The Kansas City Royals offense has been mostly disappointing in the first few weeks of the season. Alex Gordon has been spectacular, while Billy Butler has managed to contribute to the team's offense despite seeing few quality pitches to swing at. Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer have both been about league-average, but out of the five other hitters not mentioned in this paragraph, four have struggled so far at the plate.
The fifth hitter, Lorenzo Cain, has actually been the team's best hitter through the first 19 games of the season. The centerfielder is currently hitting .350/.420/.483, placing him 54 percent above league average as a hitter. Those are fantastic numbers, and combined with his great defense, would easily make Cain the most valuable player on the team if he could continue to hit this well.
Since the team has only played 19 games, we are still much more interested in how well the players will perform in the future than how they have performed during the first three weeks. I've seen some discussions on Twitter on how Cain is experiencing a "breakout" season this year, but I remain skeptical about how much he has actually raised his talent level. There are a signs that he has made adjustments to his approach at the plate, but we will still need more time before jumping to any definitive conclusions.
The most obvious reason to doubt that Cain can continue to post impressive offensive numbers is that his Batting Average of Balls In Play is astronomically high. His BABIP currently sits at .435, which is an absolutely ludicrous number. Cain does have a fairly high BABIP for his career at .353, but even that number does not tell us much information. Cain has 494 career plate appearances spread throughout four seasons, which isn't enough plate appearances in one season for BABIP to stablize,. We will need a lot more evidence to confidently project a BABIP around .350, and should assume one moving forward closer to .300.
Almost all of Cain's current offensive value is tied up in his very hitting batting average, which we know to currently be unsustainable. How much value Royals fans should expect from Cain moving forward, if he does not significantly improve his power and his plate discipline, is important to the team moving forward.
Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs unveiled a nice formula a few years ago called "Should Hit." It attempts to illustrate how well a player has/will hit based on walks, strikeouts, home-run percentage and BABIP. It's not a perfect formula, as it tends to underrate players with doubles power and overrate players with home-run power, it's pretty damn accurate and useful when projecting how players will perform in the future.
In the spirit of optimism, I attempted to use Cain's best numbers when projecting his future value. I used this season's walk and strikeout percentage numbers, because his plate discipline numbers have improved this year. I also used his career home-run percentage, since his current home-run percentage is below his career average. I then created a table with 13 different BABIP's, ranging from .300 to .430 by interval of .010.
The "Should Hit" number is wRC+. The statistic is similar to OPS+, but the statistic being compared to league-average is runs created and not OPS. So if Cain posts similar plate discipline and power numbers that are used in the table but only posts a BABIP of .300, his wRC+ will be approximately 87, which would make him a 13 percent below league-average hitter.
Based on the table above, Cain will need to post a BABIP of around .330 just to be a league-average hitter. That's certainly not the most exciting scenario, and hardly indicative of a player experiencing a hitting breakout.
Of course, Cain could change his future projections by improving upon his plate discipline and/or his power numbers. Based on what we have seen this season, Cain does appear to be making progress with plate discipline, but his new hitting strategy may hinder his power potential.
The centerfielder has flashed much improved plate discipline this season. Although he has only slightly increased his walk percentage and slightly decreased his strikeout percentage, his pitch selection has been much stronger. So far this season, he is chasing 13.5% less pitches outside the strike zone and swinging at 5.3% more pitches inside the strike zone. Cain is swinging at higher quality pitches, which is resulting a higher contact percentage and likely contributing to the higher BABIP.
Cain is also contributing to the high BABIP by hitting a ton of groundballs. His groundball percentage is up 12.3%; 59.6% of the balls Cain has hit this season have been groundballs. Cain is hitting more groundballs at the expense of hitting flyballs, as his flyball percentage has dropped from 31.2% to 17%.
There are small-sample size issues at play here, but based on what I have seen, I believe Cain is making a conscious effort to hit the ball on the ground. To my untrained eye, is swing looks shorter and more compact, likely in an attempt to focus on contact. The plane of his swing looks different as well; the bat is moving in a more downward motion, resulting in the increase in groundballs.
If Cain continues to hit a lot of groundballs, he can sustain an above-average BABIP, as groundballs have a higher BABIP than flyballs. The 27 year-old will sacrifice power in the process, as it's harder to hit extra base hits when you are constantly hitting groundballs. His new plate approach currently looks more successful than his last one does, but we need to wait until his BABIP returns to Earth before making a final judgement.
Cain will provide value to Kansas City if he can continue to play his strong defense in centerfield and stay healthy for a full season. Any talk of a "breakout" season at the plate, however, is premature. His better pitch selection and groundball heavy approach at the plate may help him sustain an above-average BABIP, but there is no way he can continue to post a .435 BABIP. He will need to improve either his plate discipline numbers or his power numbers this season to significantly improve his production at the plate.