Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain is a fascinating story. He did not play baseball until he was a sophomore in high school. You read that sentence and you might think it means something else; you might think it means that Cain did not play on an organized team until he was
Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain is a fascinating story. He did not play baseball until he was a sophomore in high school. You read that sentence and you might think it means something else; you might think it means that Cain did not play on an organized team until he was a sophomore in high school.
No. Cain, quite literally, did not play baseball until he was in high school. He had never used a glove. Cain did not know how to hold a bat. He did not have any understanding of the rules. In Cain's memory, he had never even seen a baseball game.
Cain only went out for baseball because he failed to make the basketball team as a ninth-grader. Getting cut from a basketball team can have a powerful effect on a teenager. The sting of getting cut inspired Michael Jordan to become the greatest basketball player ever. It inspired Cain to ask a friend about baseball.
On his first day, Cain swung the bat cross-handed, with his left hand on top. And he wore his glove on his right hand. The first fly ball hit to Cain, though, he settled under and caught it. Then, he took off his glove and threw the ball back into the infield.
There were many comical moments like that along Cain's journey, moments his teammates and coaches love to share because they demonstrate his remarkable talent and dedication.
And because of that talent and dedication … there really isn't a player in baseball quite like Cain.
You may have read about the latest thing in Statcast™ -- something called sprint speed. This is a way to measure how fast outfielders run. Sprint speed, as designed by Tom Tango, measures how many feet per second a player ran in his fastest one-second window -- whether the ball is caught or is not.
For instance, the fastest any outfielder ran in 2016 happened on June 8. Even if you were at that game between the Reds and Cardinals, though, you wouldn't have noticed it. St. Louis' Yadier Molina crushed a ball to left-center, and Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton chased after it, running 31.8 feet in his fastest second. That is really, really fast, absurdly fast, almost 22 mph if he could maintain that speed. It's fairly close to world-class sprinting.
You wouldn't have noticed it, though, because Hamilton didn't catch the ball.
This is one of the interesting things about sprint speeds -- most of the fastest times are on balls that are not caught. That seems to make sense, logically. Those balls that are just out of reach would force outfielders to run absolutely as hard as they can, while balls that are caught might require a more balanced and measured kind of run.
Take the Mariners' Jarrod Dyson. On balls that are not caught, his sprint speed (making up the fastest 5 percent of plays) is a blazing 30.3 feet per second, third fastest in baseball behind Hamilton and Minnesota's Byron Buxton (who are the two fastest outfielders in baseball by basically any measure).
A lot of people would think that Dyson is the third-fastest player, and in this sense, he is. As Dyson himself would say: "That's what speed does."
But on balls Dyson caught, his sprint speed dropped to 28.4 feet per second, still fast but no longer in the top 10.
What does it mean? Well, you can invent theories about how Dyson plays the outfield. But the point is that while his difference is a bit extreme, players generally run their fastest on balls they inevitably do not catch.
But not Cain. It's a strange thing. Cain is certainly fast but not blazing fast, certainly not by what we might call conventional baseball measures. Last year, he stole just 14 bases and hit one triple. On balls that end up as hits, Cain's sprint speed is 29.2 feet per second, top 15 in baseball but just so. That's fast, but it does not put him in the stratosphere with burners like Hamilton and Dyson. Cain is more in the realm of Yasiel Puig, Odubel Herrera and Denard Span, speedy players but not the ones with top speed.
But when a ball can be caught, it all changes. Cain transforms. His sprint speed on outs is 29.1 -- almost identical to his all-out speed -- and that suddenly puts him third in baseball, behind only the dynamic duo of Hamilton and Buxton. Something happens to Cain when he sees a baseball in range. His high school coach Barney Myers tells the story of how Cain used to be tireless and relentless in practice, even after Myers was ready to call it a day.
"When I got tired and I wanted to go home," Myers told the Kansas City Star, "I would hit the ball as far from him as I could so that he had to run."
Something about that stuck. When the ball is in reach, almost nobody chases it down like Cain. In April of last year, Houston's George Springer blooped a fly ball into shallow right-center. Cain took off after it and covered a breathtaking 30.8 feet per second, his fastest ever sprint speed. He basically turned himself into Hamilton in order to catch the ball.
Cain caught the ball without diving. You get the sense that if Cain had to go faster, he would have.
Joe Posnanski is an executive columnist for MLB.com.