In just 0.30 seconds, Lorenzo Cain is off. Tracking quickly, Cain is into the alley in left center field. At a dead sprint, Cain extends his glove, turning a gap shot double into a long fly ball out.
Amid an exceptionally chaotic trade deadline, the Kansas City Royals made one of the games biggest splashes, trading for Johnny Cueto. After coming within 90 feet of a World Series title, the Royals had to make something happen.
On a roster full of All-Stars, the Royals needed just one more arm to lock themselves in as American League favorites. Now, partnering Cueto with Edinson Volquez and Chris Young on the mound, and Eric Hosmer and Kendrys Morales at the plate, the Royals proved to everyone that they were serious about repeating as AL champions.
While the splash in July was impressive, the Royals are riding and dying on the back of Cain.
Baseball is fast becoming a game of glamour as home runs and fastballs are taking over. Players are marked elite when they produce tape measure home runs or radar gun buzzing fastballs. Championships, however, are not won on home runs and high heat. The highlights are, but the game itself remains rooted in old school baseball — speed and defense kill.
In 2014, St. Louis and San Francisco made it to the NLCS preventing runs, while Kansas City made the ALCS and World Series on the back of runs created.
As the National League prevented runs, Kansas City created, leading the league with 153 stolen bases during the regular season, with 80 percent efficiency.
With runs coming at a premium, the role of Cain is unquestioned.
Cain is one just three players to rank in the top 10 in the MLB in Wins Above Replacement (5.87), Offensive Wins Above Replacement (4.24), Defensive Wins Above Replacement (1.91), and Wins Above Average (4.41). Joining Cain is Buster Posey and Manny Machado, and among the three, Cain ranks higher than both of them in three of the four categories, trialing Machado in Offensive Wins Above Replacement 4.54-4.24.
But the game isn’t played in numbers, it’s played on the field, and Cain is dominant there as well. Cain averages a 0.30 second first step from the time the ball leaves the bat and reaches a max speed of 20.7 miles per hour in center field. Being asked to cover the most ground among any player on the field, Cain needs every step.
At the plate, Cain is no slouch either, ranking second on the Royals with a .312 batting average and stealing a team high 20 bases and, despite not being a power hitter, Cain still ranks third on the Royals roster with 124 runs accounted for (51 RBIs, 73 runs).
The numbers are all impressive, but the plays that win games are often not found in the box score. In a midseason matchup with Detroit, Cain cut off a Tyler Collins would be double to left center, holding him to a single.
James McCann followed by grounding into a fielder’s choice, forcing Collins out at second, before McCann as thrown out at home on a Jefry Marte double. Had Cain not held Collins to a single, the fielder’s choice would never have been made, and Collins would have scored on the Marte double, cutting the then Royals lead to 2-1.
In that same matchup, Cain stretched a pair of singles into doubles, putting himself in scoring position for the heart of the batting order to follow.
Cain most likely won’t receive many, if any, votes for AL MVP as Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson appear to be running away with it, but there’s no denying the fact that Cain will be the reason that Kansas City does or doesn’t repeat.
Cain creates and eliminates run using small ball and intelligent plays. With 12 home runs, he has the capability to produce for himself, but, more importantly, he has the ability to put himself in scoring position on his own.
Since 2000, only two teams have led the league in home runs and gone on to win the World Series. So although the long ball is what catches the fans eye, the timely hits and the prevention of them are still bringing home championships.
Cain won’t receive the hype that Trout and Donaldson dom and he may not be the household name that both of them are. But make no mistake about it, Cain will be the reason Kansas City hosts their first World Series title since 1985, or the reason they fall 90 feet short.