Judging the Royals

Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain needs to resist temptation ... to pull the ball

Most ballplayers go into a season with a game plan in mind, so one morning last week I stopped by Lorenzo Cain’s locker to ask what he was working on in 2016. His answer was remarkably similar to what he told me last season, so let’s go back and review.

Look up Lorenzo Cain’s numbers and you’ll see he hits .409 when he puts a ball in play to the left side of the field, .343 when he hits the ball up the middle and .374 when he goes the other way.

So Lorenzo Cain should be a pull hitter — right?

Well, those numbers reflect balls in play, so you need to factor in strikeouts. And when Cain pulls the ball he swings sooner, and when he swings sooner he chases sliders, and when he chases sliders he strikes out more often.

Cain believes he’d be a better hitter if he tried to go up the middle and to the opposite field all the time. That would force him to wait longer and identify those sliders that are going to move out of the strike zone. Waiting longer would allow Cain to lay off those chase sliders that plague him.

And setting his sights up the middle would still allow Cain to pull the inside pitch: He can get the bat head to that inside pitch by pulling his hands in toward his body and tightening the arc of his swing. It’s a pretty simple game plan: look away, adjust in.

So if Cain knows this is a good approach, why doesn’t he stick to it?

When he pulls the ball, Cain hits for more power. And last season he told me that when the crowd starts going crazy, it makes him want to do something big — and that’s a temptation that’s difficult to resist.

But trying harder usually doesn’t work.

Most of us have been raised on sports movies that feature some scene where the hero gets knocked down and then gets up again and succeeds by trying harder.

But in baseball, try harder and your muscles tighten up and you lose the natural grace and flow necessary to swing a bat or throw a ball at peak efficiency. Try to swing a bat harder and your swing actually slows down; loose is quick, tight is slow.

George Brett will tell you he hardly ever hit a home run when he tried to. In fact, when Brett faced a big at-bat he’d tell himself to: “Try easier.”

Other ballplayers will tell you that in a big situation the player who can back off a bit has an advantage. The game is not played at 110 percent, and never was.

If Cain tries to do something big, he’ll get pull happy. And if he does that, all a pitcher needs to do is throw him sliders away; the Royals centerfielder will reach out, hook the ball and hit a weak rollover grounder to the left side — assuming he hits the ball at all.

We all face temptation, and most of the time we know what we should do; we just don’t want to do it. Cain knows he needs to hit the ball up the middle and the other way; I know I should eat less and exercise more.

This summer, one of us might resist temptation and do the right thing. The smart money’s on Cain.