It’s the second inning of the third game of the 2015 season and then-White Sox slugger Adam LaRoche crushes a fly ball deep into the spacious right-center field gap at Kauffman Stadium. Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain takes off in full sprint and has a bead on it. After about a dozen strides, he reaches as far as his left arm will allow and snags the ball, shoulder-high.
The momentum from his burst of speed continues to carry him and he crashes into the wall full bore, tumbles onto his back and then somersaults over. Thankfully, the only damage is that the wind is knocked out of him for a little bit. He stays in the game, but he’s fortunate. This sort of thing has sidelined him in the past.
“At the end of the day, my job is to make plays,” Cain said in the Royals' locker room in Surprise Stadium last month. “I’ve never been afraid to run into a wall. I’ve been doing it my whole career.”
Zip forward five and a half months to Sept. 29. It’s near the end of a career year for Cain, who would finish third in the MVP voting. In the second inning, White Sox rookie Trayce Thompson gets a hold of a Johnny Cueto hanging breaking ball, which he drills to dead center. Cain retreats, but it’s a different kind of run than the one from early April. The steps are more measured. There’s calculation involved. How fast do I go, how high do I jump?
Cain’s run gets him back to the wall with a second to spare. He takes a small leap, reaches his glove up to the yellow line just to the right of the 400-foot sign. He catches the ball, gently hits the wall, holds the ball up in his glove and tips his cap.
“In the past, I would have run full speed into the wall and hurt myself,” Cain said. “I tried to avoid that last year. I tried if I could to approach [plays] a little slower. I tried to gauge the amount of steps it would take me to get to the warning track.”
Did it work?
“I stayed on the field last year more than I ever did.”
You might think that more than 350 games into a major league career, there wasn’t much room to grow for Cain. But the path from the Web Gem on LaRoche to the one on Thompson was one of valuable experience.
Cain doesn’t have the gaudy defensive runs saved numbers of Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, but you could make a legit case that he’s the best at that position in the game for this reason. Baseball Info Solutions calculates a range rating against balls hit to three different areas: shallow, medium and deep. Over the past three years, Cain is 24 bases above average on shallow balls, 23 above average on medium-depth balls, and 23 bases above average on balls hit to the deepest part of the ballpark.
The data indicate that just about every center fielder is either good against shallow balls or good against deep ones, but has a below-average rating in the other. Last season, Cain was 14 bases above average on shallow balls and plus-11 against deep; that plus-14 on shallow balls was best in the majors among center fielders last season. The next eight players below him in the rankings had a negative rating against deep balls.
Simply put: There isn’t a ball that Cain can’t catch, no matter where he is on the field.
“Maybe it’s a function of the Royals' excellent positioning, and having corner outfielders that can also go get it, but make no mistake about it, on any given day, any team hitting the ball to center field will be convinced there are actually three Cains out there: shallow Cain, deep Cain and hit-eraser Cain,” said Doug Glanville, former major leaguer and current Baseball Tonight analyst. “Pick your poison.”
There are other examples of Cain’s greatness. He’s fond of a homer robbery against the Twins, a diving catch with the bases loaded against fellow center fielder Adam Jones and a full lay-out against J.D. Martinez of the Tigers. Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon both picked as their favorites the highlight reel Cain put together against the Angels and Orioles in the 2014 playoffs.
Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz handles the positioning of the team’s outfielders and has worked with Cain since the center fielder first joined the team in 2011. Kuntz marvels at what he sees on a daily basis.
“He has sped up the entire learning process as far as retaining information and being able to apply it in a game,” Kuntz said. “He’s a smart guy. If you have an intelligent player, he’s going to get a lot better a lot faster. You can hypothetical things with him. You can diagram things on a board. He’ll go out and do those things when you need him to.
“The one thing you can’t teach an outfielder is depth perception. What he sees and does with his feet [off a swing] is off the charts. He sees the ball go in and off the bat and immediately knows whether it’s in, at him, back, left or right. His read and his route increase his range.”
Reading a swing is not necessarily a natural skill. It’s one Cain has put a lot of time into.
“It’s something I work really hard in batting practice on, getting good jumps off the bat,” Cain said. “It’s about learning the flight of the ball as it comes off the bat. Every [swing] is different. Some guys might get two strikes and try to go the other way. Some are dead pull. For me, [the hardest] is the dead-pull guys, with the topspin and hooking, or that line drive that might knuckle on you in center. I just do what I can to try to make a play.”
The Web Gem catches, like the two we’ve cited, are the ones where Cain has to retreat. This is where Cain has adapted. He played a normal depth on LaRoche in April, but five months later, he was playing about 10 steps back for Thompson.
“For that Thompson one, by moving back eight to 10 steps, he was able to get back a little quicker,” Kuntz said. “He was able to get to the wall and elevate rather than go into it full gallop. It’s more of an elevated catch than an into-the-wall kind of catch.”
Cain added, “I feel really comfortable going back on the ball. It’s easy for me and it’s something I enjoy doing. I always felt natural going back. I feel like I’m able to relax in the moment. I don’t panic. I just feel I’m able to make plays that way.”
The next area of growth for Cain is being essentially a captain of the outfield, positioning himself and the defenders to each side of him.
“He’s starting to develop an ability to read what he sees,” Kuntz said. “He sees a long swing, he’ll move and play opposite field. If a guy is pulling balls foul, he’ll move pull side. That’s understanding the game and how to play it. He has to understand that the platinum glove guy in left [Gordon] is looking to him for guidance. This year he understands that and he’s doing a really great job [of moving the other outfielders, too].”
Cain’s manager, Ned Yost, is one who thinks Cain can only get better, both offensively and defensively.
“Lorenzo’s ceiling is high,” Yost said before a game a couple of weeks ago. “You might need binoculars to see it.”