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Diagnosing Lorenzo Cain's struggles

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Can we find a fix?

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into 2016 I said Lorenzo Cain is probably the Royals most important player for the season. He was projected to be the Royals best player and was excellent last year. Cain though is also now a newly minted 30 years of age and as a late bloomer I don't know if we have a grasp on his type of aging curve. I think we could probably assume that he follows a normal aging curve for players.

My go to for aging curves (at least offensively) is the work done by contributor (and BBWAA member!) Jeff Zimmerman.

Basically all the components of a players batter profile get worse with age (except for perhaps a batters walk rate). Now I'm not saying Cain is suddenly a completely different player, but the slope above shows at one point at least there was a decent drop off from age 29 to 30 then 30 to 31 (where Cain is now). So far this year Cain has struggled to be the Cain we knew the past two years.

Year Triple Slash K% BB% wRC+ fWAR/600
2014 .301/.339/.412 21.5% 4.8% 111 5.85
2015 .307/.361/.477 16.2% 6.1% 129 6.55
2016 .200/.291/.286 26.6% 11.4% 66 2.27

Maybe the only comforting news here is that his walk rate has nearly doubled from last year...the other parts though don't look as pleasant. So what could be causing all of this?

Whenever a hitter does really well or really poorly, I always encourage you to start with taking a look at their batting average on balls in play (BABIP). I won't go too deep into it here so I suggest looking further into the stat if you are unfamiliar with it.

Cain's 2014 BABIP: .380

Cain's 2015 BABIP: .347

Cain's 2016 BABIP: .255

That's a huge drop off from not just 2014 (where it was abnormally high) but from last year too (where it was close to his career average). So Cain is getting hurt in regards to when he actually puts the ball in play (something that often gets referred to as being unlucky).

I consider BABIP to be a bit of a surface stat. It's a good starting point but only looking at balls in play both leaves us wanting, and we know need to know about what happens when the balls don't go in play.

Let's look at the strikeout rate and Cain's overall plate discipline profile:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2014 33.3% 66.6% 49.3% 54.6% 90.2% 77.6% 48.1%
2015 33.4% 68.5% 49.6% 69.6% 90.5% 82.9% 46.0%
2016 30.8% 65.1% 45.9% 50.9% 79.0% 68.4% 44.1%

So I've highlighted the more drastic changes. He's actually swinging at a bit fewer pitches out of the zone but making contact on a lot fewer (compared to 2015 at least). Meanwhile he's making a lot less contact on pitches in the zone. And of course that hurts his overall contact rate pretty drastically when you add it all up.

Speaking of contact%... no player in baseball (among qualified hitters) has seen a larger drop in his contact rate than Cain this year:

Player Contact% Drop
Evan Longoria -8.2%
Marcus Semien -8.6%
Jose Altuve -9.3%
Mitch Moreland -9.6%
Daniel Murphy -9.6%
Lorenzo Cain -13.1%

Maybe this isn't surprising in a way? Cain had the best year of his career last year. Maybe his contact% only had nowhere else to go than down? However his contact% last year (83%) was just a bit higher than his career rate (80%). So it's not like he was hitting way over his head in that regard.

He's getting fewer pitches in the zone and he's not swinging at those outside pitches as much as last year. That should be good for his contact profile as you'd expect him to make contact on pitches in the zone but there is that 10% drop in Z-contact%. Are pitchers pitching him different?

In Rustin Dodd's mailbag last week he mentioned that pitchers may be pitching Cain differently.

One theory: After a third-place finish in the MVP voting last season, teams are pitching even more carefully to the 30-year-old Cain, which has resulted in longer at-bats, more strikeouts and more walks. Even as he's struggled a bit, Cain has logged some good at-bats, in his usual fashion. Another theory: It's early.

Cain's ground-ball percentage is down from his career average, and his fly ball percentage is up, which also might offer an explanation. He is a hitter who, historically, has racked up his fair share of infield singles. So far, he's not hitting the ball on the ground as much, and there have been fewer opportunities for that.

Not a noticeable difference it seems in regards to where they are pitching Cain overall. Still low and away. How about in the pitch mix they are feeding him?

FB
2015 53.4%
2016 53.2%
%Change -0.4%
SL
2015 17.0%
2016 19.3%
%Change 13.5%
CB
2015 6.9%
2016 12.2%
%Change 76.8%
CH
2015 11.8%
2016 9.2%
%Change -22.0%

The big eye popping thing here is the huge swing in breaking balls they are feeding Cain. For some reason, sliders and curves seem to always have been something Cain has struggled with just anecdotally. We can do better than an anecdote though.

