This feature will appear Sunday in a special section about the All-Star Game.
Depending on the day, you might catch Lorenzo Cain singing Livin’ on a Prayer. No music, no radio. Nothing to prompt one of baseball’s best outfielders to sing other than time to kill and a lack of insecurity.
Don’t pigeon hole him, either. It’s not just 1980s hair band hits. Some days, you might hear Trap Queen, which is Cain’s new walk-up song, a hook that includes the lyric: “I be in the kitchen cooking pies with my baby, yeah.”
Once, on a slow afternoon in Oakland, he emerged from the trainer’s room singing the corniest jingle on television loud enough to fill the clubhouse: “You don’t have to be lonely, at farmers only dot com.”
Cain likes to sing, you see, and not because he thinks he’s good at it. Mostly, he likes to sing because it makes him happy. Makes him laugh, the reactions he gets. Makes other people laugh, too.
So it’s not just the singing. Sometimes, he’ll sit in the clubhouse and watch highlights of the game he just played. And if he had a few hits, and notices they don’t mention it on the show, he might scream to nobody in particular.
They never put me on the ticker!
Hos, what I gotta do to make the ticker?
I gotta hit three bombs to make the ticker!
Every line is punctuated with a loud, guttural, genuine laugh that shakes his body from cap to cleat. He likes to laugh, and he likes to make other people laugh, and the whole thing is entirely misleading.
Cain has this way about him. A beautiful and efficient run that you often hear described as a glide. Long strides, quick feet, and instincts that are hardly ever wrong combined with what Alex Gordon thinks is the highest top speed of anyone on the team and, yes, that includes Jarrod Dyson.
Doesn’t matter if he’s on the bases or chasing a ball in the gap or, really, singing Gold Digger in the clubhouse. It is easy and it is smooth — and it is a bald-faced lie because it hides endless hours spent refining how he runs and an insatiable need to be the very best at what he does.
“Every time he doesn’t make a play, you should see him, he’s (mad),” says Rusty Kuntz, the Royals’ outfield coach. “And it’s like, ‘Lo Cain, sometimes these guys hit rockets and you can’t get to it.’ But he doesn’t want to hear that.
“He’s a beast. He competes. He competes with everything he does. Play him in a board game, and he fights like hell. Bring him out here, and he competes with the baseball. That’s what you look for. That’s what the great ones have.”
The effect, then, is a man who looks like he was born a ballplayer but very much made himself into one.
Cain is widely regarded as one of the game’s premier center fielders, an anchor for baseball’s best defense.
He won a Fielding Bible award last year, and almost certainly would’ve won a Gold Glove if not for a technicality about him playing too many innings in right field and not enough in center.
The Fielding Bible award is actually harder to win and better selected, but not nearly as well-known. Cain makes subtle references to this publicly, but to teammates and coaches, makes it very clear that he is hungry to win the Gold Glove this year.
“Just the jumps I get, the reads I make,” Cain says. “I make plays a lot of guys can’t make. I take pride in that.”
When and if that happens, it will be the marriage of some natural ability and instincts, but also a lot of hard work, precision, intelligence and desire.
Cain’s budding stardom was built in the winter after the 2012 season, when he quite literally learned how to run properly. He always had some athletic gifts — he measured a 39-inch vertical leap in taping a Sports Science segment this spring —but he had an awkward way of running that put an unnecessary beating on his legs.
A series of strains and tears to the muscles of his legs limited him to 61 big league games in 2012. Scouts loved his ability, but even the optimistic reports began with, if he can ever stay healthy...
He is a naturally long strider, but in oversimplified terms, needed to pull back a bit to take force away his toes and toward stronger parts of his legs.
Cain was dealing with a hamstring issue as the All-Star break approached, but has generally stayed healthy the last two years. Entering Saturday, he had played 223 of a possible 261 games over that span, including the playoffs, which puts him ninth in baseball among center fielders.
The tweaks to his running style had the added benefit of not only adding a touch of acceleration and top-end speed, but in easing the burden of playing the outfield — particularly in Kauffman Stadium, which has more fair territory than any ballpark in the American League.
But to take advantage of this, he also had to learn how to best use that ability.
The motion is counterintuitive.
When a ball is hit deeper than the outfielder is positioned, the natural first move is a step, usually crossing one leg in front of the other. This works against the defender in two ways.
First, it creates a rounded route, increasing the number of steps required and decreasing the ground that can be covered. But it also makes the read harder, because the outfielder drifts to the path of the ball first, and the depth of the ball second. Balls are much harder to judge this way, and it can have the effect of making a big-leaguer look foolish.
Kuntz keeps a few video examples on his phone to illustrate the point.
“Look at this one,” Kuntz says, shaking his head. “He’s got no idea.”
The solution, then, is to train outfielders to make their first move a quick shuffle of both feet simultaneously to create a straight path back to the ball. Kuntz calls this a “quick turn,” and he says it like he means it — quickturn, the word coming out as fast as he can say it, emphasis on quick.
Even with a willing pupil, this can take months, maybe longer, to master. With Cain, it was three or four hits with a fungo bat.
“It took him, like, one blink of the eye,” Kuntz says. “Then he was gone. I’m not talking about baseball IQ here. Just IQ. The ability to take instruction, and apply it.”
Kuntz guesses that the “quick turn” can improve an outfielder’s range 20 or 25 percent on balls hit over their heads. Just as the cross-step works against an outfielder in two ways, the “quick turn” works for him in two ways.
First, and most obviously, it means running down more balls near the wall.
But it also allows the outfielder to play shallower, knowing he has a better chance to get deep and cut off extra-base hits. Doing this means being able to get to more balls in front, too.
One big-league scout said this last part is what separates Cain from the Angels’ Mike Trout, who is hard to go for extra bases against but generally sees more balls drop in front because he plays much deeper than Cain.
You might have noticed on that first video, where Statcast’s calculations determined Cain’s route efficiency to be 98.8 percent. It isn’t always that high, of course, but beginning his routes the way he does gives him a chance to be close to perfect and run down balls that others can’t.
Kuntz says the only outfielders he’s worked with who are better than Cain are Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones, and that most of the advantage for those other guys is in longevity.
Nobody can be sure how long Cain’s gift will last, of course. But he has worked his way to this point, a star at the top of his craft, now with the chance to play with his sport’s biggest stars.
Baseball Reference compares players with others in history at their current age. For Lorenzo Cain, who is 29, those players include: Milt Thompson, Dan Gladden and Tike Redman.
Average, which is sixth in the American League
Defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs, second in the AL among center fielders
Stolen bases, tied for AL lead among center fielders