Going Deep: Lorenzo Cain’s Change in Approach Adds Another Elite Level To His Game

Daniel Port dives into Lorenzo Cain's 2018 season and shows how a change in approach may have launched him into the top 40.

In fantasy, we’re always on the lookout for the player making the big leap or drastic improvement. This makes a lot of sense as finding that big breakout every year can make or break a season.  Sometimes though this approach can force us to forsake the good player that makes small, incremental changes to become a great player.  These players tend to fly under the radar but they can provide a steady foundation for those big breakout risks you’re going to bet big on later in the draft.  One such player is the Brewer’s CF speedster Lorenzo Cain.  Last year Cain was taken on average in the seventh round and so far in our early mock draft returns, we are seeing him go on average in the sixth round or so while going as early as the fourth round and as late as the eighth round. I’d argue though that he should be going closer to that fourth round range then his ADP would indicate.  It is my opinion that in 2018 Cain made a big change in his approach and several subtle improvements that make him a top 40 hitter.  For those who love grabbing a safe and steady base stealer who contribute multiple categories, it’s hard to find a better value than Lorenzo Cain.

First, let’s start with the basic 5×5 roto stats.  Here are his 2016, 2017, and 2018 numbers:

2016 434 397 .287 9 56 56 14
2017 645 584 .300 15 86 49 26
2018 620 539 .308 10 90 38 30

Pretty solid right?  Every year we see a nice bump in AVG (5th in the NL in 2018) and runs (12th in the NL while those SBs were good for 4th the NL.  That’s three of five categories in which Cain is a plus contributor, two of which tend to be full of one category specialists.  Right there that’s a pretty good argument for the Brew Crew table setter but let’s dive a little deeper because I think there’s potential for even greater continued improvements to come for the 32-year-old.  I almost missed it at first but once I saw his batted ball data, it became clear to me that in 2018 we likely saw a genuine change in approach from Lorenzo Cain and it has set him up at the very worst to maintain his numbers from last year.

Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2016 34.4% 38.5% 27.1%
2017 31.1% 40.5% 28.4%
2018 29.8% 37.4% 32.9%

From 2016 to 2018 we see an incremental drop of nearly 4.6 % in his Pull% and a 5.8% increase in his Oppo%.  More and more we are seeing Cain go the other way with the ball which seems to indicate a shift in his hitting approach.  For a speed guy, this is very encouraging.  Now to look at the quality of contact he gets when he does go the other way.

Overall Contact Oppo Contact Oppo Quality
Soft% Med% Hard% % Soft% Med% Hard% wRC+ ISO SLG
2016 20.2% 49.8% 30.0% 2016 29.1% 51.2% 19.8% 2016 99 .155 .464
2017 18.7% 50.2% 31.1% 2017 26.1% 53.3% 20.3% 2017 104 .109 .455
2018 18.1% 43.6% 38.3% 2018 18.4% 48.3% 33.3% 2018 126 .090 .469

In 2018 he hit the ball to the opposite field more than ever (4.5% more!) and as we can see above when he went the other way he hit the ball harder and for better quality then he ever had.  Sign me up.  Check out the ISO numbers real quick though before we move on.  If this was a real-life baseball team I would obviously be concerned about the declining ISO.  This means he hit fewer and fewer extra base hits to that part of the field which sounds like a bad thing but let me tell you why I think this is a good thing.  Obviously his manager would love him to get more hits that end up with him standing on second or third base but we are not his real-world managers we’re his fantasy baseball managers (yes I do like to think of my fantasy players as if I’m their manager.  I’ve been known to give heroic speeches and hurl brutal tirades towards my roster through my monitor or phone.)  While I value Cain highly for his multi-category contributions, his major job on my team is steal bases.  Whenever he ends up on second or third base the odds of him doing so drastically decrease compared to when he walks (more on this in a moment) or when he gets a base hit so as a fantasy owner I am all about him getting more hits and more of them being singles.

In the very spirit of measuring how often Cain ends up on first let’s check out his BB% and add in how often he strolls to first rather than sprint:

BB% BB 1Bs Total
2016 7.1% 31 85 116
2017 8.4% 54 128 182
2018 11.5% 71 129 200

That is just a beautiful sight. Three straight years of BB% improvement.  2016 was an injury-shortened season but the BB% is the important part.  If you were to extrapolate his stats that year to a full 600 PA he would have given you 43 BBs and 117 1Bs for a total of 160 times on first base.   Basically each year he ends up with nearly 20 more chances to steal a base and that’s without considering the handful of times he attempts to steal third or ended up on first as the result of a fielder’s choice or error.  I will always give greater value to speedsters that walk a ton.  It creates a much more reliable floor for his stolen base opportunities as he can find a way to get on base even when he is slumping at the plate.  As a Cleveland fan I grew up worshipping Kenny Lofton who in his prime consistently sported a BB% over 10% and I will never forget Tom Hamilton’s (he was the Indians radio announcer) mantra:  With Lofton, you might as well have written every single walk down as a double.  While players are stealing fewer and fewer bases every single year the idea still holds true.  A base stealer who walks a lot has that same high ceiling for stolen base numbers but the floor is just so much more dependable.  Between that high BB% and consistent rate of base hits Cain is going to see a ton of opportunities to steal bases next year.  Of course, the question is can he sustain that BB%?  Let’s mosey on over and take a glance at his K% and plate discipline stats.

