The Royals got swept in Minnesota this week, but Lorenzo Cain stayed healthy for three consecutive games, which is a small moral victory. A slightly larger moral victory for Kansas City was that, in those three games unblemished by injury, Cain walked five times in 13 plate appearances. Over the last five years, Cain had walked only 140 times in 2,226 plate appearances. Last season, in 434 trips to the plate, he walked 31 times.
Cain’s 4.15 pitches seen per plate appearance over the first three contests of the season would be the highest figure of his career, and that’s despite the fact that in seven percent of his plate appearances so far, he was sent to first base without a single pitch being thrown. That, of course, is why the most likely explanation for Cain drawing a bunch of walks this week is sheer randomness. One intentional pass still represents one-thirteenth of his season.
We do have a hair more information than that suggests, though. We know that Cain was unusually patient during Cactus League play, too. He drew six walks in 53 plate appearances this spring, or one fewer than he had drawn in the three previous springs combined. Research in The Economist suggests that we shouldn’t entirely discount that data, as we project Cain’s performance over the coming season.
Cain has swung at just 38 percent of the pitches he’s seen this season, down from an aggregate rate north of 49 percent over the last three years. Again, the sample is minuscule. To draw a whole bunch of conclusions from it would be folly. Still, it happened. Maybe it’s still happening, and will continue to happen. To state conclusively that none of this will sustain itself would be folly, too. For now, all we can do is wait for more information and keep an open mind.
Here’s what I would like to talk about some: if Cain really is newly patient, is that a good thing? Should we be excited at the prospect of Cain taking more pitches and looking to draw more walks? That question is even more impossible to answer, for now, than is the question of whether he’s made a real change in approach. It might also be more important, because the answer to that question will be the same as the answer to the question of whether Cain is healthy and fully himself.
Cain will turn 31 next week. For a right-handed batter whose profile has always relied on his athleticism—his offensive value has been BABIP-driven, he uses his speed to augment his gap power, his bat speed and hand-eye coordination help make up for an aggressive approach—that’s a tough age. It’s tougher still when injuries have been piling up, and for Cain they’ve been piling up for years. At this age, if Cain truly has simply developed superior plate discipline, it will make a huge difference.
If, on the other hand, swinging less often is Cain’s way of showing us (perhaps subliminally, or even subconsciously, but showing us nonetheless) that he no longer believes he can drive the ball consistently, it’s only going to change the shape of an inevitably difficult season. If the sprained wrist that ended his 2016 season is still bothering him, and if that’s the reason he’s not swinging as often, he’s going to be found out quickly, and he’ll see his value crater on the eve of his free agency.
Cain’s legs seem fine. He’s moving well in center field. He stole one base during the series in Minnesota. His swing looks good, on the whole, to my amateur eye, but I can’t claim nearly the same level of confidence in his wrist as in his hamstrings. Nor can I tell you with any certainty that Cain is hampered. The samples are tiny, my eye is untrained, and right now, all we can say is this: Cain walked several times this week. In another week, we’ll have a better read on whether or not that phenomenon is real, and on what it means. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.
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