Most championship teams, or teams in general, have at least one superstar player that stands out amongst the crowd as the face of the franchise. There is a reason these types of players tend to get paid the big bucks; the value they bring to a team is enormous.
However, just as important are the quality contributors that make up the rest of the roster. This is what tends to separate the Dodgers, who have made the postseason every year since 2012, from their crosstown rival Angels, who have never won a playoff game with Mike Trout; baseball is as much of a team sport as there is, making depth more important than arguably in any other sport.
Now, these steady contributors don’t always show up on highlight reels or generate massive jersey sales. That being said, their value can still be very indispensable. There often can be a conception that these are the type of “mid-tier” players that teams are avoiding giving lucrative deals to on the open market, but, in actuality, the players we are focusing on are a clear tier above that prototype.
Okay, that is a lot of rambling, but the simple point is – whether you’re a general manager putting together an MLB team or a fantasy baseball, filling out an entire roster of quality players, as opposed to a “stars and scrubs” approach, tends to be the most effective. To accomplish this, we all need players like Jake Cronenworth; they may not stand out in any particular area, but they are still valuable players that you can rely on for consistent production.
Yet, as fantasy sports continue to grow in popularity, players like Cronenworth will likely get lost in the shuffle. After getting off to a rough start to the year, that has only continued to be the case Nevertheless, this is still a very valuable player who has proven to be All-Star caliber player at the MLB level. So, why should you appreciate Jake Cronenworth? Find out here.
Jake Cronenworth’s Peculiar MLB Trajectory
If you want to take in a quality football game, then the Big Ten conference is perfect for you. However, likely due to the weather in the Midwest, it isn’t a conference that generally churns out a lot of successful MLB players. Well, except for Cronenworth, of course.
As a Michigan native, Croneworth decided to attend the University of Michigan, where he played an immediate role as a freshman. In three seasons there he posted a .312/.401/.436, while also walking more than he struck out. The best part? He did so while also serving as a key member of Michigan’s pitching staff. As we’ll get to, versatility has been a calling card for Cronenworth, and, in this case, he was the ultimate chess piece.
Despite a very strong college career, though, Cronenworth still fell under the draft radar:
JAKE CRONENWORTH DRAFT RANKING
- MLB Pipeline: 164th
- Baseball America: 194th
- Fangraphs: 201st
Clearly, MLB teams agreed with this assessment; he was selected in the seventh round (208th overall) by the Rays as a two-way player. In fact, at the time, there was mixed opinion on whether he was best served as a hitter or pitcher. Ultimately, though, given his offensive accomplishments, athleticism, and little track record on the bump, he was brought up as a hitter, which clearly ended up being the right choice.
Alas, Cronenworth immediately produced at the lower levels of the minors, posting a 159 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) at Single-A in 2016. However, he struggled upon being promoted to High-A and did not have an eye-popping stat line (116 wRC+) between High-A and Double-A in 2017. Factor in a poor season (91 wRC+) in 2018, and it wasn’t looking promising for him offensively.
The main issue for Cronenworth? A complete lack of power. In 1795 minor-league plate appearances, he slugged just 12 home runs, while posting an isolated power (ISO) of just .095. While he had strong plate skills, it wasn’t enough to compensate for the inability to slug, and prospect outlets agreed- he was essentially off the prospect radar, not being listed as a top-30 prospect in the Rays’ system practically anywhere. At this point, it would have been easy for Cronenworth to potentially even revert back to pitching, but he stuck with hitting.
That he did. Finally, at the age of 25, Cronenworth experienced an offensive breakout at Triple-A, posting a 147 wRC+ with a .334/.429/.520 slash line. For perspective, that ISO was double what it had been for the rest of his career. While some of that can be attributed to an offensive-friendly environment at Triple-A, that also speaks to the type of power development that can come at any age.