Slider:

2014-2015: .226 average .337 slugging

2016: .400 average .400 slugging

Curveball

2014-2015: .272 average .384 slugging

2016: .000 average .000 slugging

Wait...that can't be right? Is it? I'm looking at the stats on my screen right now and it's telling me Cain hasn't had a hit yet on a curveball. Maybe there is a change in how they are pitching him?

Well there is definitely a difference, and it seems that pitchers are pitching him low and away more. The heatmap looks similar for sliders too.

So what you have to ask is if pitchers are going low and away to Cain because they are afraid of him, or low and away because they don't think he can hit anything there.

On curves and sliders he's actually done his best work low and away. However though for the past few years, he whiffed in those zones too.

One other thing we can look at is how he's performing pitch by pitch. Maybe it isn't just sliders and curves giving him issues.

Pitch Whiff% 2014-2015 Whiff% 2016 Diff 2014-2015 BA 2016 BA Diff
FB 6.1% 11.9% 5.8% 0.372 0.154 -0.218
CH 16.0% 10.0% -6.0% 0.190 0.167 -0.023
CB 13.0% 13.3% 0.3% 0.286 0.00 -0.286
SL 15.1% 22.8% 7.7% 0.228 0.400 0.172

A few days back the first thing I noticed and stuck with me was how bad he is hitting on fastball this year. They are his second-worst pitch by batting average. Hitters normally pound fastballs. The Royals as a team hit .314 on fastballs last year. Cain feasted on them the last two seasons. This is why you don't see any starters who can rely on just a fastball. This year however Cain cannot do anything with fastballs. Now I don't know if fastballs are "struggle-proof" or not (if they were then a player not hitting them would indicate that it isn't just a struggle) but Cain isn't hitting them in this slump.

The last thing to look at here is how he's doing when he makes contact. Batted ball velocity, launch angle, etc... will tell us if there's a change in what happens when the ball leaves the bat. There's been basically no change in his batted ball velocity from last year to this year. In 2015 his exit velocity was 90.86 MPH. This year it has been 90.17 MPH. Average can be deceiving though and looking at the skew of the distribution can give us a better idea.

You can notice that the 90-94 MPH bucket he is mainly living in this year got a lot less love last year as he was hitting in the 100-104 MPH range the most. I think that's a big part of the story for him really. When you see the low BABIP you automatically think "well he is just unlucky" which may be partially true, but when you look at the distribution of his exit velocities you can see he just plainly isn't hitting the ball the way he did last year.

This also jives with his quality of contact change this year too:

Year Soft% Medium% Hard%
2014 20.0% 58.4% 21.6%
2015 13.3% 54.5% 32.2%
Career 16.9% 55.9% 27.2%
2016 17.0% 62.3% 20.8%

He's living way more in that medium% range than his career while still maintaining the soft%. This of course means something has to give and that's coming solely from his hard%. It would be fine if he was pulling up his medium% from the soft contact side, but he's doing the opposite of where you wanna pull from.

So can we put a bow on everything?

  • Batted ball velocity distribution is skewed more normally compared the the negative skew in 2015
  • He's struggling against fastballs
  • He's making significantly less contact in the zone and overall
  • More medium contact
  • Pitchers are throwing him more curves and sliders overall and away

Still, I don't know. Usually I can find some causality in the numbers or at least something we can attach some attribution to necessarily. It is obvious that the change in his quality of contact in combination with the decreased contact/increased whiff rate is hurting him. He is getting pitched a bit differently but it isn't like pitchers are necessarily exploiting a historical hole in his zone. He hits breaking balls low and away the best (in overall relation to those pitches).

It seems to me that this might just be all about Lorenzo Cain. You usually don't see this drastic of a drop off from a player, and I fully expect Cain to do better going forward. The projection systems agree too, putting him in line for a respectable .277/.331/.407 for the rest of the year. Still though, not hitting fastballs (like at all) concerns me about a slowdown in bat speed. When you couple that with a whiff increase in breakings balls too you assume that something is going on when he swings.

Cain hasn't been solely unlucky when he makes an out (note* exit velocity wasn't available for all plays)

There have been a few line outs to right field that were hit fairly hard but without looking at the play we can't just assume he got robbed. He is also hitting more grounders (which may be reflected in his softer contact). Also his average launch angle has dropped ~3 degrees from 11.2 to 8.5 degrees (which can be seen in more grounders).

Cain got the night off last night and with the travel day today he will get two days rest to try and reboot. I have a bit of a concern that he's declining giving how he's started the year. We are slowly reaching the point where it is no longer "just early" and stats are starting to stabilize. K%, BB%, GB%, and FB% are already there for the most part. Plate discipline wise we're at the point where swing% and contact% are getting stable too. So maybe this is an early bump in the road. Like I said, I expect to see Cain do better even if it is just pure regression.