K% OSwing% Contact% SwSt%
2016 19.4% 29.0% 79.1% 9.9%
2017 15.5% 30.4% 82.2% 8.9%
2018 15.2%(30th) 24.9% (25th) 83.5%(28th) 6.9% (20th)

So at first glance we notice right away the elite K% which was good for 30th in baseball and even bested the likes of plate discipline extraordinaire Joey Votto (I’m sorry my beloved Joey, please forgive me I’ll never slander you again!) and he had the 17th best BB/K rate in the league.  And you can see from the plate discipline stats that there seems to be support for these numbers.  In 2018 he swung at a career low percentage of pitches outside the strike zone and exhibited career bests in contact % and Swinging Strike %.  This is exactly the hitting profile you want to see from a speedster.  That continuous improvement seems to imply that Cain is a hitter seeing the ball better and better every single year.

Does Cain have any red flags?  Absolutely.  He’ll be 32 heading into the 2019 season so there is always the risk his speed starts to decline.  Though by taking a look at Statcast’s Sprint Speed numbers, Cain has pretty reliably maintained his well above average speed:

Sprint Speed (ft/s)
2015 28.9
2016 29.1
2017 28.8
2018 28.6

I’m not really seeing any indications that Cain is losing his speed yet but he is entering the age range where that becomes a risk.  I know when I hit 33 I began contemplating moving into a retirement home for the first time but I’m going to wager that Cain is in much better shape than I am and takes better care of his body then I do with my steady diet of beer and corn dogs.

Finally, I would like to talk a little about draft strategy and SBs.  Using very early ADP data here are the top 10 MLB stolen base leaders from 2018 presented alongside their ADP so far and how they did in each of the five roto categories.  I’ve broken down each players input into three color-coded categories – Blue for top 25 output, Green for top 50, Orange for top 75 and Blank for everything beyond that.  Here’s where everyone stacks up:

Mookie Betts 2.8 .346 32 129 80 30
Jose Ramirez 2.9 .270 39 110 105 34
Trea Turner 9.7 .271 19 103 73 43
Starling Marte 33.4 .277 20 81 72 33
Whit Merrifield 42.1 .304 12 88 60 45
Lorenzo Cain 59.6 .308 10 90 38 30
Dee Gordon 75.1 .268 4 62 36 30
Mallex Smith 113.2 .296 2 65 40 40
Jonathan Villar 126.9 .260 14 54 46 35
Billy Hamilton 157.9 .236 4 74 29 34

Now I didn’t need a color-coded chart (albeit a mighty fine looking color-coded chart) to tell me Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, and Trea Turner are awesome but let’s step outside the first round.  Getting most of those players is more a question where you pick in the draft than draft strategy. Starling Marte has a tier to his own as the only non-first round speedster with no red flags, hence his ADP in the late 3rd round. The 15 extra stolen bases separating Whit Merrifield and Lorenzo Cain explain the ADP gap between the two but they are the only players after Marte with blues or greens in three of the five roto categories with Cain going on average almost a full two to three rounds later. After that, we see a whole mess of nothing.  To further illustrate the point I added a simple point system. Four points for every blue, three points for every green, one point for orange and minus one point for every blank space.  Here are the results:

Name ADP Score
Mookie Betts 2.8 19
Jose Ramirez 2.9 17
Starling Marte 33.4 12
Whit Merrifield 42.1 10
Trea Turner 9.7 9
Lorenzo Cain 59.6 9
Mallex Smith 113.2 5
Jonathan Villar 126.9 2
Dee Gordon 75.1 2
Billy Hamilton 157.9 0

Again the first five aren’t really that much of a surprise but note the sudden and dramatic drop off from Cain to Mallex Smith.  The draft capital you have to spend to get those guys is nearly six rounds later but you can see they actively hurt you in a whole bunch of categories.  If you’re looking to build a stolen base foundation on draft day are you really willing to pencil any of those guys as your starters?  I guess this is ultimately where I fall on Lorenzo Cain.  Normally when I build a team on draft day I really only chase stolen base guys if they also represent pluses in other categories.  Cain is the last of those true elite stolen base multi-category contributors.  The home runs are low but that’s the case for pretty much all the non-1st round guys and it’s pretty easy to get home runs later in the draft with players who are less damaging then their stolen base equivalents.  Pair Cain with say Matt Chapman (84.6 ADP), Travis Shaw (106.4), Jesus Aguilar (91.9) or Joey Gallo (95.4) and you’ve got some nice synergy going on in your roster.

