It should go without saying that every professional baseball player is remarkable to watch, to listen to and to read about. One simply doesn’t get to this level of the craft without being exceptional at what they do. Of course, when they constantly are compared to their peers, some major leaguers fade into the background. That especially is true from a fantasy perspective. Oftentimes, the most under-appreciated players aren’t the ones who are left on the waiver wire while performing well, but those left in the starting lineup. The most under-appreciated can be those that we just keep in our lineup without giving much thought to the production these players give to our teams throughout the season. Many fit this bill, but one that I’ve noticed is on a couple of my teams is Lorenzo Cain.
The Royals’ center fielder entered the year as something close to the definition of a solid but potentially forgotten producer. He was being selected in the middle of the eighth round of 15-team leagues at 113th overall and as a high-end OF3 at third overall. That’s where good-but-unspectacular players generally are taken. It’s also, in my eyes, how Cain has been viewed all year. I should mention that this is entirely from my viewpoint, and it’s completely possible that I am off-base on this. However, I haven’t seen much in terms of praise of Cain’s performance this year around the old interwebs, and even on this very site he was ranked as a mid-third-tier outfielder in the summer’s re-ranks. I should also mention that I am also a part of this. I haven’t had any strong Cain feelings until this very moment.
Despite the lack of fanfare, Cain has been a wildly valuable player for roto players. He vastly has outperformed his preseason ADP. He currently ranks 33rd overall on ESPN’s Player Rater between Daniel Murphy and Jonathan Schoop and he ranks ninth among outfielders (taking out Cody Bellinger and Jose Ramirez) between Mookie Betts and Justin Upton. This shocked me initially, but it’s not all that surprising after putting a little more thought into it.
There is one portion of Cain’s game that is very clearly having a huge impact on his ranking among players in roto leagues: His steals. The stolen base is becoming a lost art in baseball, and those who can still swipe bags at a high rate are all-the-more valuable for fantasy players. Cain has stolen 23 bases, which puts him on pace for 31. That total has him tied for eighth in all of baseball and makes him one of only 14 players with at least 20 stolen bases. This also isn’t a fluke, as Cain’s speed has always been one of his best qualities. This is now his third time stealing at least 20 bases, and he has two seasons prior to this in which he stole exactly 28 bags. Cain is fast, has great instincts on the bases and plays for a team that is not afraid to send its players to take the extra base. It’s the perfect combination.
Although the steals are clearly what boost Cain’s value the most, it’s not the only value he’s providing for fantasy players. Along with steals, the center fielder has been an outstanding contributor to AVG. He’s in the top quarter of the league in the category with a .293 mark thanks to a strikeout rate below 18 percent. In a league that is striking out more than ever, Cain is still making a ton of contact. To make matters even better, he’s making more solid contact thanks to a refined approach that has him more aggressive on pitches in the zone and more patient on those out of the zone. When that is combined with his speed on the bases, it results in a consistently high batting average.
It’s not fair to categorize Cain as a true five-category contributor, but he’s solid in all five categories. Along with the AVG and steals, he’s also scoring a ton of runs. His current 73 runs scored puts him on pace for 99. Obviously, his teammates are a big part of that, but his baserunning and ability to get hits plays a huge role as well. The power isn’t great, but he is on pace for a career-high 18 dingers. That’s not as impressive in this current environment where everyone is going deep all the time, but considering everything else he brings to the table it is more than fine.
There’s really not much fantasy owners can do with this information in 2017. Many of our trade deadlines have passed or are passing very soon. It’s possible you can go out and acquire him for a lower-than-market-rate price for the stretch run. If you can, go do it. If not, just keep this kind of production in mind next spring. Steals aren’t expected to make a comeback any time soon, and players like Cain will continue to be underrated in drafts. When you add in his ability to rack up hits and the fact that the upcoming free agent could theoretically be in a better home run park in 2018, you have a player who is poised to surprise yet again in 2018.