When the Milwaukee Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain to a five-year deal before the start of the 2018 season, part of the justification was the front office’s belief that he was a player who was still ascending offensively despite entering his age-32 season. David Stearns and company looked prescient as year one of the contract played out, with Cain serving as a catalyst for the lineup out of the leadoff spot on his way to posting arguably the finest season of his career. Lorenzo’s newfound patience at the plate — leading to a career-best .395 on-base percentage — was a major reason that the Brewers were able to win their first division title in seven years and make their deepest playoff run in a generation.
But now that we are about halfway through the 2019 MLB regular season, it’s looking safe to say that LoCain has left that on-base ability in 2018. Through 299 plate appearances and 65 games so far this season, Cain has produced only an anemic .250/.308/.364 slash line, ‘good’ for a 76 wRC+. That’s nearly a fifty-point decrease in overall production from last season (124 wRC+) and Cain is pacing for his worst season at the plate since becoming a full-time player in 2012. There are currently 159 MLB hitters who have accumulated enough plate appearances to ‘qualify’ and right now, 143 of them are having better seasons at the plate than Lorenzo according to wRC+.
Cain was more selective at the plate last season than he had ever been in his career. Not only did he swing at a mere 23.6% of pitches outside the strike zone (o-swing), he also sliced four points off of his in-zone swing rate (z-swing), down to 64.0%. Cain focused only on the pitches inside the strike zone that he felt he could do damage with, and as a result, posted a career-high 38.3% hard-hit rate that helped boost his batting average on balls in play up to .357.
Cain’s swing rates have trended in the wrong direction this season, although at first glance, it isn’t enough to jump off the page. His o-swing rate has risen to 25.8% and his z-swing to 64.9%. Overall, he’s swinging the bat about 2% more than he did last year. What has changed, however, is Cain’s selectivity within the strike zone.
Lorenzo has expanded his hitting zone in 2019, swinging more often at pitches that are difficult to drive in the upper part and on the outer edge of the strike zone. He is swinging-and-missing slightly more often this year (6.9% to 8.2%) and has seen a slight bump up in his strikeout frequency (15.2% to 16.4%) but he still rates far better than the league average in both those categories. The more impactful result of Cain’s augmented swing zone is a sharp decrease in the quality of contact on balls he is putting in play; his hard-hit rate has cratered to 31.4% and his BABIP is all the way down to .288. Cain’s walk rate has also plummeted from a career-best 11.5% down to 7.0% — below his average from across parts of 10 big league seasons — further weighing down his OBP.
According to linear weights from Pitch Info, sinkers have given Cain the toughest time this season. He’s a career .329 hitter against the pitch, but he’s hitting only .262 on two-seamers so far in 2019. Cain is putting the ball on the ground nearly 74% of the time he puts a sinker in play and his BABIP with the pitch is only .271, well below his .359 career total. Only the lumbering duo of Jesus Aguilar and Mike Moustakas have grounded into more double plays among Milwaukee batters this year than LoCain, who has 7 GDPs next to his name. A mere six qualified hitters have been worse against sinkers from opposing pitchers this year than Cain, who currently owns a -4.1 wSI (weighted sinker runs above average).
One might expect some positive regression from Cain based upon his career .341 BABIP, but even that isn’t a given at this point. Not only has Lorenzo’s hard-hit rate fallen off precipitously from last year, but one metric also suggests that he’s also lost a step in his age-33 season. In 2017 during his last season with the Royals, Cain’s sprint speed was clocked at 28.8 feet per second. During his first year back with Milwaukee last year, it was 28.6 ft/sec. Now, it is down all the way to 28.0 ft/sec and is hampering him as he attempts to leg out infield hits at the rate he did last season (11.1% infield hit rate in 2018, 6.8% IFH in 2019). No longer as fleet of foot as he once was, Cain has gone from being a major positive on the base paths (+6.4 Base Running Runs, 30 stolen bases in 2018) to a below-average presence when he is on base (-0.1 BsR, 7 SB).
The silver lining is that Cain continues to rate as one of the elite defenders in baseball today, currently sitting at third among all players with +13 Defensive Runs Saved and fourth with a +6.4 Ultimate Zone Rating. His contributions with the glove have helped pushed his overall value to roughly that of a league-average regular based upon his WAR totals (0.8 fWAR, 1.5 bWAR).
But an average starter surely isn’t what Slingin’ Stearns was hoping for when he gave Lorenzo Cain an $80 mil guarantee to play center field for the Cream City Nine during his age 32-36 seasons, and the startling drop off in Cain’s offensive production has to have the org’s brain trust tugging at their collective collars at least a little bit. There is still plenty of time for a player of LoCain’s caliber and track record to figure things out, but in the near-term, dropping him out of his customary leadoff spot to somewhere lower in the batting order may be beneficial for both the player and the offense as a whole.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, and Statcast