First off, let's address the obvious. Somebody needs to tell Cain to get out of the middle of these "brawls" that the Royals keep finding themselves in. He's no "Iron Man" or Peyton Manning, that much we already know. The man is brittle. The last thing Cain's fantasy owners need is the added injury risk that a ruckus can bring. With that thought in mind, can the Royals pay someone the league minimum to drag Cain out of these scuffles? I would gladly accept such a position.
Why would I leave my average-paying job to help ensure that Cain stays healthy? There are many reasons ($$$) but chief among them is my desire to see others succeed, obviously. Cain appears to be approaching the apex of his potential, and that is surely an exciting time for him and for the Kansas City organization. He has overcome a litany of injuries in his career, mostly of the nagging sort (groin, hamstrings, oblique) that Cain and the Royals seem to attribute to Cain's old running style. However, Cain committed to figuring out his body following the 2012 offseason, when he learned how to run. The linked article is excellent and details Cain's journey to stop "over-striding," but the synopsis is simple: with his new stride Cain is theoretically putting less strain on his hamstrings and more stress on his stronger and more stable muscle groups (glutes and thighs). This was all done in an effort to stave off injuries to the young outfielder. So far, it seems to be working.
In 2013, Cain played in a career-high 115 games. He was the 413th overall player in the fake game, but had 54 runs, 4 HRs, 46 RBIs, 14 SBs and a .310 OBP in only 399 at-bats.
He followed that up with a career-high 133 games-played in 2014, when he was the 134th overall player (in leagues that count OBP instead of average). Cain really had his legs underneath him last season, as he swiped 28 bags along with his 55 runs, 5 HRs, 53 RBIs, and .339 OBP in 471 at-bats. His first base coach, Rusty Kuntz, attributed the career-high 28 swipes to improved acceleration by Cain. Kuntz stated:
"Last year was the first time I noticed ‘Oh man, he got up to speed a lot quicker.’"
I keep citing the McCullough article because I believe it is key to Cain's viability. He has shown a knack for getting injured in the past, and if he has actually figured out a way to stay in the lineup every day his surging fantasy value may not be a total mirage.
What's left then is to determine how "actionable" Cain's hot start is. Should you buy him as a first-round value? I really don't think so. Cain has faced an equal amount of left-handed and right-handed pitching this season, with 35 plate appearances against each type of pitcher. This rate should stabilize over the course of a full season, with maybe 30 percent of at-bats coming against left-handed pitching. This will hurt Cain, as he has hit left-handers better than right-handers over the course of his career, and those splits have been more pronounced this year and last.
This year, Cain is bashing left-handed pitchers to the tune of a .433 batting average, 5 doubles, and one home run. He also has 4 walks against lefties already, which is significant when you consider he only had 22 walks total in his 471 at-bats last season.
Against right-handed guys he is at a still very solid .345 average but has grounded into 3 double plays, struck out twice more, and has only one double. He does have a home run and 3 walks, though.
For the visual among you, here we can see Cain's production against right-handers so far this season:
Notice the number of ground balls and the (comparatively) few line drives.
And here is Cain's batted ball profile against left-handers so far this season:
Notice the greater number of line drives and the fewer number of ground balls in this one.
Granted, we have a small sample size to operate from in 2015. But what Cain is doing against southpaws this season is consistent with the leap he made against them in 2014. If he can keep it up and become something of a lefty-masher while remaining tolerable against right-handers, this is a guy that could finally eclipse the double-digit mark in home runs while offering 25-30 stolen bases at the same time. Cain won't walk much (career 6.1% BB/PA) but his plus speed gives him a chance to get aboard more than the average bear, as his career .348 BABIP clearly indicates.
Cain is currently sporting an unsustainable .420 BABIP, a number that is buoyed by his high number of plate appearances versus lefties this season. As Cain faces more right-handers he'll likely regress a good bit--which means the .390 batting average is obviously going to plummet.
Just how far is the question, though. Steamer projected a .331 BABIP and .267 average for Cain in 2015, as well as seven home runs and 21 stolen bases. The batting average may seem a little low, but even in 2014 when Cain had a fortuitous .380 BABIP he only had a .301 batting average. In 2010 he had a .370 BABIP and a .306 batting average.
When Cain regresses to career norms with regard to BABIP, we're likely looking at something in the range of .320 to .340 and a .260 to .280 batting average. So Steamer's mark seems pretty fair, even if I think he'll land slightly above it around the .275 mark. That's still 9 points below his career .284 mark, so it seems attainable given that this is a guy still experiencing growth.
Finally, Cain is hitting less ground balls so far this season (42.3 percent) compared to last season (51.1 percent). He's still around the league average in this regard, but his line drive rate is a little higher than last year's 22.8% mark, as he is at 25% on the young season. This line drive percentage is also right in the average range--perhaps even slightly above, according to your friendly neighborhood Fangraphs Sabermetric Library.
Another difference with Cain from last year to this year (other than the ground ball ratio) is his rate of fly balls. Cain is hitting 32.7% of balls in the air this season, compared to only 26.1% last season. The league average is about 35 percent. So what does this mean? The slightly higher line drive and fly ball rates--coupled with the lower ground ball rate--could mean that Cain has a chance to display slightly more power this season if he keeps it up. Unfortunately, this could also mean Cain's high number of at-bats against left-handed pitchers this season are amping up his statistics.
I am not crazy enough to suggest that Cain will reach the 20-homer plateau, but a double-digit season with 25 steals could be a definite possibility. If he accomplishes that feat, we are looking at a poor man's version of Starling Marte, something along the lines of what Jason Heyward gave us last season (74R, 11HR, 58RBI, 20 SBs, .271 average). Cain could easily accomplish this output with slightly more speed, which would probably make him a Top 35-40 outfielder. I personally regard him as a low-end third outfielder in the fake game--or a very strong fourth outfielder. That means he should be owned everywhere, even in 10-team leagues. You know what to do.
On a daily sort of note, Cain is appealing his suspension for Sunday's game due to his role in the recent brawl between the Royals and the White Sox. So make sure you stay tuned to that scenario, degenerates.
Andy McCullough -