MLB's Sabermetric Era Turned Lorenzo Cain from Role Player into $80M Superstar

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 11, 2018

Milwaukee Brewers' Lorenzo Cain reacts after hitting an RBI-double during the third inning of a baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Sunday, June 17, 2018, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)
Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Traditional baseball card statistics don't do Lorenzo Cain any favors. He's hit .300 a few times, but he's peaked at 16 home runs and 72 runs batted in, and he's yet to steal 30 bases in a season.

And yet, he's more than justifying an $80 million contract by playing like an MVP in his first season with the Milwaukee Brewers.

It's par for the course for Cain in the traditional categories in 2018. He has only 10 homers and 35 RBI, and his 26 steals are two off his career high of 28.

There's no frowning at his .311/.403/.432 triple-slash line, though. Nor at his 6.1 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference. Those lead all National League position players:

  • 1. Lorenzo Cain: 6.1
  • 2. Paul Goldschmidt: 5.6
  • T3. Christian Yelich: 5.4
  • T3. Javier Baez: 5.4
  • T3: Freddie Freeman: 5.4

Thanks in part to their 32-year-old center fielder's efforts, the Brewers hold the NL's top wild-card spot. They're also only one game off the Chicago Cubs' pace in the NL Central race.

This doesn't mean Cain has the inside track at the NL MVP award. If there's a takeaway from an August 30 MLB Network discussion on the topic, it's that he's worthy of acknowledgment in the crowded race for the award but difficult to elevate in it:

However, former Colorado Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd hit the proverbial nail on the head: That Cain is in the MVP discussion at all reflects how much baseball has changed in recent years.

A few exceptions aside, the MVP has typically honored guys with the biggest sticks. But as WAR has become a bigger part of the conversation, appreciation has grown for players who can do it all.

Hence Cain's impossible-to-ignore candidacy. He's one of the National League's most valuable baserunners and defenders. And despite his 10 dingers and 35 RBI, he qualifies as a well-above-average hitter by way of his 122 OPS+.

Whether going over all of this is still necessary in the year 2018 is a good question. The battle for the future of baseball was won by the number-crunchers many years ago, and there are many W-based statistics with which their victory is honored. Every time somebody mentions WAR, wOBA, wRC+ or WPA, a sabermetrician gets his/her wings.

Still, the special place that Cain has found himself in feels like a singular achievement.

Consider Cain's contract. He's one of only 32 free-agent hitters who've signed a contract worth at least $80 million, and he got his despite being relatively old, inexperienced, unproductive and undecorated.

Cain didn't become an everyday player with the Kansas City Royals—who acquired him from the Brewers as part of the 2010 Zack Greinke trade—until his age-28 season in 2014. By the time he entered free agency, he was 31 and his record included just 756 career games, a 106 OPS+ and 57 homers.

Among other $80 million free-agent hitters, those figures rank 29th, tied for 29th and 32nd. To boot, Cain had made only one All-Star team, and his defensive reputation wasn't underscored by any Gold Glove awards. To these extents, he entered the open market as less of a Torii Hunter and more of a Gary Matthews Jr.

But Cain had racked up more WAR from 2014 to 2017 than every outfielder except Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Kevin Kiermaier and Giancarlo Stanton. Despite his age, that enabled strong projections for his contract. For example, MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs predicted something in the four-year, $70 million range.

That the Brewers were willing to beat those projections with their five-year, $80 million offer speaks to how optimistic they were about Cain.

"As we examined Lorenzo's career arc this offseason, we thought that he was still improving as a player," GM David Stearns told Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer. "It's odd to say that about someone on this side of 30, but we thought that was the case."

The readings on Cain's athleticism must have helped Milwaukee reach that conclusion. His average sprint speed was holding steady. While metrics like defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating cast some doubt on his defense, Statcast was over the moon with it. He had recorded 18 outs above average in 2017, more than even Betts could muster.

As for Cain's bat, what it lacked in power, it made up for in gradual advancement. He had established himself as an above-average contact hitter, and his walk rate was on the way up.

Even if the latter trend abated, the former promised to bring a welcome dynamic to a Brewers offense that undercut 224 home runs (tied for tops in the NL) with MLB's highest strikeout rate in 2017. Sure enough, Cain has kept hitting for contact and helped the Brewers lower their K% from 25.6 to 23.7.

But the real revelation has been his increased patience. He's working on a career-best 11.9 BB%, and it's rooted in a dramatic plate-discipline improvement. According to the most advanced strike zone available at Baseball Savant, his out-of-zone swing rate has cratered:

Some of this is circumstantial. After bouncing all around Kansas City's lineups, Cain now mostly bats out of the leadoff spot in Milwaukee. There's a greater emphasis on putting up quality at-bats.

But it's no small feat that he's played his part as well as he has. Likewise, it's been no small boon to the Brewers.

Their on-base percentage in the leadoff spot has increased from .320 to .357. Meanwhile, Cain's elite .471 OBP with runners in scoring position has helped them raise their collective OBP in those spots from .326 to .336. Thus, they're keeping the line moving a lot better than they did a year ago.

The Brewers have also benefited from Cain's baserunning and defense. His aggression has helped raise their rate of extra bases taken on hits from 35 percent to 40 percent. They've also gone from the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency to fourth-best.

Maybe Cain won't be named the NL MVP in November, but his 2018 season is about as complete a success story as he or the Brewers could have hoped for. He's a late bloomer who's still blooming, and they're all the better for it.

In a bygone era, it might have been hard to notice as much. But in this era, there's no excuse not to.

           

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus.

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