The San Diego Padres have obviously stolen a whole bunch of attention out of the National League West this year, despite the upstart San Francisco Giants running the table atop it to date and the ever-looming presence of the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
Typically, the attention goes to the likes of their superstars: Fernando Tatís Jr. Manny Machado, or even, on occasion, Trent Grisham. But Jake Cronenworth has been a key cog in an offensive machine that largely ranks in the top 10, or, at worst, the top half of the league, in virtually every category.
That Cronenworth is a top notch hitter is not up for dispute. Cronenworth ranks seventh in the league among qualifiers in Contact% (88.1) and is pacing the league in Contact% inside of the strike zone (95.5). His Whiff% also ranks among the league’s best, sitting as the fifth-lowest, and in the 97th percentile, at 4.9. As such, it’s probably not surprising to see that his K% is also up there among the league’s elite, at 14.0 percent (also 97th percentile). Cronenworth is, simply put, a very good hitter. Someone who fits into 30 lineups in Major League Baseball.
More recently, though, we’ve seen a new development from Cronenworth: power. Coming into June, Cronenworth had four home runs, one in April and three in May. On June 16th, he homered. On June 19th, he hit another. And then starting on June 21st, he hit one over the wall in four consecutive games. Seven of Cronenworth’s dozen home runs this year have come during the month of June alone. He has a .310 ISO for the month against figures of .141 and .140 in April and May, respectively.
Also notable among these June developments, and another probably unsurprising little tidbit, is that Cronenworth is hitting the ball harder this month than he has at any point this year. His 38.0 Hard% is about a seven percent increase from each of the last two months. He’s relying more on the pull side as well, with a 39.4 percent rate that is up about 14 points from April and nine from May. It’s also about nine percent higher than his career norm, while his Oppo% in June (23.9) is down about six based off of his career norms.
So where exactly is this coming from? Cronenworth is a career .190 ISO guy with 10 homers standing as a career-best and that was while he was still in Triple-A with the Tampa Bay Rays. While this might ultimately just be a matter of a guy getting hot and slugging a few, there are a couple of trends worth exploring that could indicate more consistent power moving forward.
One interesting element here is that Cronenworth is thriving against offspeed pitches in ways that we haven’t really seen to this point in the year. His Swing% against that pitch type has increased each month of the year, landing at about 46 percent in June. Having lingered around .200 or so in his slugging against offspeed pitches in April and May, Cronenworth is slugging .636 against that pitch type thus far, with a xSLG of .718. He cut his Whiff% against offspeed by almost 10 percent (17.4) from May to June as well. It’s a small sample, and only two of his extra-base hits have come against them, but there’s a line of thinking here that if Cronenworth is proving capable of mashing offspeed pitches, then pitchers are more inclined to hit him with the other pitch types against which he has even more success.
Cronenworth’s heat maps from April/May to June show an interesting trend as well, perhaps to a far greater extent, and it’s a trend which speaks to the increase in Pull%. Here’s the first two months of the year:
And here’s June:
Front a contact perspective, what Cronenworth was doing in the first two months of the year obviously worked. Since the Contact% isn’t anything new, he was able to demonstrate an ability to hit to all fields and didn’t necessarily discriminate against pitches in any portion of the strike zone. But the shift that he has showcased in June could definitely lend itself to the influx in power.
I already mentioned that Cronenworth is pulling the ball at a rate near 40 percent. For his career (a.k.a. the last two years), when Cronenworth pulls the ball, his Hard% is at 48.8. When he goes opposite field, it’s at 22.1. So it’s probably not a surprise that in two years, he hasn’t hit a home run to the opposite field. All of the power that Cronenworth possesses comes from the pull side, where his HR/FB rate is 25.0 percent for the month of June.
It’s a fairly obvious trend. More pull equals more power. The question then becomes, is this just a temporary thing is or this something that we can expect to transpire over the longer term? Last year, Cronenworth only hit the ball in the air to the pull side 20 percent of the time. So far this year, he’s at 32.1. The flyballs to the right side of the field have been far more common. More elevation should certainly indicate more consistent power, with his ability to make the better contact to that side of the field.
The positive thing, in a general sense, is that Cronenworth is experiencing this uptick in power without trading contact for it. He’s still a nuisance at the plate because he doesn’t strike out and can make that consistent contact. But if this increase in Pull% is part of Cronenworth’s new profile, he becomes a far more dynamic hitter in an already dangerous San Diego lineup.
It’s a trend that’s not yet established because we’re looking at a month-to-month sample over the course of three months out of the season, but it certainly gives us something to monitor, as Jake Cronenworth’s contact ability already makes him something of a rarity among his peers. Add in consistent power and he becomes a unicorn of a different color.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.