For Royals' Cain, playoff stardom is years of hard work in making
Before he could become the breakout star of October, before he could transform from maddening talent to genuine baseball phenomenon, before he could become a Kansas City hero, Lorenzo Cain first had to learn how to run.
Last winter, on a cold December morning, Cain showed up at the Kansas City Kansas Community College athletic center to see a track coach named Al Hobson. He was there to find some answers after coming off an underwhelming, injury-plagued season with the Royals, and at 27, those kinds of seasons were becoming the norm.
Royals trainers suspected that Cain's injuries over the years — groin, knee, hamstrings — had something to do with the way he moved through the field and the way he ran. That's why they sent the outfielder to see Hobson, a Kansas City native who considers himself a lifelong Royals fan but who — like most casual baseball fans just a year ago — had never heard of Lorenzo Cain.
That morning, Cain ran sprints on the track as Hobson looked on. What Hobson saw was a train wreck — a runner who was doing almost everything wrong. "His strides were too long," recalled the coach. "He ran with his shoulders behind his hips." Hobson cut straight to it: He told Cain that if he wanted to maximize his talent, if he wanted to stay healthy, he had to change completely how he ran.
Hobson is a longtime coach who's worked with Olympic sprinters like Maurice Greene and Justin Gatlin, and he knows that most professional athletes at Cain's age are set in their ways, "not willing to make a change," he said. "Change means hustle. It means you have to work hard. I laid it out there, that he had a long way to go and had to put in the hours, the days. This was going to take hard work."
How did Lorenzo Cain become an October hero? What happened over the next few weeks with Hobson sheds light into how he transformed into the leading man in the best story in baseball. When Hobson told Cain about the work ahead of him, "he just looked at me and said, ‘I want to be the best. I'm willing to do everything to get there,'" Hobson said. "And then we went to work. And that young man worked as hard as anyone that I've ever worked with."
Before he could be the do-everything outfielder for the Royals, Lorenzo Cain first had to believe he could make it to the major leagues. For Cain, believing was always the hardest thing.
By now, you probably know the The Lorenzo Cain Story. You probably know that when he joined his high school baseball team during his sophomore year, after he was cut from the basketball team, Cain had never played in an organized baseball game. He didn't own a glove or know how to throw a baseball; he was so clueless about how to handle a baseball bat that he held it cross-handed.
Late bloomers in baseball are rare. By the time most major leaguers were just a year or two into high school, they'd played in countless travel league tournaments, appeared in showcases across the country, received a mountain of recruiting letters. Cain has always been trying to make up for lost time, and that's why he's always had to work harder than everyone else — why he's always been fueled by doubts.
"Back then, people around him would tell him that he had the talent to make the major leagues," said one of his longtime coaches, Ryan Robinson. "All along the way, though, there were a lot of times when he really questioned whether these people knew what they were talking about."
Two or three times a week, when Cain was just starting baseball at Madison County High School in Florida, his mom, Patricia — who worked two jobs — would drive Lorenzo over an hour each way to Tallahassee to work with Robinson, then the recruiting coordinator for Tallahassee Community College. When Cain was at Tallahassee Community College, he showed up at 5:30 every morning, long before practices, to work. "When he was done, he'd accomplished more than everyone else was going to do the rest of that day," recalls Robinson.
Drafted in the 17th round in 2004, Cain signed with the Brewers for $95,000. "He didn't have the easiest path in the minor leagues. Everything that happened to him in the minor leagues, it was new," Robinson said. "After 0-for-16, he would think his career was over."
Cain's doubts wouldn't go away despite being a top-10 ranked prospect in the Brewers' system for four straight years. In 2008, he had a miserable start at High-A Brevard County. "He was hitting .150, and he honestly thought his career was over," says Robinson, who went down to Florida to counsel him. "He had to be told that everything was going to be OK, to stick things out. You have to give Lorenzo a lot of respect for getting through the tough times, he had a great desire to make it. But there were a lot of times that there were times he probably contemplated quitting."
Things began to come together in 2010, when he hit .317/.402/.432 in 84 games at Triple-A Nashville and Double-A Huntsville, then hit .306/.348/.415 in 43 games in Milwaukee. In December 2010, he was dealt to Kansas City in the Zack Greinke trade. "I was going in the offseason just thinking, 'Fight for a centerfield job in Milwaukee,'" Cain recalled during the ALCS. "Once I found out I got traded, it was mixed emotions."
In Kansas City, Cain showed flashes of promise with his bat and especially his defense: He shined most making plays with his glove in the enormous Kauffman Stadium outfield. The problem was that he couldn't stay on the field, playing in just 61 and 115 games in 2012 and '13.
So Cain, frustrated by the years of injuries, came to Hobson looking for help. For Hobson, it was clear: Change the way you run. "Your hips are the center of mass, and when you're running the way he was running, with his shoulders behind your hips, you're pulling, not pushing, and we had to change that," Hobson said. The coach also believed that Cain had to shorten his stride. "I had to explain to him the idea of breaking points — the farther your foot gets out in front of you, the more breaking points you have, the more chances to do something wrong."
Hobson designed workouts focused on what he calls Cain's dynamic strength — "the strength he had when he was in motion."
"He was a build up runner," Hobson said. "He didn't explode, so we had to work with him reacting and taking his first two steps and powering off the first step, and trying to get that second step down as quickly as he could so he could get to top end speed as fast as he could. His buildup was extremely slow. The first step is dictated by the power you generate, the second step dictates the rhythm you'll have for the rest of the race."
Hobson and Cain worked several days a week for over a month. Cain changed the way he stretched. He ran in the gym. He ran up hills. He ran through neighborhoods, he ran through rain and snow. When he reported to Royals camp in February, Cain was a different player: Aside from this new running style that would help him stay on the field, coaches and his teammates could already then see that he was running with a different explosiveness. He got even better — faster, more explosive — as the season wore on. Now, the difference in Cain's running from a year ago, says Hobson, "is night and day.".
In Kansas City, he is not the ace who was brought in to save the once woebegone franchise, and he is not one of the team's homegrown players who bloomed into a star this postseason. But now, in many ways, Cain embodies the 2014 Royals and their storybook run.
Kansas City has dominated teams early in the postseason with their unexpected home run barrage, but ultimately, they've won by doing what they do best: putting the ball in play on offense, flying around the bases like they're on the Autobahn, playing breathtaking defense. Cain has 12 hits in 34 at-bats this postseason with two stolen bases, and made the postseason his personal highlight reel with the catches he's made. The player tracker Statcast calculated that he reached a breakneck speed of 21.2 mph and covered 82 feet before laying out to make a game-saving catch in Game 2 of the ALCS. It's a play that Cain would not have made a year ago.
"He's been playing the best we've ever seen him play," Hosmer said during the ALCS. "It's all coming together for him right now."
The ALCS MVP award? That was just the start. The doubts that once haunted him are gone. He is ready for stardom. The World Series is here, and Lorenzo Cain is ready for his real closeup.
"I definitely started playing a lot later than a lot of guys on our team or anybody," he said. "But I was determined to be a great ballplayer. And a lot of hard work, a lot of great coaches and family also to pushed me to be the player that I'm becoming. The hard work has definitely paid off."