Even if I think Cain is a top 40 value (I do),  I actually do hope his ADP holds right where it is.  I’m big on Whit Merrifield as well but when you look at the 5th round as of today he’s surrounded by a ton of pitchers I’m targeting (Blake Snell (37.0 ADP), Gerrit Cole (37.2), Trevor Bauer (41.0), Noah Syndergaard (43.3), Carlos Carrasco (44.3), Zack Greinke (57.3), and James Paxton (57.6).  There quite a few hitters I like there too such as Joey Votto (I see you BAE! – ADP 45.9), Eugenio Suarez (48), Matt Carpenter (52.0), Anthony Rendon (48.7) and if I’m feeling frisky Vlad Guerrero Jr. (50.7).  That fourth or fifth round decision is already giving me anxiety before I even add Merrifield in there.  Cain’s ADP is going more towards the sixth round and while Paxton and Greinke could fall to there, Cain is surrounded by a lot fewer options that demand my attention.  Pitchers in that range are Madison Bumgarner (62.4), Walker Buehler (Who admittedly I do love – ADP 63.8), Stephen Strasburg (58.3), and Edwin Diaz (69.2) while he hitters aren’t much sexier – Gleyber Torres (61.8 ADP), Justin Upton (64.8), Gary Sanchez (68.6) and Mitch Haniger (69.7).  I’m more than willing to sacrifice the 10 or so stolen bases that separate Merrifield and Cain to snag one of the players from the treasure trove that is the fourth and fifth rounds and grab Cain in the fifth or sixth round and still get a huge boost in SBs, AVG, and Rs.

I think on draft day if you want to pick up a top 40 hitter and has shown some signs for more then it’s hard to go wrong with Lorenzo Cain.  He will provide you with elite SB and AVG production while being a good producer of Rs as well.  After him, it is a whole lot of risks, wings, and prayers who even at their best actively hurt you in almost every other category.  All the underlying stats show a hitter who is still improving in small incremental ways that have boosted him from a valuable fantasy player to verifiable fantasy stud.  If he falls to the fifth round or later as the current ADP is showing I wouldn’t hesitate to scoop him up and reap the benefits of a player who returned fourth-round value last year.

(Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire)

Daniel Port

Daniel is a Fantasy Baseball writer, Brewer, and Theatrical Technician, located in Denver, Colorado. A lifelong fan of baseball and the Cleveland Indians since before Albert Belle tried to murder Fernando Vina, he used to tell his Mom he loved her using Sammy Sosa's home run salute, has a perfectly reasonable amount of love for Joey Votto and believes everything in life should be announced using bat flips. If you want to talk baseball, beer, or really anything at all you can find him on twitter at @DanielJPort !

7 responses to “Going Deep: Lorenzo Cain’s Change in Approach Adds Another Elite Level To His Game”

  1. Nick Gerli says:

    I snagged Cain in the eighth round in one of my leagues last year and loved it.

    It definitely seems like he sacrificed some power (ISO all the way down to 109) for his new plate discipline approach, but that’s okay so long as he keeps swiping bags.

    PS – how is Dee Gordon going 75 in drafts so far? Also, where did you find that data for ADP?

    • Daniel Port says:

      Nice! That’s great value! Yeah and I ran out of room honestly to talk about this but with Yelich, Braun, Shaw, and Aguilar hitting behind him, I’m all about him just getting on base as many times as humanly possible that way he keeps racking up steals and runs. The draft data I’ll admit is a bit small sample still as it’s mostly comprised our staff mock drafts we’ve done here, other industry mocks and a few random mocks I’ve done on my own. Check out our mock drafts at the site and you’ll mostly see what I’m seeing as well. Do you think 75 is too early or too late for Gordon? Personally, I’m always really bearish on batters with Gordon’s batting profile so I think it’s a bit early especially since the Mariners might be terrible this year.

  2. Dan Richards says:

    He was a great value last year. I’m not sure there’s a ton of value in his 59 ADP, though. I just don’t think he can continue making gains in the SB category because his walk and contact rates are already so elite, and he’s only getting older and there’s a precipitous drop in SBs as players age. 30 steals is probably therefore his ceiling. He also lost some of the 5 category appeal he had before as he’s taking a contact-heavy approach, so he’s actively hurting you in HRs and RBI.

    I like him a lot as a player and he won me two leagues this year, but I think he’s priced appropriately and doesn’t represent a great value.

    • Daniel Port says:

      Yeah I totally get that. I guess in the long run he returned 4th round value last year and I think the data shows he will likely come pretty close to replicating that. I hear you on the RBIs and HRs batting right after the pitcher certainly doesn’t do him any favors there. I guess I’d be more concerned if it weren’t for the fact that that’s the case for pretty much all the elite base stealers. Same for RBIs too. I guess I just see his year as super sustainable and his floor is really high and I don’t trust any of the base stealers after him. That bumps him up a round or two in value for me I guess. But I totally get where you’re coming from and I think you make a fair argument.

  3. Saint says:

    Betts and Ramirez were T21 and T4 respectively in HR’s last year. Should their HR color code not be blue? Just checking.

    Thanks in advance for your response.

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