MILWAUKEE -- Brewers manager Craig Counsell drew some laughs a couple of weeks ago when he said Lorenzo Cain "has a little bit of Willie McGee in him." Counsell is old enough to remember watching McGee amble out to center field or take a lead off first base for the Cardinals like he could barely stand, then transform into an electric athlete when the bat met the baseball.
Cain plays with a similar style, as the Brewers learned after bringing him back to Milwaukee as a free agent last offseason.
"He's one of the rare, true five-tool players in baseball right now," Brewers general manager David Stearns said.
Hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing. Those are the five tools coined by the legendary Branch Rickey, and you'll find most of them in our tour of some of the best tools in the National League Central.
The player and his tool: Cain's smooth defense
Why it matters: When the Brewers gave Cain the richest free-agent contract in franchise history -- five years and $80 million -- it was as much about run prevention as run scoring. Cain, along with fellow outfield newcomer and NL All-Star Christian Yelich, has been a boon to both areas, and a big reason the Brewers entered Thursday with the second most defensive runs saved (82) in the Major Leagues, per Fangraphs' data. Milwaukee's outfielders are responsible for 42 of those runs -- the runner-up D-backs had 30 DRS from outfielders -- including Cain's 17. That sure defense helps explain how a Brewers pitching staff without a true No. 1 starter is among Major League Baseball's top 10 in staff ERA.
Signature moment this season: Cain did it all in the Brewers' 1-0 win over the Dodgers on July 31, doubling to drive in the game's only run, then robbing Cody Bellinger of a tying home run with a terrific leaping catch in the seventh inning.
"I said, 'Damn,'" Bellinger said. "That's all you can say."
The player and his tool:Matt Carpenter's newfound power
Why it matters: Nobody expected Carpenter to be atop the NL leaderboard with 33 home runs in mid-August, least of all Carpenter himself. His previous career high for homers was 28, and his best OPS was .885. Now Carpenter is within slugging distance of Hall of Famer Johnny Mize's Cardinals record for homers by a left-handed hitter (Mize hit 43 in 1940).
It's all the more remarkable considering Carpenter was hitting .140/.286/.272 on May 15. Entering Tuesday, he has hit .326/.430/.707 with 30 home runs in 81 games since. Carpenter has gone from being benched in May to a bona fide NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate in August.
"It's just not who I am. It's not who I was. It's not the hitter I've ever been," Carpenter said. "I'm developing into somebody I've never dreamt of or tried to be like. I don't have an explanation for it."
Signature moment this season: Carpenter homered in six straight games from July 14-21, including both ends of a July 21 doubleheader at Wrigley Field. But the signature game of that stretch was the day before, when he slugged three homers and added two doubles in the Cardinals' 18-5 thumping of the Cubs. Kristopher Bryant is the only other player in Major League history with three homers and two doubles in a game.
The player and his tool:Javier Baez's fearless baserunning
Why it matters: Teams don't know what to expect from Baez. If he gets on base, is he running? He should patent his swim move tag. Baez has stolen home twice this year -- the first Cubs player in the past 40 years to do it that many times in a single season -- and entering Thursday, he was one steal away from becoming the first Cubs player with 20 homers and 20 steals in a season since Corey Patterson in 2004.
Signature moment this season: In the fourth inning on July 4 against the Tigers, it appeared as if Detroit lefty Francisco Liriano had Baez picked off, but Baez stole second, then scampered to third as first baseman John Hicks' throw sailed into left. Baez considered going home, but he stopped at third. After Addison Russell walked, Baez stole home during a Willson Contreras at-bat.
Asked after the game if it was easy to be so creative on the bases, Baez said yes.
"It's really easy," Baez said. "When [Cubs manager] Joe [Maddon] got here, that's one of the first things he said -- 'If you feel sexy, wear it.' Everybody here is like that."
The player and his tool:Gregory Polanco's "rocket" arm
Why it matters: Polanco's is arguably the best of the Pirates' trio of big outfield arms. With Polanco, Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson getting most of the starts, the Bucs led the NL with 27 outfield assists entering Tuesday, headed by Marte's 10 and seven apiece from Dickerson and Polanco. Playing behind a pitching staff that has yielded the fourth-most hits of NL clubs, those outfield canons have come in handy for the division's most surprising team.
Signature moment this season: The pregame buzz was about Chris Archer's Pirates debut against the Cardinals on Aug. 3 at PNC Park, but the postgame buzz was about Polanco. With Carpenter on second and two outs in the seventh inning, Polanco gloved a single on the first bounce and fired a 97-mph throw -- manager Clint Hurdle called it a "rocket throw" -- that one-hopped to catcher Francisco Cervelli. He tagged out Carpenter to preserve Pittsburgh's one-run lead in a 7-6 win.
"I didn't move. The throw was perfect," Cervelli said. "Probably the best throw he ever had in his life. Amazing."
The player and his tool:Billy Hamilton's speed
Why it matters: As Hamilton's offensive production continues to slide, his speed remains a weapon for the Reds -- especially in the field. It helps Hamilton make difficult plays look routine -- and make special plays possible.
Signature moment this season: Hamilton didn't stick the landing, but his catch of Carpenter's deep drive on July 13 at Busch Stadium was still a thing of beauty. Hamilton pulled the baseball back over the wall and landed on his chest before speeding back to the visitors' dugout.
"My face said it all. That was great to be a part of. That was sick," said Amir Garrett, the pitcher at the time. "I've never seen a catch like that before, live. I think that has to be one of the greatest catches I have seen in my life. Billy is, in my opinion, he's the best center fielder in the game. There's not anyone close to No. 1. To have a guy like that behind you, you never know what he's going to do. The only thing I haven't seen is him catching a ball behind his back. He's done everything else."