KC Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain is slogging through a tough April. He’s opened the 2016 season slashing a disappointing .203/.289/.284. The slow start caused Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost to give him a two-day breather that began Wednesday.
Thus, I decided to apply my amateur eye—along with publicly-available analytical tools—to see if I could understand a bit about what’s happening to him at the plate.
Since Cain finished third in the 2015 American League MVP vote, opposing pitching staffs likely put some extra effort into adjusting their approach to him this season. Consequently, I decided to look at his heat map on Brooks Baseball to see if pitchers had changed their pitch location against him.
Here we see our first clue. Below are Cain’s 2015 heat map alongside his April 2016 map, which show the location of the pitches Cain faced each season (courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
[Note: These charts are from the catcher’s POV, so a right-handed hitter like Lorenzo Cain would bat from the left side of these charts. The inner box shows the approximate strike zone]
Clearly, the conventional wisdom in attacking Cain in 2015 (top heat map) was to keep the ball low and away. In 2016 (bottom heat map), pitchers are going low and away even more. The KC Royals opponents are probably trying not to give him anything good to hit.
In short, they’re nibbling because they don’t want to let Cain hurt them.
Next, I compared the overall pitch mix Kansas City Royals opponents used against Cain in 2015 and April of 2016 (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
Brooks Baseball’s tabular data shows that KC Royals opponents have increased their fastball usage from 60.06% in 2015 to 65.03% in 2016, kept the breaking ball level about the same at slightly over 27%, and decreased the change-ups from 12.84% to 7.77%.
The overall result has been a significant jump in Lorenzo Cain’s whiff rate against fastballs and breaking pitches, while he makes more frequent contact against offspeed pitches (chart courtesy of Brooks Baseball):
Not surprisingly, Cain’s strikeout rate has jumped to 25.3% in 2016, up from 16.2% in 2015.
That’s a particularly bad result for a guy that can leg out hits and excels at running the bases.
Add up these three pieces of evidence, and it looks like opponents are teasing Cain with fastballs in locations where they hope he can only make weak contact. They know he’s an aggressive, fastball hitter and they’ve succeeded in getting him to swing at bad pitches.
Now, Lorenzo Cain IS taking a lot more walks in 2016 (10.8% vs. 6.1% in 2015). That tells me he’s aware of what pitchers are doing to him, but hasn’t had enough patience to prevent a disappointing slash line.
The cure is for Cain to relax, take his walks, and wreck havoc on the bases. Which, of course, is much easier said than done against the best pitchers in the world. Cain’s mini break is a good idea. He’s probably pressing to break out of his slump, which makes it even more difficult for him to exercise patience.
In the end, I believe the KC Royals coaches sat Lorenzo Cain down on Wednesday because they want to clear his head before he gets caught in a self-perpetuating, downward spiral.