One could be excused if they didn't notice the quite excellent season Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain is putting together. He does play on a team that's a struggle to watch at times, mired in mediocrity at best, and with a bereft farm system that makes hope for the future hard to find. Cain, though, he's everything a perfect baseball player should be — well-rounded, athletic, exciting, and full of a youthful energy edged with aggression. Players like him make watching baseball a joy. They also often have a short shelf-life. Cain is 31, and running out of time. He's also having an incredible season, if anything becoming more well-rounded. We, the baseball-loving public, need as much of him as possible while he's still magic.
Cain is a man who doesn't care what's happening on the team around him; it's obvious he's going to drag them as far as he can. He broke out in 2014 with a 4.6 fWAR season and a 109 wRC+. Then in 2015 he ended up third in MVP voting with a 6.4 fWAR season and a 127 wRC+. He compiled bases with some homers, but played to the strengths of his home park with doubles and triples, and by using his legs to get on base.
This year, it seems Cain has realized his speed is slowly fading, because he's stopped hitting the ball on the ground. For his career, his grounder rate is 47.3 percent, a rate in line with the speedster he once was. He's dropped it to a career low 43.2 percent, folding that drop into his fly ball rate. If he were playing in Kauffman Stadium AGAINST the Royals 81 times this year, that would be a problem. But nobody but the Cubs a year ago has shown near the defensive acumen in the outfield that KC did on their World Series drive. And Cain is hitting the ball as hard as he ever has, actually nudging his spectacular 2015’s hard hit rate upward by a tenth of a point, to 32.3. More fly balls have not been a problem.
But more than anything, Cain’s improvement is the result of a heretofore unheard of (for him) walk rate of 10.1 percent. He’s never even been within two points of that. This is driven, at least in part, by his decision not to swing at pitches outside that are away from him. Here’s when he swung from his breakout through the end of last year:
And here’s where he swings this year:
Cain is just not chasing out of the zone this year, and is attacking balls in it, particularly ones on the inner half of the plate. This has led to better contact and a career-high 14.1 percent home run/fly ball rate, the already mentioned career-high walk rate, and (along with the drop in grounder rate) his lowest BABIP since 2013 at .323. But he’s getting damage done in a different way despite playing in a park that sucks the life out of fly balls. He’s got to get out of there before the end of July when that midwest humidity really rolls in. If he does, 25 or so home runs and another MVP-caliber season could be in his future.
As for where that new home could be, that’s the real question. Assuming the Royals read the tea leaves and break up the band before the trade deadline, he’ll end up on a contender. But finding a contender who a) doesn’t have a good center fielder and b) could acquire Cain is not so easy. Selfishly, for my own viewing pleasure, I’d like Cain in Washington, DC, and with a top-ten prospect, three in the top 60, and four in the top 100 per Baseball America, the Nationals might have the bullets to make a trade. The most troubling name on the list of contenders needing a center fielder is the Yankees, because that’s just no fun. I worry the big city will suck that verve that makes Cain so awesome right out of him. But whether the Yankees try to acquire Cain hinges on how much they trust the 152 wRC+ Aaron Hicks is posting. Hicks has already produced more WAR this year than the entire rest of his career combined, no matter which version you want to look at. But one of those outfielders has a track record, has gotten better in 2017, AND hits more fly balls than ever. That would play in the Bronx, not to mention Boston and Toronto and Baltimore for the rest of the season, so the Yankees might still find a spot for Cain.
Since it’s mid-June, though, you could convince yourself the Royals are themselves contenders. They’re only a game under .500 and two games out of the second Wild Card. As someone who favors a certain Northern Ohio team, I’ve learned to not count the Royals out. But they’re at a crossroads — they could sell a ton of players and have a hard reset to build for the future, or let it all go one more time. That second Wild Card makes the choice interesting, and it was very good to them just three years ago.
Whatever it takes, though, this tail end of Cain’s prime cannot fall quietly by the wayside. He’s too good, too fun, too much of what makes baseball excellent, for his season to be lost to the nothingness of a .500 campaign.
Merritt Rohlfing writes for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, and hosts the much-beloved podcast Mostly Baseball. He can be found on Twitter @merrittrohlfing, or wandering the streets of our nation’s capital.