Lorenzo Cain will give you the wrong idea if you’re not careful. If you watch him.
Not in the moments they replay on the highlight shows, with those gorgeous strides running down fly balls in one of baseball’s biggest outfields. According to scouts, nobody plays center field better. And not zooming around the bases like one of those rabbits on the railing at the dog track. According to the metrics, only three players in the American League ran the bases better.
When a baseball is in play, the Royals’ center fielder is one of the sport’s greatest athletes. MLB’s Statcast system labels Cain one of baseball’s only eight true five-tool players. Royals fans of a certain age are reminded of Willie Wilson, only with a better arm, and more power.
But in the other, say, 23 hours and 47 minutes of Cain’s daily life, he appears, well, he appears to be in severe need of a soft chair and a foot massage. A quick poll around the Royals’ clubhouse reveals Cain’s non-baseball movements to be closer to those of a 40-year-old, a 90-year-old, or, and this was outfield coach Rusty Kuntz’s description: “someone who’s about to die.”
Cain knows the scouting report. He laughs when it’s brought up. We all have our favorite sayings, things we’re known for, and Cain’s is I’m tired, my feet hurt. Alex Gordon laughs. Says it’s for show, Cain’s way to either make his teammates smile or his opponents underestimate him.
“I’ve been getting it since I was 18 years old,” he says. “Walking the same way, looking like I hurt all the time. Sometimes, my feet really do hurt. But, yeah. I take it over the top sometimes.”
These days, Cain has reason to gimp around. Last week in Chicago, he smashed a 90 mph fastball into his right knee. The pain shot through him immediately, and he fell to the ground like someone hit him with an ax. He is among the many hitters with armor protecting their front leg, but nobody thinks to put anything over their plant knee. It takes a wicked conspiracy of events to hit a ball off the back knee.
Cain finished that at bat, but was then removed from the game with a bone bruise. The pain will not go away for at least another couple weeks, maybe longer. Painkillers can only do so much.
This time, the graceful centerfielder whose teammates jokingly call him Old Man will know this is not an act.
This time, the pain is real. Good thing Cain is far tougher than you might think listening to him sing falsetto around the clubhouse and limp around the baseball field out of habit.
Lorenzo Cain was not supposed to be this good. This was not how it was supposed to go for him. He was always going to play terrific defense. He is too gifted, and too diligent, for that to slip.
But as a hitter — and, really, despite the Royals’ great success in building the game’s best defense, the highest level of the sport is still largely about hitting — he was supposed to something of a pumpkin. A regression candidate, to use the applicable jargon.
Cain was the breakout star of the Royals’ 2014 playoff run. Eric Hosmer got the Sports Illustrated cover, and Mike Moustakas jump-started a remarkable turnaround. But Cain was the star.
He was the one running down everything in gaps from Anaheim to Baltimore, the MVP of the American League Championship Series — “I didn’t even know they had an MVP of that series, but that was definitely a special moment in my career,” he says — and the one ESPN wanted to study for a Sports Science segment.
When the preseason predictions for the Royals started at 72 wins and topped out at missing the playoffs, Cain was the personification. He had set career highs in 2014 in virtually every offensive category.
He had become a core part of not just the Royals’ success, but their personality. The lineup the Royals used in September had Cain in the third spot, baseball’s version of the lead role. His vibe — all smiles, with a sort of childlike innocence that many around the club cherish — is a perfect fit.
But there was also a legitimate worry from some that this was a mirage, a foundation built on sand. Without getting too nerdy, some of the stats indicated an enormous amount of luck. Only 10 players had more infield hits. Only two regulars turned grounders into hits more often. Nobody with at least 500 plate appearances had a higher batting average on balls in play.
Generally speaking these are all signs of unsustainable luck, like a man winning big on a slot machine.
But Cain’s game is built around exploiting these margins. Over his career, his batting average on balls in play is nearly 50 points higher than the league average. This is what he does. He collected 21 more infield hits this season, just three fewer than a year ago.
Cain worked his way into regular big-league duty by maximizing his success on those ground balls — this year, for instance, his batting average drops from .307 to .269 without those infield hits — but he is now a legitimate star because of everything else.
Royals coaches will tell you nobody practices with more of a purpose. Everything Cain does in the batting cage has a reason. None of it is flashy. One day he may be only concerned with hitting up the middle. Another day it may be right field. Sometimes it’s hard, low contact.
The result is a stunning progression that’s rare in its consistency, and critical to the Royals’ success in its profile.
Nobody talks about it because Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson are likely to take every first-place vote, but Cain should finish in the top five of MVP balloting this year. Could be third.
He is the best player on the league’s best team and, if you like advanced metrics, finished fourth in both versions of Wins Above Replacement.
Besides the spectacular defense, he has become the kind of hitter coaches dream about. Solid fundamentals, unrelenting focus on each at bat and natural talent that is merging with an exhausting work ethic.
This season, he hit more line drives and fewer popups than ever before, while striking out less and walking more than 25 percent more often than a year ago. He is almost perfectly symmetrical in his approach — he pulls 34 percent of his hits, goes opposite field 28 percent, and takes everything else up the middle — which makes him more difficult to defend.
In his last game, he hit one double down the left field line, another down the right field line, and added an infield hit. It was like the Cain-est game possible, except there were no spectacular plays to be made in the outfield and, actually, when he was walking around like an old blue-haired woman between plays he wasn’t exaggerating the pain.
“My knee,” he says.
Ned Yost says he can’t remember managing many guys like Cain, guys who are so difficult to read when they need a day off. There are times Yost is convinced Cain is hurt, so he’ll ask, and Cain will flash the team’s widest grin. Nah, I’m good.
Mike Jirschele has seen this more often than most. He’s the Royals’ third base coach now, but before that he managed Cain for two years in Class AAA Omaha.
“He’d come off the field, and it’s, ‘Jirsh, my feet are killing me, Jirsh, my feet are killing me,’” Jirschele says. “I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, we have an off day in a week.’ Then I’d just keep throwing him out there every day.”
Cain has had to play through more real pain than most. He has a history full of short periods on the disabled list with various ailments, most of them involving his legs. Nobody on the team runs more than him — he’s on base a lot, finished third in the league in steals, and covers one of the game’s biggest center fields.
So playing through pain is nothing new. He did it last year, too, when he actually played through a bone bruise similar to this one. The trainers have told him his challenge will be more about pain management than compensating with any loss of power or strength.
Cain has been through this before, in other words. And for the record, his feet are now fine.
“They feel amazing,” he says. “Day off, they always feel amazing.”