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Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain. Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

A Surprising MVP Candidate in Kansas City Royal Lorenzo Cain

Part 2 in The Sports Esquires’ MLB Off-season Analysis

Prior to the start of the season many experienced and respected people around baseball believed the Kansas City Royals would not repeat their 2014 success let alone reach the playoffs.  That certainly proved incorrect after the Royals climbed the mountaintop and won the World Series this season.  Lorenzo Cain’s under the radar yet extremely productive season undoubtedly helped the Royals to the best record in the American League.  In fact, Cain’s season was so impressive that he should garner some votes in the American League MVP race.  I’m not saying that he’ll upset the favorites Mike Trout or Josh Donaldson, but the quality of his season should net some attention both from the Baseball Writers of America and the Royals Front Office.

Although he did not put up gaudy traditional offensive numbers, Lorenzo Cain very quietly ranked among the best American League players in Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  In 2015 Cain ranked 4th among all players in Total WAR, 7th in Offensive WAR, and 4th in Defensive WAR per Baseball-Reference.  Of the three players ranked ahead of him in Total War – Trout, Donaldson, and Kevin Kiermaier of the Tampa Bay Rays – Cain is the only one to appear in the top ten of both Offensive and Defensive WAR lists.  Only one American League center fielder posted a higher OPS, while only two American League outfielders had better defensive seasons per advanced fielding metrics Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating.  This demonstrates the well-rounded nature of his game and his impact to a championship club.  In the currently depressed run-scoring environment, the power discrepancy between Cain and Trout/Donaldson will certainly influence the MVP voting.  However, it should not impact how Kansas City’s front office handles Cain’s contract status this off-season.

Evaluating Lorenzo Cain’s Performance:

Lorenzo Cain’s Career Offense by Season

PA Avg OBP SLG OPS WAR
2012 244 0.266 0.316 0.419 0.734 2
2013 442 0.251 0.31 0.348 0.658 3.2
2014 502 0.301 0.339 0.412 0.751 5.1
2015 604 0.307 0.361 0.477 0.838 7.2

Cain has demonstrated consistent performance and steady improvement since sticking at the Major League level in 2012.  Since 2013, he has steadily increased his value over the average replacement player by two wins per season – turning into an MVP caliber player in 2015.  His statistical performance has shown growth in his ability to generate contact, command the strike zone, and hit for power.  Creating a disturbance on the base paths remains a large part of Cain’s game as he stole 28 bases the last two seasons, but he has also shown strong power growth while limiting the strikeouts that often accompany such an increase.  Between 2014 and 2015, Cain hit 11 more home runs and 5 more doubles while reducing his strikeout total from 108 to 98.

PA HR 2B SO BB%
2013 442 4 21 90 7.5%
2014 502 5 29 108 4.8%
2015 604 16 34 98 6.1%

Advanced data and statistics help show that Lorenzo Cain’s 2015 breakout campaign and yearly improvement was no aberration.  For his career, Lorenzo Cain has a Batting Average on Balls In Play[1] (BABIP) of .345.   The uptick he saw in both batting average and doubles hit from 2013 to 2014 could be explained by a BABIP in 2014 of .380.  However, in 2015 Cain continued to improve on those numbers while his BABIP of .347 regressed to his career mean.

Second, Lorenzo Cain has improved his ability to put the ball in play all the while seeing fewer hittable pitches in which to do so.  In 2014, 48.1% of the pitches Cain saw were in the strike zone and his contact rate was 77.6%.  While in 2015, he saw 2.1% fewer pitches in the strike zone but managed to increase his contact rate to 82.9%.  Combined with a decrease in swinging strike percentage from 11% to 8.4% and a nearly 2% increase in in swings on pitches inside the strike zone while reducing strikeouts and increasing his walk rate, Cain has produced more while seeing fewer hittable pitches.   Furthermore, Cain’s power production improved even as he developed into a better contact hitter.  Since logging a full season’s worth of at bats in 2013, his Isolated Power[2]  has steadily increased from .98 to .110 to .171.

Pitches Seen in Strike Zone Contact % Swings on Pitches in Strike Zone Swinging Strike Percentage
2014 48.1% 77.6% 66.6% 11.0%
2015 46.0% 82.9% 68.5% 8.4%

Third, the type of contact Lorenzo Cain generates and trajectory of that contact further indicates his improvement at the plate and the likelihood of Cain maintaining his 2015 level of production.  In 2015, Cain reduced his soft contact to a career low 13.3% while he increased his hard contact to nearly 32%.  The increase in both solid contact and overall power hitting numbers was not the result of pulling the ball more.  In fact, Cain sprayed the ball to center and right field more often than any other season during his Major League career.  This all-fields approach blends with his ability to take the extra base and the expansiveness of Kaufman Stadium’s outfield[3].  It also makes him more immune to defensive shifts in an era of ever-expanding defensive positioning.  If Cain maintains this approach he should remain one of the most well-rounded players in baseball.

Hit Trajectory Type of Contact
Pull% Cent% Oppo% Soft% Med% Hard%
2014 37.3% 36.2% 26.6% 20.0% 58.4% 21.6% 2014
2015 33.7% 38.1% 28.2% 13.3% 54.7% 31.9% 2015

 

Lorenzo Cain’s Value:

Having more than four years of Major League Service Time, Lorenzo Cain is eligible for salary arbitration for the second time.  The Major League salary structure allows teams to determine players’ salaries for the first three years[4] of their Major League Career with incremental increases.  Players with between three and six years of service receive salary increases through an arbitration process and can negotiate on the open market once accruing six years of service.  Lorenzo Cain experienced the arbitration process for the first time prior to the 2015 season, and he reached a settlement with the Royals agreeing to play for $2.725MM.  Given his success last season he is line for a substantial pay increase.

