When the Milwaukee Brewers signed star outfielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80 million contract this winter, the organization told us that they believed even at age 31 that Cain was going to become an even better player than he already was.
Cain is now 32 after celebrating his birthday on April 13, and the Brewers are celebrating being 100% right about the 2014 American League Championship Series MVP.
Milwaukee’s center fielder is off to a fantastic start this season, with a .279/.397/.462 slash line, and 4 home runs with 10 runs batted in on the year to go with 8 stolen bases. The biggest change in Cain’s game can be tied in directly to his on-base percentage and walk rate.
Even when he was the ALCS MVP in 2014, Cain still walked at a below average rate. He had just 24 walks in 502 plate appearances, which gave him a 4.8% walk clip. Now, when you look at his walk rates, you wouldn’t even recognize him:
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While an exact doubling of his walk rate from 2017 to this year doesn’t seem sustainable, it’s noteworthy that Cain is also simply swinging at better pitches. Cain has only swung at 20.6% of pitches outside the strike zone this season, which is the best mark of his career by almost a full 10%. A sign that this impressive plate discipline could be here to stay is that his swinging percentage in general is also the lowest mark of his career at 39.3%, which is down a full 10% so far.
Cain is also barreling up the baseball more, with a 34.9% hard hit rate to his name. His soft contact rate is a bit up from his 2017 mark, but he’s sent his 50.2% medium hit rate in 2017 to this year’s impressive hard hit rate.
Milwaukee has been using Cain as it’s primary leadoff hitter this season, which isn’t entirely new to him, but it’s still different from his role with the Royals in Kansas City. Typically, Cain batted third in Kansas City’s order for manager Ned Yost, which allowed Cain to drive in more runs. He likely won’t drive in 72 runs like he did in the best year of his career in 2015, but it seems like Cain has found an excellent niche as manager Craig Counsell‘s first batter.
Typically, Cain has had Milwaukee’s other off-season acquisition in Christian Yelich batting behind him in the order, and then Ryan Braun and Travis Shaw. Yelich, who is also smashing every pitch so far this season, missed a stretch of games when an oblique injury sent him to the disabled list, but now that he’s back and 100% healthy, the expectation is that Yelich will be playing almost everyday.
Counsell elected to give Cain some rest in the Brewers’ 3-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Wednesday night, but Cain still found his way into the game when he had to pinch-hit for left-handed starter Wade Miley.
In his pitch appearance, Cain drew his 21st walk of the season, and his walk-to-strikeout ratio is something to behold right now. He enters today’s game against the Pittsburgh Pirates as the team’s leader in both walks and hits, and currently has two more walks than strikeouts.
Last season, only five players who played nearly everyday drew more walks than times than they struck out, and those players were Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, Joey Votto, Anthony Rizzo, and Justin Turner. While there is an abundance of players just like Cain right now that have drawn the free pass more than the whiff, it could be certainly possible to see Cain’s 2018 season feature more walks than hits.
It doesn’t seem crazy to say that we still haven’t seen Cain at his best this season as well. Last year, his best month out of the entire season was in June where he slashed .333/.377/.626 with 8 homers and 17 runs batted in. Cain also seems to elevate his game at times where winning is critical, and every game for Milwaukee this summer will have that meaning.
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While they currently sit atop the National League Central division with a 19-13 record, the Brewers only have a two game lead on the Pirates, and only a half game lead on the second place St. Louis Cardinals. Their offense has also struggled majorly against the third place Chicago Cubs this season, but their pitching has been so excellent against the reigning National League Central champions.
Whatever way you spin it, this summer for Milwaukee baseball will be immensely fun, and the always smiling Cain will figure to be at the center of the enjoyment.
*All statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs & Baseball-Reference. All statistics present in this article are accurate as of May 4, 2018.*
Photo: Morry Gash/Associated Press