Jun 30, 2017; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals center fielder Lorenzo Cain (6) runs in to make a diving catch against the Minnesota Twins during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing Cain No Easy Task

When the Royals stumbled down the stretch last season, they did so mostly without the services of Lorenzo Cain. I believed that a huge reason the Royals struggled was because they were missing their middle of the order bat who was kind of in the middle of everything. I thought he was the most valuable Royal and still do.

With just 12 games to go in the Lorenzo Cain era (probably), it’s time to start thinking ahead, and while Cain’s bat will be tough to replace, his defense will be tougher. We know how important he is, but I’m not sure I realized just how important, at least defensively.

One of my favorite sites on the internet is Baseball Savant. I’ve mentioned it a few times in this space. That’s where the Statcast data we nerd out on is stored for the general public to see. It’s how we know how hard a ball is hit and at what angle and all that good stuff. Now, they’ve added some defensive metrics, aimed at outfielders. This is where we can see if the eye test on defense matches reality. It sure looks to me like the Royals are still okay defensively in the outfield, but not as good as before. Most of that is using mostly Jorge Bonifacio and Melky Cabrera in right field.

Sure enough, the Royals outfield ranks sixth in baseball in team Outs Above Average (OAA), which is the cumulative effect of all individual catch probability plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, according to Baseball Savant. That means that a fielder who catches a ball with a 25 percent catch probability gets +.75 added to his total and if he misses it, he loses .25 from his total. You can read more about OAA here. I’ll wait.

How the Royals have gotten to their perch at the top of baseball is what I’m concerned about moving forward because it goes back to Lorenzo Cain. He ranks fourth in all of baseball with 13 OAA, behind just Byron Buxton, Ender Inciarte and Mookie Betts. I know you’re wondering. Alex Gordon is tied for 29th out of 303 outfielders, so he’s still quite good. Cain is no longer the best of the best when it comes to making the crazy plays, having made just one five star play (0-25 percent catch probability) out of 45 opportunities, but he still makes a lot of plays. Check out how he’s done below:

Difficulty Outs Opportunities Percentage
5 Star (0-25%) 1 45 2.2%
4 Star (26-50%) 14 17 82.4%
3 Star (51-75%) 21 25 84.0%
2 Star (76-90%) 36 38 94.7%
1 Star (91-95%) 59 61 96.7%

So he’s not making the great, great play anymore, but he makes just about everything else. According to the same data, he has an Expected Catch Percentage of 85 percent and an Actual Catch Percentage of 88 percent, so he’s getting to three percent more than he “should” based on the data. That’s tied for 15th among all outfielders.

You’re getting the point here. Lorenzo Cain is very important to the Royals outfield defense, even if he might be losing a step here and there. What makes him maybe more important is how the rest of the Royals outfielders rank:

Outfielder Opp OAA Expected Catch Percentage Actual Catch Percentage
Lorenzo Cain 186 13 85% 88%
Alex Gordon 109 3 86% 87%
Paulo Orlando 9 1 91% 93%
Brandon Moss 1 0 83% 83%
Whit Merrifield 11 0 80% 81%
Billy Burns 2 0 86% 100%
Jorge Soler 22 -1 82% 80%
Jorge Bonifacio 72 -4 87% 85%
Melky Cabrera 123 -9 79% 75%

In the opportunities section, I only listed those with a 0-95% probability. Anything above that isn’t calculated with Statcast anyway, so it didn’t seem relevant.

So this raises a bit of a conundrum for next season, assuming the Royals don’t bring Cain back into the fold.

What do they do in center field?

The options are typical for any internal need. They can either use their farm system/current team, make a trade or sign a free agent. Two centerfielders on the free agent market would likely give the Royals at least some semblance of what they need defensively. Carlos Gomez (3) and Jarrod Dyson (7) both rate positively defensively in the OAA category. Gomez will be far more expensive than Dyson because he’ll likely give you a lot more offense, but they’re certainly possibilities.

If you’re looking at trades, it’s reasonable to assume Jake Marisnick could possibly be had from Houston, though I don’t know how the two teams match up. Marisnick has been worth five outs above average this year, and while he hasn’t made a single five star play, he’s made almost all the rest. You could also dream on Juan Lagares actually staying healthy. He’s been worth four outs above average and has made pretty much all the non-five star plays. Other than that, you’re looking at Michael Taylor or Raimel Tapia types, which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but wouldn’t be the best either.

For my money, I’d stay internal. I’m no fan of Paulo Orlando because I don’t think he can hit, but I do think he can handle center quite well. He made a whopping 22.6 percent of his five star plays last year and was worth eight outs above average, spending plenty of time in center. You could also make an argument for Bubba Starling to just get his shot because the 2018 Royals may not be going anywhere, though you’d have a tough time convincing the front office of that.

And that brings me back to an option I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I think makes a lot of sense, and it’s to move Whit Merrifield to center field. I don’t think Merrifield will remind anyone of Cain, but I think he gets the job done pretty well. He has mentioned in the past how comfortable he feels in the outfield and center field in particular, though he hasn’t played much of it in quite some time. Still, though, he has the speed for it.

Another one of Statcast’s fun numbers is sprint speed which shows the feet per second in a player’s fastest one-second window. The average is 27 feet per second and Whit comes in at 28.9 ft/sec, which is the 24th fastest time in baseball. It’s also noteworthy because it’s one-tenth of a second faster than noted speedster, Jarrod Dyson. Other quality center fielders who come in slower than Merrifield include Tommy Pham, Christian Yelich, JaCoby Jones and Brandon Nimmo.

I mentioned some thoughts on that in Friday Notes a couple weeks ago, so I won’t go over them again. You can just read them here.

It was always clear that the Royals would miss Lorenzo Cain, maybe more than any of the pending free agents. Every nugget of data that comes out seems to indicate they’ll miss him more and more. They need to find a way to replace that defense or else we could be looking at a mid-2000s level bad defense in Kansas City, and nobody wants any part of that.

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