This is where the fun begins! Shortly after the 2019 season ended, Cronenworth was traded, alongside Tommy Pham, to San Diego in exchange for Hunter Renfroe and well-regarded prospect Xavier Edwards. At the time, the main focus of the deal was the other three players, with Cronenworth’s name mainly being cast aside. After all, he was a 26-year-old with little track record of hitting for any sort of power, and given his age, what power he had shown in 2019 was mainly seen as unsustainable. Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen, who was by far the highest on Cronenworth compared to other prospect analysts, summarized it very well:
“Some combination of randomness and the excitable Triple-A baseball played a role in Cronenworth’s unsustainable 2019 power output at Durham, but the other aspects of the offensive profile are real. He doesn’t give away at-bats, he makes a ton of contact, and he plays a serviceable shortstop with experience at several other positions. He’s a super utility sort who might have also played a more significant bullpen role had MLB not instituted rules that put a damper on some of the creative uses teams were considering for players like this. Instead, Cronenworth may throw an inning or two per week in low-leverage situations as a way to save someone else in the bullpen. The thing to focus on is the bat and defensive versatility, which will allow the Padres flexibility on other parts of the roster while Cronenworth performs like a 1.5 to 2 WAR sort of role player.”
The “utility” label can often be thrown on players who don’t have the perceived upside to be everyday players. For Cronenworth, it all came down to his ability, or lack thereof, to hit for power, which made him seen as more of an interesting prospect than a coveted one. Regardless, when teams trade for prospects, even if they are a small part of the deal, they do so because they think highly of them. In the end, the Padres were able to see value where others couldn’t, and, as a result, were rewarded in a major way.
Jake Cronenworth’s Unexpected All-Star Rise
Heading into 2020, expectations were quite high for the Padres. After all, they had just spent a lot of money in free agency on Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, and Wil Myers, while Fernando Tatis Jr. was already a rising superstar. Sure, they weren’t ready to dethrone the Dodgers in the NL West, but with the MLB expanding to eight postseason teams per league, there clearly was an opening for them.
As you would expect, while Cronenworth made the Opening Day roster, he was seen as more of a fill-in than someone who was going to be an everyday player for them; he started just one game over the first week of the year. When you get any sort of opportunity, though, you need to make the most of it, and that is what Cronenworth did.
With Eric Hosmer dealing with an injury, the versatile chess piece filled in at first base and performed at a very high level. Consequently, he found his play in the starting lineup, and never looked back. For the season, Cronenworth hit for a 126 wRC+, continued to tap into his new power (.194 ISO, 10.2% barrel) while controlling the plate (9.4%, 15.6%) tremendously. Add in his value elsewhere, and he seemed to be a very deserving NL Rookie of the Year winner, though reliever Devin Williams’ historically dominant season prevented that from coming to fruition.
Entering the 2021 season, Cronenworth found himself in a position he hadn’t ever before; not having to try to defy the odds anymore. He had not only established himself as an everyday player but a high-end one at that. Coming into the season, MLB Network’s objective ranking system, “The Shredder”, had him as the sixth-best second baseman in baseball, while MLB.Com’s Sarah Lang’s went as far as to rank him as the #3 second baseman.
After just a 192 plate appearance sample, that is high praise, though it wasn’t consensus opinion; multiple members of MLB Network‘s ranking panel left him off the top ten altogether. Meanwhile, in terms of fantasy baseball, he went off the board as just the 27th second baseman in the NFBC Main Event; those with money on the line were clearly not sold on his performance from 2020.
As expected, Cronenworth hasn’t been able to completely replicate his stellar 2020 season. Although his strikeout rate (15.6% to 14%) went down, the quality of contact numbers were notably worse:
- Hard-Hit Rate: 68th Percentile to 23rd Percentile
- Average Exit Velocity: 66th Percentile To 37th Percentile
- Barrel%: 70th Percentile To 38th Percentile
This aligns much more with the power expectations for Cronenworth following the 2019 season. That being said, given the plate skills and competent power, we are talking about a hitter with a 116 wRC+ and a .266/.340/.460 slash line. Regardless of your focus, that holds plenty of value, especially given his ability to contribute at multiple positions.
