Lorenzo Cain has been scuffling at the plate recently. What’s going on with the Milwaukee Brewers’ center fielder?
It’s been a rough run at the plate for Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain recently. Though he started the season off well, Cain has been struggling to find any kind of consistency with the bat.
Over his past seven games, he has gone just 5-for-30 at the plate while racking up seven strikeouts and just two walks. Of those five hits, only one was an extra base hit.
Cain’s slump, however, is not confined to these seven games. He’s been struggling for over two months now.
He hit .383 in four March games, and .260 in April with an OPS of .735. Since then, Cain hit only .234 in May with an OPS of .637. In June so far, he’s doing even worse, managing an average of just .220 with an OPS of .531.
A prolonged hitting slump is uncharacteristic for Lorenzo Cain. Since his breakout year with the Kansas City Royals in 2014, he has hit over .300 in four of the past five seasons prior to this one. He also posted an OPS over .800 in three of those five years too.
Cain was a model of consistency on offense. It was big part of the reason why the Royals were able to get to back-to-back World Series in 2014 and 2015. It also played a significant part in why the Milwaukee Brewers signed him to a five-year contract back in January of 2018.
A drop in hard contact
A dive into his advanced batting stats reveals a few immediate issues.
First, Cain is making hard contact with the ball less often than he has in the past. Cain’s average exit velocity has dropped from 89.1 MPH last season to 87.8 MPH this year. His average exit velocity puts him in the 32nd percentile among Major League hitters.
His previous worst season for exit velocity came in 2016 when he was just below the major league average (48th percentile). He had hit above it in every other season since MLB starting tracking the stat back in 2015.
Cain has also seen his hard contact percentage drop on MLB.com’s tracking from 40.5% in 2017 and 37.8% in 2018, to 37.1% in 2019. On FanGraphs tracking, Cain has made hard contact on just 31.4% of his batted balls in play so far this season after doing so on 38.3% of them last year.
His drop in hard contact, however, doesn’t really explain his struggles on its own. Though his hard contact rate is down from last season, he’s actually making hard contact more often this season than he did in some of his previous seasons when he hit over .300. Other things, then, are affecting his ability to hit.
His Soft Contact Percentage is Up
In addition to seeing his hard contact rate drop, Cain is also making soft contact more often than he has in all but one season in his career.
Cain has made soft contact on 21.8% of the balls he’s put in play this season. That’s 3.7% worse than last season (18.1%) and is his worst percentage in the past eight seasons. Not since 2011 has Cain made soft contact more often than he has so far.
This, when coupled with his decline in hard contact, begins to show a more detailed picture of why he’s struggling.
He’s hitting the ball on the ground much more often
Another reason why Cain is struggling is that he’s hitting the ball into the ground much more frequently too.
Cain’s average launch angle has dropped from between 9.3 and 10.1 in 2015-2017, to 5.3 this year. Over 52% of his batted balls in play thus far have been ground balls. He spent the 2015-17 period in the 40s.
Cain was, however, hitting the ball on the ground more often last year (54.6% of his batted balls in play) than he is now. He was able to compensate for that, though, by hitting the ball harder more often (his hard contact percentage on FanGraphs was 38.3% last year compared to 31.4% this year).
These issues, then, are related. Cain’s drop in hard contact and his increase in soft contact, when coupled with the fact that he’s hitting the ball on the ground much more often, is leading to a lot less success at the plate. This matches with what this 2016 analysis done by FiveThirtyEight that found hard contact and launch angle related to batting success.
Drop in Sprint Speed
Cain’s also struggling to hit for as high of an average as he did last season because his speed is beginning to decline too.
Cain has fallen from the 89th and 86th percentiles in sprint speed in 2017-18, to the 76th percentile this year. His slight drop in speed is making it more difficult for him to leg out as many singles on ground balls as he was last year. This too is affecting his ability to hit for a high average.
Chasing Pitches out of the Zone
One final area of Lorenzo Cain’s hitting that stands out at the moment is that he’s chasing pitches out of the zone much more frequently than he did last season.
Cain has swung at 25.8% of the pitches thrown to him out of the zone this season compared to 23.6% last season. His pitch reading ability and discipline were a major part of the reason why he was so good during the first half of last season.
This is, however, significantly better than his chase percentages were prior to signing with the Milwaukee Brewers. That suggests that his slight increase in chasing pitches out of the zone is not really a major cause of his struggles.
Summary of his struggles
Looking at the big picture, then, it’s clear Lorenzo Cain’s struggles are tied together.
He’s making hard contact less often, while hitting the ball into the ground about as often as last year. That’s making it harder for his ground balls to beat infielders and become singles as often as they did last year.
He’s also lost a bit of his speed. This is making it harder for him leg out ground balls as often as he has in the past.
All of this contributing to his struggles at the plate.
Cause for Hope
There is data, however, to suggest his slump will end soon.
First, though his hard contact on batted balls in play is down overall, his line drive percentage is up. He currently has a line drive percentage of 25.8% this season, the highest of any season in his career.
His BABIP is also an unsustainably low .289. He was .340 or better in each of the past three seasons. This shows that Cain has been on the wrong end of some bad batted balls luck.
Even if his speed has begun to decline, he still remains in the top fourth of the league in speed. This strongly suggests, with his hard contact rate, that his BABIP should improve over the course of the season.
His expected batting average according to MLB.com’s Statcast also suggests he should be closer to a .268 average with an on base of .311, both above his current season batting line (.248 average with a .305 OBP). Thus, for as bad as he’s been relative to what’s done in the past, he still should be hitting quite a bit better than he is right now.
Where does Cain go from here?
Patience is needed with Lorenzo Cain. As his stats suggest he’s been on the wrong end of some bad luck at the plate. There are, however, some things he can do to increase his chances of breaking out his funk and improve his game.
Cain would benefit from trying to hit the ball in the air more often. As his hard contact rates suggest, he’s down from last season, but is still hitting the ball as hard or harder than he did in many of his great seasons before that. By hitting the ball in the air more often, Cain would likely increase the probability of his balls ending up as base hits since his hard hits would end up going over infielders rather than being hit right at them.
Cain would also benefit from being a bit more selective at the plate. Too often, he’s been trying to hit low pitches, leading to him chasing a lot of pitches out of the zone recently. He should try to raise his line of sight and be more aggressive at hitting pitches higher in the zone.
It’s been a rough run for him. It’s possible he’ll never return to his 2015-17 peak either. However, there is still reason to believe Cain will return to being an above average hitter soon!