At times, it's hard to believe Lorenzo Cain has never won a Gold Glove award.
Who can blame Royals fans for thinking he deserves one? Last year, it seemed like his magic glove was willing the team through the playoffs to the World Series. His fearless play has led to numerous web gems and Vine-able moments. He has inspired so much confidence that whenever a ball is hit in the general sense of the direction of center field — just, you know, out there, somewhere — fans in Kauffman Stadium can sit back and enjoy the play knowing that the offending hitter will soon be back in the dugout.
Casual fans probably wouldn't question Joe Buck if he referred to Cain as "The Royals' Gold Glove center fielder" during the next World Series telecast — at least, not any more than they already question Joe Buck — because, given what Cain has done on the national stage, it just feels right.
But it isn't. Lorenzo Cain, arguably the best defensive player on a team full of them, has never won baseball's most visible fielding award.
He did not win in 2013, despite being nominated in what was arguably his best defensive year. He was not even a finalist in 2014, ostensibly because he split time in right field. Other, more apparently deserving candidates — like Adam Eaton, for some reason — were named finalists ahead of him.
And this year, once again, Cain is not a finalist.
Cain has a strong case for being the most deserving Gold Glove candidate on a team loaded with previous winners. According to Baseball Reference's measurements, Cain has accumulated more defensive WAR in his career than any active Royal. He's fourth all-time on the team list and virtually tied with Willie Wilson despite playing in 1,300 fewer games. He has three of the top 10 seasons in Royals history by defensive WAR.
But from here on out, his road to a Gold Glove will only get tougher.
Let's start with this year. Lorenzo Cain had another superb year in the field. He was 18 Defensive Runs Saved above average in center field this year, his best by that metric. He had a UZR of 14.3 in center, also a career high.
This was the year that Cain was supposed to put everything together, play lights-out defense, and become a star. And he did.
And he wasn't even close to Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier.
If you read Ryan McGlaughlin's piece on Wade Davis yesterday, you might suspect that I'm trying to pull a bait-and-switch on that data. Unfortunately, I am not. It's really hard to make an argument that Cain was better than Kiermaier. Traditional metrics, advanced metrics, it doesn't matter. Kiermaier had an elite season in center.
Royals fans might remember Kiermaier from this play earlier in the year, in which he was utterly befuddled Kendrys Morales' catwalk homer.
That was not typical Kevin Kiermaier. This is typical Kevin Kiermaier:
And Kiermaier wasn't the only man preventing Cain from earning a Gold Glove. Another finalist, Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays — yes, those Blue Jays — put up numbers very similar to Cain's this year:
That table only measures stats in center field. Pillar also recorded time in left field this year, and regardless of whether that should matter when considering Gold Glove nominees, it definitely pushed Pillar's overall outfield stats past Cain's.
The other thing: Kevin Pillar definitely passes the eye test.
I was looking for a different highlight for Pillar, but he made about a half-dozen similar plays over the course of the year, so it didn't really matter which one I chose. If ESPN's nightly "Web Gem" wasn't a Royal, it was often Pillar instead. And when it comes time to vote for Gold Glove, those are plays that the voters remember.
Mike Trout is also a finalist for the Gold Glove award in center field. He should not be a finalist for the Gold Glove award. You'll probably see him as a finalist for the Gold Glove award for the next decade, and there's nothing you can do about it.
At some point in that decade, Lorenzo Cain will likely retire, whether or not he wins a Gold Glove. He isn't getting any younger, and therein lies the problem. Cain will find himself on the wrong side of 30 in less than six months. Meanwhile, his competition for the award are all substantially younger.
Kevin Pillar is three years younger than Cain. Kiermaier was born in the 1990s. Mike Trout, however undeserving, is younger than all three. Jackie Bradley Jr., a Gold Glove finalist in center field in 2014, could challenge for the award if he manages to stick in center field for the Red Sox. If Byron Buxton ever makes it to the big leagues healthy, he has the potential to captivate the baseball world and swipe several Gold Gloves.
Of course, things could break Cain's way, too. He still has a few years left in his prime, and his entire career has been all about late blooming. The Gold Glove voters aren't above throwing a bone to veterans and giving a "lifetime achievement" award, either.
Cain will no doubt be a finalist at least once more in his career, and likely more. But winning the award will be tough.
And that's okay. Cain doesn't need a Gold Glove to prove how special he is. He proves it night after night in center field, making the difficult look easy with an infectious energy that just makes you root for him more.
If there are three guys in baseball who play center field as good as or better than Cain, then baseball fans have hit the jackpot.
Even if he did need the validation of an award, Cain already has the hardware to prove his status as one of the game's best. He has an All-Star game under his belt and he owns the 2014 ALCS MVP award.
And unlike any of the finalists named ahead of him over the past two years, Cain is playing in the World Series with a chance to win a championship title.
That's what really matters, after all.