During his first year away from home, toiling for Tallahassee Community College the year after Milwaukee chose him in the 17th round of the 2004 draft, Lorenzo Cain developed a nightly routine. He felt homesick and lonely, and sought an outlet.
He would return to the dorm room he shared with two teammates, crack open his laptop and search for highlights of the only baseball player he admired. Cain never studied the game in his youth, never even played until his sophomore year of high school. But in Torii Hunter, he saw a man worth emulating.
“Late at night, nothing going on,” Cain said. “Let’s see what Torii’s up to.”
Hunter served as a fitting model for Cain. He was a stylish center fielder and an aggressive hitter. Hunter made five All-Star teams, won nine Gold Gloves and remained a viable player through nearly two decades in the majors. But he has never put together an offensive season like the one Cain is currently having.
As the No. 3 hitter on the division-leading Royals, Cain has transformed himself into one of the best offensive players in baseball. After recording four hits on Tuesday, Cain boosted his on-base plus slugging percentage to a career-best .882, which ranked ninth in the American League.
His statistics demonstrate his development. Cain resided in the upper tier of most offensive categories in the American League heading into Wednesday’s games: He ranked fifth in batting average (.316), eighth in on-base percentage (.371) and 10th in slugging percentage (.512).
The last category is the most jarring. Cain entered the season with 17 career homers. Through 99 games in 2015, he had hit 12. According to FanGraphs’ version of wins above replacement, Cain has been the fourth most valuable position player on the junior circuit.
“If we win this thing, you’re talking about a guy who can be an MVP,” Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum said. “Especially if you look at his defense, his stolen bases, what he means to our team.”
A similar thought struck manager Ned Yost during the All-Star break. He had just managed the American League during the Midsummer Classic, and watched the game’s best all gather in Cincinnati. Cain was the only player in the game to record two hits. As Yost tended his farm in Georgia, he wondered about Cain’s standing among his peers.
“For me, he’s the most underrated player in the American League,” Yost said. “I was thinking about that the other day on my tractor. Who is more underrated than Lorenzo Cain?”
When Alex Gordon fell in the outfield on July 8, straining his groin and disabling himself for two months, the Royals lost their hottest hitter and their most steady veteran. Into the void stepped Cain. The next night, he hit his second homer in as many games, igniting a 26-game stretch where he posted a .971 OPS with five homers, nine doubles and three triples.
“He just continues to get better and better,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer said. “His tools are amazing.”
Along the way, Cain established himself as the most dangerous hitter on the best team in the American League. Rival scouts have noted his improved plate discipline. Both teammates and coaches mentioned his newfound ability to drive the baseball for extra bases, which stems from better pitch recognition.
“I think he really trusts his bat speed to where he can wait longer and get better pitches,” Sveum said. “He’s an aggressive hitter. But now you see the maturity coming along with pitch selection and understanding you’re not going to do anything unless you get a good pitch to hit here.”
Cain credited himself for tempering his aggression against fastballs while unleashing more swings on hittable offspeed pitches. He is one of the game’s better fastball hitters — he ranked 13th among American Leaguers on runs above average on fastballs, according to FanGraphs — but now he has also shown the ability to punish pitchers for misplaced breaking balls.
Consider this: Six of Cain’s 12 home runs have come on offspeed offerings. He hit only five homers in all of 2014. On Tuesday evening, he destroyed a hanging slider from Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez.
“In the past, if I saw that, I would just automatically take,” Cain said. “And this year, I feel like if they throw a get-me-over curveball up there, I’m jumping on it. And I’ve been able to do damage with it, for the most part.”
For Cain, 29, the evolution began in the offseason. He batted .301 in 2014, but he nursed an addiction to fastballs and relied upon his legs to accumulate infield singles. In the winter, Cain resolved to become “that complete player,” he said.
“Hitting .300’s nice,” Cain said one day last month. “But I wanted to be a guy who drove in runs. I wanted to hit a few more home runs, doubles. Just wanted to improve my overall game.”
In the past, Cain explained, he did not arrive at the plate with much of a plan. If he saw a fastball in the strike zone, he intended to swing. He possessed enough talent to survive. But hitting never came easily to him.
When the Royals acquired Cain before the 2011 season, Yost reached out to Sveum, who had been Cain’s hitting coach in Milwaukee. Sveum mentioned that Cain flashed potential, and praised him for his ability to make some adjustments. But Sveum did pass along a warning: “Don’t pay attention to his batting practice. Because his B.P. is horrible.”
Yost listened, but still, the sight of Cain playing accidental pepper with the top screen of the batting cage was alarming. Cain does not deny his futility.
“I never really hit well in B.P.,” Cain said. “I’m glad that coaches didn’t judge me on my B.P. Because I would have been sent home a long time ago.”
As the years passed, Yost noticed Cain’s subtle maturation in this area. Instead of hitting a seemingly endless stream of pop-ups, Cain began spraying line drives to all fields. At times he displayed tremendous power. Yost insisted he always believed Cain could transfer that talent into live action.
The transformation did not take shape, fully, until 2015.
“You can see he’s turning into an elite-type hitter,” Sveum said. “He hits good pitching. He hits velocity. Laying off offspeed. He’s taken his game to another level.”