Hitters don’t usually make wholesale changes to their approach at age 31. There could be tweaks to adjust to a player’s declining athleticism, but overhauls seldom happen so late in a player’s career—except when they do.
Lorenzo Cain turned 31 years old earlier this month. A late bloomer, Cain didn’t play 100 games in a season until he was 27 years old, and made his first All-Star team in his age-29 season. In that regard, Cain is a young 31. He was 28 years old, already the middle of the general physical prime, when he reached 1,000 plate appearances for his career. Bryce Harper reached 1,000 plate appearances when he was 20, but we don’t need to focus on the exceptionally young veterans to show Cain is an outlier. Even notable late-bloomer Ryan Howard hit 1,000 trips to the plate early in his age-27 season.
It’s unlikely for any player to radically change his stripes at 31 years old, but if someone is going to do it, Cain would be the prototype. He may be 31, but this is just his fifth full season in the majors. Many players are no older than 26 or 27 when they’re in their fifth full season. Cain may be at the tail end of the general physical prime, but he’s at the height of his mental prime, in terms of how many reps he has received in the majors. As a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that he has made a change early on this season that is so dramatic and substantive, we can take it at close to face value, even though we have yet to turn the calendar to May.
Cain put together consecutive excellent seasons in 2014 and 2015, and was on his way to another last year before injuries limited him to 103 games. Still, over the previous three years, he slashed .300/.347/.436, with a 162-game average of 13 homers, 36 doubles, 31 steals, 92 runs and 79 RBI. Cain does nearly everything well at the plate, but there is one area where he is lacking. He posted a 6% walk rate, drawing 92 free passes on 1,540 plate appearances. Season-by-season, however, there were encouraging signs. Cain totaled a 4.8% walk rate in 2014; the next season, he jumped to 6.1%; last year, he was at 7.1%. It was clear that Cain was becoming a more patient, disciplined hitter as he became more experienced. That, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise, but the fact that he made the majors later in life than most of his peers makes it stand out more starkly.
Cain has taken his disciplined approach to a new level this season. Heading into play Thursday, he has drawn 11 walks in 60 plate appearances, good for a walk rate of 18.3%. According to Fangraphs’s plate discipline stats, Cain’s o-swing rate, the frequency with which a hitter swings at pitches outside the strike zone, is 24.5%, more than seven percentage points lower than his career rate, and 4.5 percentage points better than his previous low mark for a full season. That number, too, has dipped as Cain has progressed into his 30s. In 2014, he swung at 34.5% of pitches he saw that were outside of the strike zone, and that climbed slightly to 35.1% the previous season. He cut it back to 29% last year before the precipitous drop early on this season.
That’s forcing pitchers to challenge Cain more often this season, and he is making them pay. Cain’s zone rate, the percentage with which pitches to him have been in the strike zone, is at 47.9%, which would be the highest share of strikes he has seen since 2014. The following zone profile, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, shows us just how much damage Cain is doing when pitchers offer him something over the plate.
Health is always going to be a question for Cain, but so long as he’s on the field he’s going to be a top-25 outfielder. He’s slashing .347/.467/.387 with five runs and five steals on the year. If his increased plate discipline is for real, and there’s little reason to believe it isn’t, he could be looking at a .370-OBP season. If that is indeed the case, and if he can stay on the field, he’ll push 100 runs and steal 30-plus bases.