Christian Yelich’s MVP stock is skyrocketing, but he may not even be the most valuable player in the Milwaukee Brewers outfield.
Christian Yelich is having a career year, and the buzz he has generated is well-deserved. This is the campaign when he made the leap from very good to superstar, and he blew up in August. With less fanfare but as much if not more flash and panache, Lorenzo Cain is the Brewers MVP candidate.
To be clear, none of this should in any way be viewed as diminishing what Yelich has done this season. Yelich is a cornerstone for the Brewers’ next chapter, and there is no reason to be bearish on his long-term prospects.
This is about Cain’s right now.
When Yelich and Cain were acquired in the offseason, many questioned why David Stearns picked up two outfielders when they already were well-stocked past the diamond. We maintained that it not only made a lot of sense but it repositioned the Brewers’ contention window from being slightly ajar to wide open. Those bandwagoners aren’t complaining now that the ballclub has two legitimate MVP cases hitting back-to-back on the lineup card.
Yelich boasts a 5.3 bWAR with a .932 OPS and sparkling defense. Cain, who should already have at least one Gold Glove and there will be a miscarriage of justice if he doesn’t win his first this season, has an .826 OPS and 6.5 WAR. Where Yelich has found his power stroke, Cain has only improved month by month this season: entering Friday night’s tilt with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cain is slashing .375/.457/.400 in September. Moreover, Cain is the first bona fide leadoff man the Brewers have been able to pencil into their lineup since Scott Podsednik. Those who would argue for either Corey Hart or Carlos Gomez, or even invoke Rickie Weeks fail to recognize that they were all mid-order guys moved up by necessity and were all free-swingers.
In this era of launch angles and long balls, Cain has cemented himself as a throwback to an earlier era: a five-tool talent who steps up his game as his team needs him to. Indeed, as Cain goes, so have the Brewers: Cain’s OPS in wins is .951 with a BAbip of .395 and a tOPS+ twice that of when the Brewers lose, strongly suggesting that when Lorenzo Cain is on his game–as he has been throughout 2018–the Brewers take flight. Having only begun his full-time major league career at age 27, Cain is now entering his prime as a contact hitter who can get on base with judicious power from gap to gap.
None of this truly distinguishes Cain from Yelich; age ain’t nothing but a number. But what makes Cain more valuable is his experience in a championship-caliber clubhouse. That leadership on a Royals team that made two World Series and won one and thrived on being the underdog presents well on a Brewers roster that some prominent outlets projected to regress in 2018 in their fealty to the Chicago Cubs. (Hi, Fangraphs! 78-84, eh? This is also where I spike the football and note that this publication was accurately out front on nearly every Brewers angle since last October.)
Cain’s willingness to adjust his approach, right down to his swing, is notable: when batting leadoff, his slash is .299/.378/.448 (87 games). When second (23 games), .356/.437/.389. Batting third (15 games), .348/.508/.391. With Yelich often in the two-hole and Jesus Aguilar typically hitting third, Cain has cemented his spot atop the lineup but has shown his ability to produce anywhere in the top-third of the order. Without that versatility, there is no guarantee that either Yelich or Aguilar have the campaigns both have enjoyed this season.
What’s more, the fact that Cain was a relative late-bloomer allows the possibility that he could remain in his prime and a productive player throughout his 30s and even into his 40s. There’s still a lot of tread on the tires, and that five-year pact with Milwaukee is looking better with every at-bat, Cheshire cat grin.
Leadership on the lineup card and in the clubhouse. Leadership in offensive metrics and highlight reel catches. Leadership in being a role model and solid citizen. Like another legendary ballplayer a half-century before, Lorenzo Cain can be the man who transfixes Milwaukee. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Right now, Cain should be garnering MVP votes because he’s playing at an elite level for a club that is pushing hard toward October and a division title. This means all of that; it also can mean so much more.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.