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Lorenzo Cain has been a different, better hitter in 2018

The center fielder has been worth every penny so far.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Plenty of eyebrows were raised around Milwaukee when the Brewers inked Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 mil contract this past January, the largest free agent deal in franchise history. The former All-Star was about to (and has since) turn 32 years old, and the outfield was considered an area of strength coming into the offseason. Some opined that the money would have been better spent addressing what, on paper, looked like a weak starting rotation rather than investing in Cain.

While it’s still too early to draw any conclusions about the deal one way or another, Cain is certainly doing his part to begin proving that David Stearns made the right call to sign him. He’s started 20 of Milwaukee’s first 23 games so far in center field and has compiled a sterling .303/.400/.461 slash through his first 90 plate appearances, which translates to a 140 wRC+. He’s clubbed six doubles and launched two dingers, and has nabbed five bags with only one caught stealing. To this point in the year, LoCain has been a dynamo out of the leadoff spot for the Cream City Nine.

It’s not news that Lorenzo Cain is a good hitter. From his breakout season in 2014 through the end of his tenure with the Royals last season, the right-handed swinger batted .300/.352/.437 in 531 games with 45 home runs and 96 steals, which translates to a 114 wRC+. Cain has developed a reputation as a quality hitter with strong bat-to-ball skills (18.6% career strikeout rate) who will hit for average and provide a little bit of pop (he’s crossed the 15+ homer threshold twice).

What’s interesting about Cain’s hot start is how different a hitter he’s been since rejoining the organization that he began his career with all those years ago. Lorenzo hasn’t ever been the most patient hitter, with his 8.4% walk rate last season representing a career-high. He’s drawn a free pass in fewer than 7% of his plate appearances during his parts of nine seasons in the big leagues. In the early portion of this season, however, Cain’s approach appears to have taken a 180.

In 21 games so far this year, LoCain has taken a base on balls 13 times. That translates to a 14.4% walk rate, which was tied for the 15th-highest in the National League entering play today. In terms of on base percentage, Cain’s .400 OBP is 56 points higher than his career average and tied for the 15th-highest in the NL. How has he been produce such a drastic increase? Cain has stopped swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. For his career, he owns an O-swing% of 31.3%. Last season with Kansas City, he swung at 30.4% of the pitches he saw that were outside the strike zone. In 2018? Cain is only swinging outside the zone 20.8% of the time, the 12th-lowest rate among qualified NL hitters. The National League average for non-pitchers is 28.7%.

Beyond swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, Cain has greatly reduced the amount of swings he’s taking on the whole. For his career, Cain has offered at 47.5% of the pitches he has seen, and in 2017 that rate was 49.3%. This season, Cain has swung at just 39.5% of the pitches he’s seen. Only 15 qualified hitters in the NL are swinging at a lower rate than LoCain.

In general this season, pitchers seem to have started to try and attack Cain more on the inside part of the zone. Below is a heat map of how pitchers approached their at-bats against Cain from the 2010-17 seasons, followed by a heat map of the pitch locations seen by Cain in 2018:

Cain, a professional hitter, has been able to adjust his approach to how pitchers are coming after him this season. He has tightened up his area of concentration within the strike zone and has been able to pounce on those inside pitches he’s seeing:

Perhaps as a result of the locations he’s been seeing and swinging at this season, Lorenzo’s 41% pull rate would be the highest total he’s produced since the 2012 season and is more than six points higher than his career average. Maybe not coincidentally, he is driving the ball more routinely than he has in years’ past and is boasting a 36.1% rate of hard contact, which is both well above the league average of 33% and Cain’s career rate of 28.8%. Lorenzo’s BABIP of .356 may be in line for some regression, but in reality it’s not that much higher than his cumulative .344 average on balls in play.

Cain remains an outstanding hitter for contact, as he’s fanned in only 17.8% of his plate appearances this season and his current swinging strike rate of 7.9% would be the best he’s posted since his abbreviated rookie season of 2010. He continues to possess that bit of pop, and his .158 ISO (versus .132 career) may also be seeing some benefit of the move from Kauffman Stadium to Miller Park. He’s still got plenty of speed and ranks within the upper third of the league in Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric. Now, if he can sustain the improvements that he’s made in the early portion of this season, Cain may be able to add elite plate discipline to his bag of offensive tools.

The season is still young, of course. Much was made of the plate discipline that Eric Thames displayed during his breakout April last year, but that eroded as the year went on and was no longer notable by the end of 2017. But perhaps a move to the leadoff role - a spot where Cain’s name had been written on the lineup card in only 54 games prior to the start of 2018 - has awoken a new level of patience within the fleet-footed center fielder. If that is indeed the case, Lorenzo Cain may be on his way to a career-year at the plate in his age-32 season.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs