Lorenzo Cain

We Still Know Nothing

Baseball is back, and I would highly doubt that anyone reading this would argue that it is not a good thing. After some wonky opening week schedules for everyone, teams will be settling in to the typical grind of the regular season, so we can even get back to just regular, nearly daily baseball. The bad part about the first week of the season is that┬ámany try to make sweeping conclusions over basically no data. I don’t have to tell you about the danger of small sample sizes. You know that.

It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the minutiae of every statistic at this point because it’s the only set of stats you have to base anything on. Paulo Orlando was hitting .750 with a 1.500 OPS after one game with a .532 TAv and had accumulated 20 percent of his 2015 WARP. Maybe that’s not the best example because that one is so obviously not real, but you get the idea that early season stats can be finicky.

Even with essentially zero answers through just six games for the Royals, there are some trends we can keep an eye on in the early going. Of course, these are mostly things that we had all probably earmarked to watch when the season started, so maybe this could have just as easily been written prior to Opening Day.

To me, one of the biggest stories for the 2016 Royals would be if certain players could keep up what they had done during the 2015 season. Part of what makes their success last season so amazing is that they didn’t get career years from everyone. But there were a few players who exceeded expectations who helped to balance out those who didn’t. The ones I’m keeping tabs on are Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and Edinson Volquez. Some might argue Chris Young should be in that group, and maybe he should, but he’s not, so get over it.

Lorenzo Cain’s career year is one that sort of strikes me as a baseline for his performance for at least a couple reasons, but my reasoning is not based on much more than gut feel. The reason I feel that way is that he seems to have taken the “proper”┬ásteps to get to his career year last year.

In 2013, he was fine. He played in 115 games and while he didn’t hit much, posted a 1.5 WARP due mostly to his defense. In 2014, he was better than fine. His offense still wasn’t anything especially special, but he did hit over .300, which made his OBP acceptable. He still had very little power, but the improved offense combined with better health and the defense we all know and love allowed him to post a 2.9 WARP. Then he exploded in 2015. The average remained, and he added a little better plate discipline. More importantly, though, he was able to incorporate power into his game. His ISO jumped to .171. No, he’s not Mike Trout, but that’s pretty excellent.

And now, in the early going, Cain has shown something that I didn’t see last year even. He’s begun to lay off the slider low and away. He did have a terrible game in the box score on Friday with four strikeouts, but two of those were due to him being more selective and you could make a pretty strong argument that the two looking strikeouts both should have been called ball four. His home run on Saturday night was one that I think comes with experience and better discipline. He has gained the ability to some extent to know what pitches to really load up on, and you can see what kind of power he has when he does.

He also talked in spring training about even increasing his power a little bit more. Looking at Cain, you have to think he has more in him. Even if he could up his ISO to .200, he’d be around a top 40 guy in baseball in that category. Add that extra power with a walk rate that he can maybe jump to 7.5 percent (from 6.1 percent last year), and you might be looking at a .300/.370/.500 type season.

With Moustakas, his improvement in 2015 was far more striking that Cain’s. He went from a player who could have been looking at minor league deals for the next five seasons to a player the Royals considered locking up long-term. That’s what happens when you up you change your approach so drastically that you see your TAv jump from .233 to .291 and your WARP from 1.2 to 4.7. We all know that he started using the whole field last season rather than being so pull happy as he was in previous seasons.

As 2015 progressed, Moustakas began to pull the ball more and more. And truthfully, he needed to do that. He was giving up power for hits, which is fine, but for him to be as valuable as he should be, he had to figure out a way to continue to work the other way while also going back to his ability to hit for some amazing pull power. One thing I’ve sort of earmarked to look at this season is how well Moustakas does using the opposite field.

In the first parts of the 2016 season, he was pulling the ball an awful lot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Craig Brown pointed out yesterday, he’s hitting the ball awfully hard, and part of being a good hitter is knowing when you can just unleash and yank a ball as hard as you can. Still, you have to think that for Moustakas to be successful in the long-term, he’s not going to be able to rely on hitting the ball harder than anyone else but rather needs to be more conscious of using the whole field. I fully expect he will do that as the season progresses because I believe in Moustakas as a changed hitter.

The third player I wanted to watch closely coming into the season was Volquez. Given his innings last year and the stress on his arm of the playoffs, I was curious how he’d respond when the season started. He’s striking guys out, limiting runs and getting grounders. And he’s even done it with a high BABIP. Now, that will probably normalize given that it’s only 11.2 innings for him this year, but we’re talking about the early sample.

Other than his sinker, Volquez is getting quite a few swings and misses. He’s gotten 29 of them, to be exact in his first two starts. That’s nearly 14 percent of his pitches. In 2015, he had about a 10 percent rate, so that’s a difference. Of course, he also got to face the Twins, and they swing and miss a lot. His fastball, change and curve have all been really good at getting swinging strikes. The sinker hasn’t, but that’s not what it’s supposed to do.

Obviously we’d like to see him get deeper into games, but I think we’re all pretty happy with his first two starts of the season. I’m not sure other people had any concern about him heading into this year, but these first two starts have alleviated a lot of mine. I would greatly enjoy a couple 7-inning, 93 pitch starts, though, to take a little stress off, but it’s worked so far.

Six games in. The Royals are 4-2. The offense has’t clicked yet, but the starting pitching has been mostly really good. What do we really know? Not much of anything. But there are certainly things we can watch, and when we check back in a couple weeks, we’ll know a lot more.

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