Team Trends

2019 Brewers CF Preview: The LoCain (& Keon) Show

Lorenzo Cain has established himself as one of the best baseball players on the planet. Keon Broxton shows flashes of that same potential…

The barrel of the bat catches the meaty fastball right in the jaw. The crack rises above 50,000 murmuring fans and immediately demands their attention. The ball comes off the bat, a frozen rope, and heads for the gap in right center. Before The Brewers Fans can panic, they are on their feet to find the centerfielder in a mad dash towards the wall. He glances down to make sure his adrenaline calculus is calibrated before heaving himself at a giant wall. Not one person in Miller Park is breathing… time freezes as he drifts above the wall and snatches the dumbfounded ball from its once certain fate. There is at least three seconds before anyone can even know what to do… by then LoCain has already landed, flashed a grin and tipped his hat to a slowly reconstituting crowd. Every fan, while stunned, shares the same mix of disbelief and the feeling that they knew he had it all along.

That is why the man is magnetic… the sense that he can do anything at anytime and make it look easy. It is also the reason he is such a great leader. His selfless feats on the field don’t just inspire applause, they inspire downright belief. So much that Christian Yelich dedicated his MVP Season to Cain. The most amazing part of all is that you will never find him jogging out an infield grounder or letting another outfielder do his work. He sets the tone.

We will get to the numbers but with Cain, it is very important to note his intangibles. The Brewers do not get one game away from The World Series without them. Lucky for them, he is a ‘young 32 years old’ and under contract through 2022…

OK! Now for the stats…

Cardinals Brewers Baseball

Don’t worry Lorenzo, numbers can be fun!

NOTE: We will also consider Broxton as a CF for this review (at the end)

OFFENSE

To contextualize Cain’s rise to greatness we will start by breaking down his impressive 2018 campaign. It does not take much effort to see the rarefied air he was in. Let’s consider his MLB rankings last year:

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  • “Getting on base any way how”: 7th best in the league
  • “Hitting the ball hard and using the entire field”: Top 10
  • “Manufacturing runs on the base paths”: Top 10
  • Centerfield defense and overall value: Top12

If you thought this ‘rank chart’ belonged to Christian Yelich, no one would blame you. It only reinforces the MVP-caliber season Cain had. So was it a one-and-done type of thing or the beginning of the end? Can Milwaukee expect more?!? To answer that, let’s widen our scope and look at career trends:

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Before we analyze the chart, keep in mind that Cain is a pure contact hitter. Since entering the league, he has roughly averaged seven home runs per year. His value as a hitter is going to come from a lot of walks and singles that lead to ‘base running runs.’ Thus, using Batting Average on Balls In Play (BAPIP) as a metric to measure his success is not a bad idea. It reflects how likely ‘non-homeruns’ are to drop for hits. Time also has shown that it stabilizes around 0.300 for the ‘average MLB batter’ after 800 plate appearances. Cain’s lifetime mark of 0.346 suggests that his 2018 numbers were real (he finished with a comparable 0.357). It also proves that Cain is way ‘above average’ since he has leveled out around 0.350. The decrease in variability at such a high level tells us that this wizard is at the peak of his powers.

NOTE: Only nine players in the entire league created more runs than Lorenzo on the base paths (i.e. ‘base run’ runs)… guys like Jose Ramirez, Billy Hamilton & Mookie Betts.

DEFENSE

Cain’s talent level in every facet of the game is made clear with statcast data. Specificllay, his defensive prowess as measured by Outs Above Average (OAA). For this, exit velocity and launch angle are tracked to analyze how ‘catchable’ a ball is (compared to average). The more outs a player makes above league average, the higher their OAA rises:

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This shows us that Cain was third in the league when it came to catching balls he should NOT have. He recorded 19 more outs than if The Crew had a ‘statistically average’ defensive center fielder out there instead. Theses efforts can even be stratified further with ‘Directional OAA’:

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If the dot in the middle were Cain’s starting point before making an amazing catch, the red zone trajectories tell us where he went to make them. While skilled in any direction, he was best at tracking down balls hit to the gaps (four to left center & seven to right center = the ‘pieces of pie’ that are raised the most).

Great news for Milwaukee… His defensive prowess also seems contagious! Last year, The Brewers ranked #1 in team outs above average (OAA):

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This means that The Crew was better at covering the tough parts of the field (and at robbing home runs) than any other team in the Major Leagues!

LOOKING AHEAD

Lorenzo Cain is one of the best active baseball players on The Planet. A sane person could argue for top 10. The fact that Milwaukee has him locked up through the back half of his prime has The Cream City thinking World Series or bust.

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While he been playing like a superstar (WAR 5-6), the graph suggests he could even get better. Some players do that with a change of scenery and the right cast. It also suggests that worst case scenario is having an All-Star Centerfielder with an OBP of nearly 400… The Cain deal could end up being the best free agent signing the franchise has ever made.


LIKELY BACKUP: KEON BROXTON

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Much like this slide show, Brewer Fans only get to see flashes of Keon’s elite talent and potential. He does not get too many opportunities backing up in the second highest paid outfield in MLB. He was left off The NLCS 25 man roster. That said, Keon Broxton is an exciting player who makes the most of his chances. It is tough to project his offensive performance at this time since his AB’s have been limited. Here is his general progress as a hitter so far:

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The plot below gives us a better idea of Broxton’s quality of contact and helps lend deeper insight. How hard a player hits the ball (soft, med or hard) can say a lot about a their underlying talent level. Batted-ball stats are especially helpful when trying to flesh out a relatively low volume analysis:

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It seems that Milwaukee could really be on to something with Broxton. Based on these Fangraph Guidelines, Broxton grades out, as follows:

CAREERSoft: 16.3% (Great – Excellent) / Med: 45.9% (Excellent) / Hard: 37.9% (Great)

The graph also illustrates how Broxton seems to be “dialing in” over the last three years (i.e. decreased variability)

Keon’s value will not stem from his bat (yet). Instead, it will come from his legs and defensive ability. In his backup role, he was still able to record 7 Outs Above Average (OAA) and add more ‘catch percentage’ than anyone in the entire league! His elite defensive play stems very much from his speed and agility… both of which also make him an excellent base runner. In fact, at 29.7 ft/sec, Broxton had the 15th fastest sprint speed of the entire year.

When you dig into the numbers, it is easy to see why The Brewers are willing to be patient with Broxton as they’re actively trading other outfield assets (i.e. Domingo Santana)


CONCLUSIONs

  • The Brewers have one of the best centerfielders in one of the best outfields in the entire MLB. Cain can do it all except hit for power. He is in his prime and under team control for 4 more years. Milwaukee has found their captain for the forseeable future.
  • Broxton seems to be trending up. When we look at his statcast numbers he really jumps off the page as an outlier. An elite athlete who might just need more AB’s to be an All-Star himself. However, in an outfield with three perennial MVP candidates that is unlikely. The addition of Ben Gamel makes things even more crowded. This year he should only see playing time as a pinch runner and late-inning defensive sub.
  • Whether it is Lorenzo or Keon, The Brewers can rest easy knowing a top-notch athlete is playing centerfield. This year, look for ‘Zo to be the laid back All-Star Milwaukee has come to quickly love. He will play hard every day and get on base… Keon would be wise to follow suit.

 

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