So, perhaps the quality of contact from Cronenworth’s 2020 season wasn’t going to prevail. By now, though, he had clearly demonstrated himself as an above-average offensive presence and an All-Star caliber player. Despite some bumpy stops in the road, all signs are pointing to that continuing to be the case this season.
What To Make of Jake Cronenworth’s 2022
With Fernando Tatis Jr. on the injured list due to a wrist injury, more pressure was placed on Cronenworth and the Padres’ top players to carry the load. However, things did not get off on the right foot.
Through May 25th, Croenenworth’s wRC+ plummeted to 84, with the raw numbers (.211/.302/.331) looking even worse. At that point, manager Bob Melvin decided to move him down the lineup, which, coincidentally, aligns quite well with his recent success:
Now, a lot of this has to do with batted-ball luck, but, really, simply by his expected weighted on-base averages (xwOBA) by month, it’s clear to see who the real Cronenworth is:
JAKE CRONENWORTH xwOBA BY MONTH
- April: .369
- May: .246
- June: .350
Players can go on dry spells- it’s just the nature of the season. That’s why we look at the full length of the season, where Cronenworth’s 111 wRC+ depicts him as anything other than struggling. While his strikeouts (20.4%) are up, his swinging-strike rate (5.6%) is still elite, so the strikeout rate should come down. Really, it just comes down to a lower amount of line drives (20.8%) and higher amount of pop-ups (36.5% under) than normal, but should correct itself; in fact, if you look at his recent numbers, it’s already happening.
If there is one interesting area to monitor, it’s Cronenworth’s lack of effectiveness on the pitches he should be doing damage with. His negative-five run value on pitches defined as in the “heart” of the zone would be a significant outlier compared to the rest of his career, and there’s a clear hole in his approach that hitters are attacking more than ever. For perspective, here is his wOBA on fastballs in every different location zone this season:
In fact, Cronenworth’s .261 wOBA on four-seam fastballs is significantly lower than it had been over the past two years (.391 wOBA). Pitchers have realized this, throwing him many more fastballs higher in the zone, and, now, he will have to adapt. Do I think he just suddenly forget how to learn to hit fastballs? No, but it does help explain the funk he had been in. Every time you watch a Cronenworth plate appearance – which I highly recommend – him punishing the four-seam-fastball, particularly when left over the heart of the plate, needs to be what you’re looking for.
The dichotomy with Jake Cronenworth is remarkably fascinating.
By now, there’s no doubting the value he brings to the Padres. Being an above-average hitter and defender at multiple positions makes him a true All Star, and the type of player that all teams with championship aspirations should strive to roster.
In fantasy baseball, though, Cronenworth’s lack of stolen bases or elite impact in any category hurts his value more than we’d hope for. Even with him contributing more in points leagues, it’s easy for a player for Cronenworth to be under-appreciated at a time where sports are becoming more fantasy-focused.
At the end of the day, though, this doesn’t have to be the case. Simply because Cronenworth is an All-Star caliber real-life player doesn’t mean he needs to be a priority for your fantasy roster, but that also doesn’t indicate that he isn’t a player to simply enjoy watching. Few players provide a team with the level of consistency that he does, and it is truly a marvel to watch him continuously control the strike zone like he can.
We tend to live in a very binary culture, but to fully appreciate Cronenworth, that can’t be the case. Regardless of your focus, there is a clear place for more players like him. As he continues to heat up, he’s going to be someone that Padres fans, fantasy managers, or general baseball fans can rejoice over down the stretch, and for good reason. At the end of the day, it’s about being calculated in your valuation of a player, but also letting yourself enjoy what they bring to the table. After all, sports are an entertainment business, so it behooves us to be entertained.
As Padres play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo would say, we truly are living in the “Crone Zone”! This is a unique player that deserves more of a spotlight, so why not give it to him?