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Let’s look at Lorenzo Cain’s defense this year

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What’s been going on out there?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an awful narrative that players in their contract year, who have had good careers so they are almost certainly going to make a lot of money once they hit free agency, is to take it a little slower. They aren’t going to just give up, but to protect themselves for the next few months and not ride into free agency on a stretcher. Of course, the other narrative is once they do sign a big contract they get lazy, so damned either way I suppose.

Not to say that that is the narrative on Lorenzo Cain (as he’s just a few months from free agency) but I’ll admit he’s looked a little more...relaxed this year. Not lazy, because he’s not the lazy type (if there is such a type for a professional athlete), just maybe a step or two slower.

I don’t usually like the eye test to judge defense if there is data easily accessible. First off, you end up just seeing a lot of one guy, so you are a bit biased towards that. Second, you don’t see other defenders that much and consistently, so you don’t really have anything to compare it to. No one can watch or review every catch by every fielder every game, but the numbers can at least “view” them all and make a baseline comparison of some manner. Cain though this year doesn’t quite look like his old self:

Those are just a select few moments, but I think you’d find it hard to argue that from the eye test, Cain doesn’t look like his peak self. The data matches in line with the eye test this year too. Cain is still an above average defender but he’s not quite putting up the elite numbers he used to.

Defensive Runs Saved/150

2013: 30

2014: 26

2015: 21

2016: 18

2017: 14

Almost a straight decline of ~4 runs per year loss. Maybe that makes sense? Cain isn’t young. I mean, he’s not old but he’s 31 years old now, and isn’t getting any faster. Speed typically peaks early, and defense peaks right alongside hitting in the typical age 27-29 seasons (likely not coincidental either that Cain’s offense has declined a bit the past two years).

From a more graphical view, Cain doesn’t seem to be that much different. The charts are covered in red, and those are the remote plays that it’s tough to ask for him to make (1-10% probability). There does though seem to be maybe a little more green there than the other years and keep in mind that 2014 and 2015 were basically full seasons, and this year Cain just cracked his 100th game. He’s already missed three 90-100% chances this year. That’s two more than he missed in the same amount of time last year, and as many as he missed in 2014 & 2015 combined.

Consider this the table view of the graphs above I suppose. He’s actually made the remote plays at a slightly higher rate than his career norm (he didn’t make a single one in 2015, which seems wrong but it’s not). On the unlikely side, that’s a bit lower, as is the even plays, but the likely plays are well above what he’s done the past few years. As far as routine, it looks like just a minor drop (only .06), but that might be the biggest drop in actuality.

98.9% is the 4th worst routine% among all outfielders (min. 800 innings). From 2014-2016 his 99.6% is among the top 10 routine%.

So on Tuesday night when Cain missed a ball that looked if not like an even 40-60% play, then probably at least catchable, the e-pitchforks were out.

Now let me say this first, I like Petro. He’s not a hot take machine and actually tweets out decent numbers and facts. He’s not on the saber-train like most people here, but at least he’s not 100% dismissive (from my experience) like other local radio hosts.

But Petro is wrong here. Cain might not have a gold glove, but it’s not because he’s not an elite outfielder (and also it’s not Cain’s fault Kevin Kiermaier and Adam Jones play in the AL). In 2015, Cain lead the league in “5-star” catches, in 2016 he was tied for 3rd most overall (not on a percentage basis) and he missed ~60 games.

But this year, he’s made just one single “5-star” catch. That’s the same number of “5-star” catches as Aaron Judge, Avisail Garcia, and Kyle Schwarber have, none of them the epitome of an athletic outfielder by any means.

The Royals are playing cain a few feet deeper this year, so I curious on how that might be impacting his range on balls in front of him. From all the data I can query, it doesn’t seem to have much of an impact. Almost every ball hit 300 feet or shorter and classified as being hit to centerfield ended up as an out.

So I definitely think Cain’s defense has slowed a bit, but by all measures he’s still an above average centerfielder instead of an elite centerfielder he once was. That’s fine of course because he’s also a league average or so hitter, so that combination (and his baserunning skills) still make him an above average player.