outfield and third in range factor. He’s second in both categories as a centerfielder. FanGraphs ranks him seventh in all of baseball in UZR and fourth among all outfielders.

That defensive contribution ends up giving him 2.7 fWAR – ninth best among all outfielders in the AL, 24th among all American League position players, and 45th in all of baseball. He’s the highest ranked player by WAR on FanGraphs on the Royals. I don’t think most fans would have expected that. He’s fourth among all players in baseball in defensive WAR according to Baseball-Reference and – again – he ends up as the top player by WAR on the Royals.

"Even if Cain’s biggest contribution comes from his defense, a close-to-average season at the plate is going to give him the opportunity to be a valuable part of the team. – From my post on March 21, 2013"

That statement is true in every aspect, but even I underestimated the vast amount of value Cain’s defense could potentially contribute. The next closest player on the team in bWAR is Eric Hosmer at 2.6. Cain’s defensive value alone exceeds that mark (2.7 dWAR from B-R).

So maybe Cain won’t be much more than a .270 hitting player who has to hope to get to 15 homers. His defense saves so many runs that it compensates for anything he doesn’t do at the plate – and even with that in mind, he’s still holding his own. A hot streak to finish the year could easily get his OPS+ over 100 (and thus, better than average) and make his contributions even greater for this team.

And the thing about his homers is this: if it turns out that the Royals do make a comeback and make it into the playoffs, two of Cain’s homers will be key moments in the turnaround. On June 11, the Royals had lost to the Tigers, ending a five game winning streak, and were down in the bottom of the ninth 2-0. Jose Valverde got him to 0-2 with two outs to go. Cain drilled a ball to left-center to tie the game. The Royals ended up winning in extra innings.

On July 4, Cain was up with the bases loaded with the Royals facing a 5-0 deficit. All he did was hit a grand slam and put the Royals back to within one run. George Kottaras homered right after Cain and the Royals ended up pulling off the comeback win. This year, at least, the homers have been rare, but they’ve been valuable when they’ve happened.