The San Diego Padres aren’t just in the hunt for a playoff spot, they are within striking distance of the National League West division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers. That the Padres find themselves in such a position isn’t all that surprising. The past couple of years they have been a team loaded with talent who simply needed to find a way to have all that talent produce at the same time on the baseball field. It’s tempting to say that Eric Hosmer turning into a Launch Angle machine is the hidden weapon that has helped the Padres move into true contender status. However, the real hidden gem on the Padres is a utility infielder by the name of Jake Cronenworth.
Cronenworth came to the Padres as part of the Hunter Renfroe for Tommy Pham deal. That deal looked like a great one for both teams, on the Padres end they were getting a solid all-around player and on-base machine in Pham. Unfortunately for the Friars Pham has struggled mightily during the short-lived 2020 season. That has been balanced out by the success of Cronenworth. When Hosmer had to miss time a few weeks back due to a bout of gastritis Cronenworth stepped in for him and has never looked back. He’s performed so well that even after Hosmer’s return the Padres have been shifting the 26-year-old all over the diamond to make sure he gets playing time.
Cronenworth has stunned opponents and wowed his teammates with a .333/.394/.617 slash line. The last part of that line is the most interesting as it goes against what Cornenworth has produced throughout the rest of his professional career. In his previous 5 seasons he only twice managed to slug above .500. He’s never hit many homers, he still isn’t really as he only has two on the year, but he also never had much gap-to-gap power. His previous career-high in doubles was 27, last season with the Rookie-level GCL Rays and AAA-level Durham Bulls. He did that in 419 plate appearances, but he’s on pace to hit far more this year (in a traditional season at least). In 66 plate appearances, the former Wolverine already has 7 doubles. That’s a clear jump in power, but how exactly is Cronenworth achieving his newfound success?
The super-utility man isn’t hitting the ball fairly hard. His Exit Velocity sits at an above-average 90.8, this has resulted in a Hard Hit% that is in the 66th percentile of the league. That is not much to write home about. The fact that he’s hitting more doubles but not more home runs is likely tied into his base-level power staying the same as well as his relative lack of a Launch Angle, 9.5. Where he is truly outperforming the league average is in his Barrel% and his Sweet Spot%. The league average is 6.3 and 32.7 in both of those respective metrics. Cronenworth sits at a lofty 10.6 and 51.1. When you throw his ability to take pitches into the mix, his K% sits at a low 14.5 while his Whiff% is in the 82nd percentile, the picture starts to form of exactly how and why Cronenworth is now succeeding.
Cronenworth never had a season in the minors where he struck out at a lower rate than he is in 2020. We don’t have his Whiff% numbers from his years in the minors but it’s safe to assume that his decreased strikeouts owe something to his increased ability to not swing through pitches. In turn, this has led to a massive increase in his ISO. Last year at Durham he posted an ISO of .186, the best of his career. That was with the rocket ball that was literally leaving the yard at record paces throughout AAA baseball stadiums. Even in those conditions Cronenworth only posted modest power numbers. In 2020, with a baseball that appears to be far less grooved, he has posted a .283 ISO.
None of this has come cheap for the Padres’ everyman. His 117 DRC+ tells the best story of his season. DRC+ is based on outcomes that a player deserves versus outcomes that actually did happen. You don’t get credit for cheap hits or small hot streaks in DRC+. Cronenworth deserves all the production he has been achieving, he’s carried over whatever minor changes he made in 2019 and has exponentially improved his approach in 2020. Manny Machado is Manny Machado, Fernando Tatís Jr. is putting up eye dropping stats, and Eric Hosmer has finally turned a corner. All the same, the Padres aren’t in the position they currently find themselves in without the production of their dynamic utility man.