How do Brewers keep winning? The Cain effect

June 8th, 2018

The Brewers are ninth in the National League in runs scored. They are fifth in ERA. Their starting rotation is a mishmash of veterans. The Brewers' one longtime star, former Most Valuable Player Award winner , is in a terrifying slump. Their returning home run leader, , has been dinged up and has only played in 22 games. And their vaunted star of the future, shortstop , has a ghastly 39 OPS+.
The Brewers also have the best record in the NL.
Now, how do you explain this? Well, you could point out that the Brewers have an outrageous 15-6 record in one-run games, the best in the Majors. They've won 22 games by two or fewer runs, the most in the Majors.
Why have they done so well in close games? Well, explaining that is the problem. Success in one- and two-run games is one of the great mysteries of baseball. Bad teams sometimes have great close-game records. Good teams sometimes have lousy ones. Logic doesn't always figure in.
The Brewers' outrageous bullpen with the almost untouchable setting up and the actually untouchable closing things out certainly has something to do with their success in tight games. Luck and timing surely have something to do with it, too.
But let me throw out what I believe is the biggest reason.
This is now 's team.
Cain caught the first popup ever hit to him. This might not seem like the most fascinating piece of Cain trivia, but there are two odd factors to consider. One, he was 15 years old, a sophomore in high school, which is quite late for a kid to be catching a first popup. Two, he wore a borrowed baseball glove on his right hand. He didn't know it was supposed to be on his left.
Cain tried out for baseball (he had never even seen a baseball game) because he did not make the ninth-grade basketball team. You might have heard that story before, but a question lingers: How in the heck did an athlete as extraordinary as Cain fail to make his ninth-grade basketball team? What kind of super men did they have in Madison, Fla., that Cain couldn't qualify, even as a bench player?
The reality is that Cain was still finding himself. He was young for his grade, he was tall but uncertain and he had not yet found the thing that motivated him. Over the next decade or so, he would not have a want for motivation.
Cain was a high-school benchwarmer, and through relentless work, he transformed himself into a high-school star. He was a 17th-round Brewers Draft pick (he didn't even know what that was). Then, he was a Minor Leaguer with limited potential. Then, he was possibly a fourth outfielder in the Major Leagues. Then, he was a traded to an organization that had not made the postseason in his lifetime.
And then, at age 27, Cain was finally given a chance for the Royals. He played the outfield so brilliantly that even though he didn't hit a lick, he helped the team win more games than it had in almost a quarter-century. The next year, in 2014, he added solid hitting to his glorious defense, and the Royals went to the World Series. In '15, he hit even better and made plays in the outfield that detonated the mind* as the Royals won the World Series. Cain finished third in American League MVP voting.
*It is remarkable -- and infuriating -- that Cain has not yet won a Gold Glove Award. This is a bit like Orson Welles not winning an Oscar for directing "Citizen Kane" … if Welles had directed "Citizen Kane" four or five years in a row.

For months this past offseason, Cain went virtually unnoticed in free agency. By most statistical measures, he was the best player available, better than J.D. Martinez, better than his former teammate . But seemingly nobody even talked about Cain, much less offered him a deal.
When the Brewers signed Cain in late January, it was hardly front-page news. The most detailed stories packaged the Cain signing with the Brewers' trade for talented Marlins outfielder … as if getting Cain wasn't quite big enough for the splashy headlines.
And what has Cain done since coming to Milwaukee? It's easy to miss. If this was 1977, back when the only baseball numbers that mattered were batting average, home runs and RBIs, well, you might not think anything of it. He's hitting .282 with 7 homers and 18 RBIs.
Yes, 18 RBIs.
There might be mention of Cain's 11 steals, or his excellent defense. But his splendor as a player would be missed.
First off, Cain has only 18 RBIs because for the first time in his career, he's the everyday leadoff hitter. Many players don't like the leadoff spot. This especially might be true of a player like Cain, who regularly batted third for a World Series champion three years ago.
Instead, Cain has embraced the role. His walk rate has skyrocketed -- he already has as many walks this year (37) as he had all of 2015. His .389 on-base percentage is 43 points above his career average. He has become a different kind of weapon in the top spot.

But, again, it's defense that marks Cain, and defense that helps turn the Brewers from a good team with any number of holes to a fantastic team in first place in the NL Central. On the Statcast™ Podcast -- a must listen for any baseball fanatic --'s Mike Petriello and Matt Meyers offer some absolutely extraordinary stats for the Brewers.
No. 1: The Brewers' defense is on pace -- a dangerous phrase, but let's go with it -- to save 101 runs this year. These are called Defensive Runs Saved, and while you may or may not put a lot of faith in those numbers, you should still know that 101 runs saved would be the highest total since the statistic started being tracked in 2002.
No. 2: Another stat along these lines is called "Catch Percentage Added," which simply uses Statcast™ numbers to determine what percentage of catches the average team would make and compares that with the percentage of catches a team actually makes. The Brewers are at 4 percent added. How good is that? Well, it's a new statistic, so there isn't much to compare it with. But the last three years, no team has sustained that level of defensive excellence.
No. 3: Using Statcast™ numbers again, the Brewers' defense has knocked 26 points off their opponents' expected batting average, second only to the Cubs.
Make no mistake: This is the Cain effect. Last year, the Brewers' outfield was below average by every metric. Cain isn't the only change. Yelich has been an upgrade over Braun in left field, no question. 's defense has picked up considerably (probably in part because of Cain). But it is Cain who continues to get to everything, throws out baserunners left and right, inspires everyone with his easy grace and has changed the landscape.

The Brewers keep winning by one or two runs. Cain keeps on saving a number of those runs.
One thing that has often been said about the 2014 and '15 Royals is that they didn't have a future Hall of Famer on the team. That's probably true, though it might be early to write off accomplished and still-young players like and Hosmer. That's a discussion for a later date.
But what we can say is that in 2014 and '15, Cain played like a star. He was the best player on those Royals teams, even if he didn't always get the credit for it.
Now, Cain is the best player on a Brewers team that keeps winning, despite the daily doubts that rain down on them from all sides. Will it last? Don't bet against him. He's been fighting this battle since the first fly ball he saw land softly in the glove on his right hand.