Salaries in arbitration are determined by comparing a player’s performance to that of other similar players recently using the arbitration system.  As a player with 4+ years of MLB service, the focus will be on other players with similar performances and the salaries they received as 4+ players through arbitration.  Unfortunately, few center fielders with 4+ years of service have gone through the process in recent years with similar production to Lorenzo Cain.  However, looking back four seasons Jacoby Ellsbury and Adam Jones serve as useful models.

In 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury had a near MVP season – as predicted for Lorenzo Cain in 2015 – and he received a $5.65MM raise for a $8.05MM salary.  Ellsbury’s numbers indicate that his 2011 was superior to Cain’s 2015.  However, understanding that half of Ellsbury’s games came from notoriously hitter friendly Fenway Park and three other divisional stadiums favored hitters while Kaufman Stadium is traditionally considered a pitchers park and three other divisional stadiums are considered run depressing environments helps to explain some of the variance between the players’ numbers.  Additionally, occupying the leadoff role certainly aided Ellsbury’s ability to accumulate more aggregate statistics such as doubles and home runs.  Both grade out as MVP caliber players with WARs above seven.  A large part of Cain’s value comes through his defense as he prevented 11 more runs from scoring when compared to Ellsbury.  Although arbitration panels tend to rely more on old school statistics, teams more than ever are paying for defense and relying on advance defensive metrics in assessing player value.

4+ Platform Seasons
BA OBP SLG OPS PA
Ellsbury 0.321 0.376 0.552 0.928 732
Cain 0.307 0.361 0.477 0.838 604
Jones 0.280 0.319 0.466 0.785 618
2B HR SB WAR DRS
Ellsbury 46 32 39 8.1 7
Cain 34 16 28 7.2 18
Jones 26 25 12 3.0 -4

Adam Jones received a $2.9MM raise after his 2011 platform season for a $6.15MM salary.  Comparatively, Cain outperformed Jones in every offensive category except home runs.  Although power hitting numbers tend to dictate arbitration raises in large part, Cain’s value comes as a complete player which includes power hitting ability.  However, he is not reliant on that one skill to make a major contribution and his performance is indicative of that.  Cain’s production in 2015 amounted to more than twice as many wins as Adam Jones’ production in 2011, and Cain’s defense was far superior.    So Cain’s 2015 performance and value falls between the 2011 performances and salary awards of Ellsbury and Jones.

Arbitration panels rely on the midpoint between two proffered raises or salaries to determine value.  Using Ellsbury and Jones, the midpoint raise is $4.275MM and the midpoint salary is $7.1MM.  An arbitration panel would use those midpoint numbers to determine if Cain’s production was more or less valuable than the midpoint – if less he’d receive the lower tendered salary and vice versa if the panel appraised his production more valuable relative to the midpoint figure.  Consequently, teams and players often compromise on a settlement near the midpoint which would net Lorenzo Cain an approximate 2016 salary of $7MM.

Alternatively, the Royals could avoid two more years of arbitration and secure Cain’s services for the long term by signing him to an extension.  Two long term extensions signed by outfielders that could serve as potential models are the contracts, beginning in 2013, signed by Andre Ethier and Adam Jones.  Although these contracts only bought out the players’ final year of arbitration eligibility, Ethier signed for 5 years and $85MM while Jones signed for 6 years and $85.5MM.  A more recent valuation of a center fielder’s free agent worth is Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract which pays him $21.1MM for the first 6 years of the deal.  Figuring that Cain’s final two years of arbitration are worth in the neighborhood of $17MM, a long term extension for Cain should run in the neighborhood of 5 years and $80MM or topping out at 6 years and nearing $100MM.

Whether through a long term extension or arbitration, Lorenzo Cain will receive a significant pay raise in 2016. If he continues to build on his 2015 campaign it won’t be long before he wins the MVP award, and the Royals will certainly have received their money’s worth.

[1] BABIP can be an indication of luck.  A BABIP higher than a player’s average indicates that he experienced more success on batted balls than he normally experiences and was thus ‘lucky’.  On the other hand a lower than normal BABIP can show inherent bad luck.

[2] Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average – discounting the impact singles have on slugging percentage

[3] Using ESPN’s Park Factor, Kaufman Stadium ranked in the top 5 of ballparks in surrendering both doubles and triples during the 2015 season.

[4] Players with between two and three years of MLB Service who rank in the top 22% of service time and logged at least 86 games on a MLB roster are considered ‘Super 2’ players and receive an extra year of arbitration eligibility.

About Avi Sommer

Avi is an attorney for Under Armour primarily working with endorsements and brand management. He spent 2014 working for the Boston Red Sox in a Player Development & Professional Scouting role and, prior to that, he was a commercial litigation associate in a Baltimore law firm. He has wide-ranging professional experience in the sports world. Aside from the Red Sox, he has previously worked for the San Antonio Spurs, the National Football League, and the Baltimore Orioles. His writings have been published in the Sports Lawyers Journal and The Sports Lawyer. Avi graduated Cum Laude from Tulane University Law School with a certificate in Sports Law in 2012, after graduating with Honors from the University of Rochester in 2008 with a B.A. in History and Political Science.

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