Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
Since the position battles in spring training don’t appear to be all that exciting, I’m going through the Royals’ lineup to get an idea of how opposing pitchers will look to attack each player this season. I use data from Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs to figure out what pitches each hitter loves to see, and what pitches give them nightmares. So far, I’ve gone over the profiles for Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, and Mike Moustakas. As far as I know, the next player to discuss has remained healthy during the course of this research, but I can’t really be sure. Let’s talk about Lorenzo Cain.
Cain was yet another Royal hitter who took a step back in 2013 after performing at a higher level in 2012. In the season before last, Cain hit .266/.316/.419, and a lot of that success came from his work against breaking balls. While facing those kinds of pitches, Cain hit .260 with a .640 slugging percentage. Granted there is a bit of a small sample size here, but he also hit well against breaking balls in his 2010 season (.311 AVG, .422 SLG), so it seems like there was a trend. Then, last year happened. Cain hit just .198 with a .268 slugging percentage against breaking balls.
Unfortunately for Cain, and for the Royals, breaking balls weren’t the only type of pitch he struggled with. He was equally bad against both fastballs (.269 AVG, .374 SLG) and offspeed pitches (.269 AVG, .385 SLG). It’s tough to be successful at the plate when you’re hitting that poorly against every type of pitch.
Due to his offensive ineptitude last year, pitchers were more aggressive with Cain early in the count. Cain saw first pitch fastballs about 68% of the time from both lefties and righties in 2012, but that number jumped to 71% against righties and 74% against lefties last season. Much like with Moustakas, pitchers saw less of a need to bother with pitching backwards against Cain. And also much like with Moustakas, Cain is going to have to improve against fastballs in order to put himself in hitters’ counts more frequently. Forcing pitchers to rely on their secondary pitches could also give Cain more opportunities to reclaim his success against breaking balls.
The most interesting part of Cain’s 2013 season, to me, is his plate discipline. Cain swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone than he had in any other season, but when he did swing at those pitches, he made contact far more frequently than he had in the previous two seasons. In other words, Cain appeared to be more selective last year, but the contact he made wasn’t terribly solid. He also made contact more frequently with pitches in the strike zone last year, but again, that didn’t result in the great results one should expect. Here is a pretty picture to illustrate this point:
That is a zone profile showing Cain’s slugging percentage for every part of the zone. As you can see, there are a few spots in which Cain had some success, but that box right in the middle of the zone isn’t nearly as red as one would hope. Cain had just a .333 slugging percentage on pitches in the heart of the plate. That simply isn’t good enough. Perhaps pitchers noticed that last year, because they actually threw him pitches in the middle of the zone more frequently than almost any other part of the zone, as you can see from this picture:
Once again, pitchers aren’t going to nibble around the edges when the batter can’t make them pay for throwing balls over the plate. In order for Cain to get to or exceed his 2012 level of performance, he’ll need to prove to pitchers that they can’t live in the heart of the plate without suffering some consequences. If he can force opposing pitchers to be more fine with their command, and also regain the form he had against breaking balls before last year, the Royals could have an above average hitter batting 8th in their lineup. That would be kind of helpful. Cain has to also learn what pitches he can square up, and which ones he needs to let go. We know Cain is a streaky hitter, so it’s just going to be a matter of him lengthening his hot streaks as much as possible, and making consistently solid contact is a great way to do just that.