Toronto Blue Jays Hot Stove: A slower Lorenzo Cain would still be a solid signing

 

There seems to be concern over the Toronto Blue Jays looking at free agent, Lorenzo Cain. We explain why it is a good idea

 

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This isn’t the first blog post suggesting that the Blue Jays’ should sign Lorenzo Cain. This isn’t even my first blog post on the topic. However, reading a handful of free agent preview articles left me feeling like Cain deserved a bit more (unqualified) love. Certain posts, like these from Sporting News and Bleacher Report, suggest that whichever team signs Cain will likely be in for a big disappointment. He’s a mobile outfielder, so it’s probable that he’ll slow down as he ages, which would affect his abilities as a fielder and base runner. But this doesn’t mean that he’s definitely going to be a Carl Crawford type bust.

 

There’s a lot of room between 2017 Lorenzo Cain and post-big contract Carl Crawford. That is the point of this post. Cain starts from such a high production level that, even with conservative assumptions of his future production, he should still be fair value for the kind of contract most believe he’s likely to receive. What follows is a highly speculative exercise, by no means intended to predict the future. Instead, read this as an attempt to show that even a diminished Cain would be worth $70 million or so over the next four years.

 

Let’s start with the contract

Cain looks set to receive a 4 year deal worth between $68 and $75 million, putting his average annual value between $17 and $18.75 million. This is based on four different sources. Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron concurred with the median of the site’s crowd-source project: 4 years and $68 million. MLB Trade Rumours guessed slightly richer (4 years and $70 million), while Bleacher Report guessed richer still (4 years and $75 million).

 

Now, let’s rerun Cain’s 2017 production with conservative assumptions

Lorenzo Cain had a fantastic 2017. His 4.1 wins above replacement (WAR) was quietly the 34th highest mark among qualified position players in the majors. Of note, it was still only his third best season, in terms of WAR, because he is a very good player—he ranks third in WAR (20.5) among CF since 2013. His production was driven by above-average hitting, above-average baserunning and above-average fielding at a premium defensive position.

 

The potential issue with Cain going forward is that a slowdown would negatively affect all three areas of his game: he wouldn’t be able to leg out as many infield singles and stretch hits into extra bases, he wouldn’t be able to steal as many bases and he wouldn’t be able to get to as many balls in the outfield. Well, let’s see how a hypothetically slowed down Cain may have fared in 2017.

 

Batting

Cain hit for a .347 wOBA last season, comfortably above the MLB average (.321). What many might not realize is that he is not entirely reliant on his speed to achieve that production: he generated a .334 xwOBA (a measure based on quality of contact and completely independent of a batter’s speed), also comfortably above the MLB average (.314). In fact, Cain has consistently generated above-average contact quality throughout the Statcast era (his .340 xwOBA ranking sixth among CF with 500+ AB since 2015).

 

When calculating WAR, Fangraphs uses a batter’s wOBA as a measure of batting production. Replacing Cain’s 2017 wOBA with his 2017 xwOBA in this calculation gives us a rough estimate of how many batting runs his speed may have provided him. The answer: 7.1 runs. (This link provides further details on Fangraphs’ WAR calculation for position players.)

 

Base Running

In terms of Baserunning Runs (BsR), Cain has never had a below-average season, accumulating 16.4 BsR since 2013 (25th highest in the majors). In 2017, he produced 3.5 BsR, a slightly better than average mark for centre fielders. Let’s replace that with the MLB average of 0 BsR.

 

Fielding

Lorenzo Cain is a very good outfielder. He has primarily played in CF (5274 career innings), accumulating a UZR/150 of 13. For perspective, Kevin Pillar is only slightly ahead of him, with a career UZR/150 of 16.6. He also has experience playing RF, accumulating a UZR/150 of 22.3 over 977 career innings. This may be relevant to the Blue Jays, as he may be signed with an eye to complement (rather than replace) Superman in the Rogers Centre outfield.

 

With this in mind, let’s make two adjustments. Instead of Cain being a slightly above average CF (2017 UZR of 1.6), let’s make him an average RF. This means his defensive runs above average (Def) will fall by 10.4—1.6 due to the fall in UZR and 8.8 due to the positional adjustment.

 

Putting it all together

In 2017, Cain produced 4.1 WAR or 41.2 runs above replacement level (runs per win was set at 10.048 in 2017). The various adjustments we’ve made have chipped away at those 41.2 runs:

  • Making his batting production reflect the quality of contact he generated (xwOBA) rather than his (speed-affected) batting outcomes (wOBA) cost him 7.1 runs
  • Making him a league-average base runner cost him 3.5 runs
  • Making him an average right fielder cost him another 10.4 runs

“Slowing down” Lorenzo Cain cost him a total of 21 runs, leaving his hypothetical 2017 production at 20.2 runs above replacement level or a WAR of 2. That’s not bad at all.

 

A slower Cain should still be fair value for his money

That 2 WAR mark seems like a good estimate for Lorenzo Cain’s floor (over the course of a full season for the next few years). Obviously, injuries are always a possibility, but you really can’t control for that with any player. For what it’s worth, Cain has played the eighth highest number of games (646, 129 per season) since 2013 among major league centre fielders. There remains a ton of upside if he is able to stay healthy and maintain his above-average speed (or at least have it hold up reasonably well over the next four years). Fangraphs projects him to play in 142 games and be a little above-average at everything, on his way to producing 3.2 WAR.

 

With a win valued at about $9 million, four seasons of 2 WAR baseball from Cain would be worth a total salary of $72 million. That puts him right in the middle of the potential contract range discussed earlier. We can also estimate his four-year production by taking his 2018 projection and chipping off 0.5 WAR per season, thanks to the aging curve. This method has him producing 9.8 WAR, putting his monetary value around $88 million over four years. This could be viewed as a baseline projection, his four-year production with neutral luck (on and off the field).

 

A signing like this makes a lot of short-term sense for the Blue Jays, as Cain immediately moves the Jays from Wild Card contender to second Wild Card favourite, at least. It also makes medium-term sense for the Blue Jays. According to MLB Pipeline, the Jays only have one outfield prospect (Anthony Alford) in their Top 17, with four others in the back-end of the Top 30. Teoscar Hernandez looks like a potential 2018 contributor, but AAA outfielders like Dalton Pompey and Dwight Smith Jr. remain big question marks at the MLB level. Having a consistent veteran like Lorenzo Cain patrolling the outfield (and top of the batting order) over the next four years would push each of them down the depth chart. That makes the team less dependent on two or more of these prospects becoming MLB regulars.

 

It even makes long-term sense, as the prospect cost of Cain’s qualifying offer is fairly modest compared to what he brings to the team—the 42nd overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft (worth about 1-2 WAR, on average) and $500,000 in international signing bonus pool money (the amount the Jays spent on their fifth most expensive international signing in 2017).

 

In conclusion, I’m all for signing Cain. Let me know what you think in the comments.

 

 

 


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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.