Until Christian Yelich turned into Barry Bonds in the second half, it looked like Lorenzo Cain would end up being this year’s Most Valuable Brewer.
The first year of the richest free agent contract in franchise history could not have gone much better. While the counting stats may not have been enough to grab the attention of anyone who didn’t see him play every day -- 10 home runs and 38 RBI in 620 plate appearances doesn’t scream MVP to some of the more old school thinkers -- Cain truly did a little bit of everything, serving as both a key on-base machine at the top of the lineup and keeping runs off the board defensively.
Not only was his .395 on-base percentage the highest of his career, it was a 32-point improvement over his previous career high of .363 set last season, and 44 points higher than his career average. As his speed slowly starts to leave him, it looks like he’s evolving into a different kind of hitter and relying on his “old man skills” of contact hitting and a keen eye more than speed and gap power.
Cain’s .308 batting average was also a career high in his age-32 season, and his 15.2% K% was also the best mark of his career. He also chased fewer pitches out of the zone than ever before, with a new career-best 24.9% O-Swing%, upped his contact rate to a new full-season best of 83.7% and cut his swinging strike rate by a full 2% to another career-best 6.9%.
He also set career highs on the basepaths, stealing 30 bases for the first time in his 9-year career, only getting caught 7 times. His 6.4 baserunning runs also led the team by a decent margin -- only Christian Yelich’s 5.8 was close, with Eric Thames of all people finishing in a distant third with 1.8. It’s safe to say that outside of Cain and Yelich, the 2018 Brewers were not a good baserunning team.
With the glove, Cain was arguably the best defensive centerfielder in the league. The eye test won’t fail you this time.
He’s a finalist for the Gold Glove and has already won the Fielding Bible award for centerfield, and much of his 5.7 fWAR and 6.9 bWAR are built on his defensive metrics. Statcast measures Catch Probability, which aims to do exactly what it sounds like -- determine the probability of any batted ball being caught. They also use it to keep track of “Outs Above Average” as a way to try to measure a player’s range. The way they describe it, a defender that converts an out on a play with just a 25% Catch Probability would get credit for .75 “Outs Above Average.”
Using that criteria, Cain finished third in all of baseball with 19 Outs Above Average, behind only St. Louis’ Harrison Bader and Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte, who is also up for the NL Centerfield Gold Glove. Cain also ranked 2nd in the majors in “5-Star” plays (those with 0-25% Catch Probability) with 6, and third in the majors in “4-Star” (26-50% probability) players with 11, only missing one of those opportunities.
Considering 2018 was a career year in many ways for Cain and that he’ll be 33 next year, it’s possible -- if not likely -- that this was the best season we’ll see from Lo in Milwaukee. Even if that’s the case, he’s already provided enough value in one year to make a good chunk of his $80 million worth it.
Cain being named the #2 Most Valuable Brewer makes sense.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs