Luis Cruz has been … not-so-good in 2013. Okay, he’s been absolutely atrocious. Just terrible.
Mike Petriello at Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness has gone through all the statistical hoops to show exactly how bad Cruz has been in 2013 (go read it, even I didn’t realize how terrible he’s been).
Hint: It’s bad.
2013 lowest wOBA, min 50 PA
5. Dustin Ackley, .174
4. Clint Barmes, .155
3. Aaron Hicks, .148
2. Jeff Keppinger, .137
1. Luis Cruz, .089
So Cruz is the worst hitter in baseball this season among regular players, and it’s not even particularly close. Wonderful.
Okay, so that puts his 2013 into context, but it doesn’t answer the question of why he’s been so bad.
Granted, the most significant factor at play is that he’s been a career minor-leaguer and that this is probably closer to reality than 2012, but has anything else besides that changed?
Well, a lot of the horrific line has to do with a .103 BABIP, which is astoundingly low. However, that’s not to say it’s necessarily all been bad luck, as he has an amazingly high 31.8% infield pop-up rate. The scary thing is that’s being generous, because if you watch the games you’d see how many fly-balls he hits that are of the lazy can-of-corn variety into the shallow outfield. Furthermore, his 7.7% infield hit rate is unusually high for a batter who’s not a burner, so he’s actually been quite fortunate in that regard.
The bad contact is only compounded by increased struggles to actually make contact and an almost non-existent walk rate. Last year, he walked 3% of the time and struck out 12% of the time, which already threw up red flags for many. However, it’s been worse this year, as his walk rate is even worse (2%) and the strikeouts are up (16%).
In other words, all signs point to the serious concerns being valid, and the root cause of that may be how he’s being approached by pitchers now.
Opposing hurlers now have a history on him to start the year, and they seem to be pitching him much differently. Last year, he saw 37.8% four-seamers and produced 0.34 runs above average per 100 pitches against that pitch. Additionally, he saw 11.4% two-seamers and produced -2.66 RAA/100. This year, he’s seeing 30.5% four-seamers and 5.2% two seamers, producing -5.74 RAA/100 and -7.03 RAA/100, respectively.
That’s a difference of 13.5% less four-seam and two-seam fastballs that he’s seeing this year. Keeping a batter off-balance is one of the most important jobs of any pitcher, and their new sequencing approach to Cruz seems to be doing just that.
Pitchers always adjust to hitters and vice versa. It’s a constant battle, but the hitters that stay in the majors are able to adjust back, and that’s now Cruz’s goal going forward.
Perhaps another reason is a mechanical change. I got a tweet last week asking about his mechanics, and I finally got around to taking a look.
Before is on the top and recent is on the bottom.
This shows how Cruz is setting up, and it’s of the frame before the pitcher starts his motion. Not much changes from this moment until he starts his approach.
There’s a pretty clear difference here, as he’s standing more upright and more open in the before than he is currently. Additionally, his hands were much higher before.
None of this actually matters, of course. Well, unless it carries over to his approach to the pitch…
Not a ton of difference, but I can clearly see that he’s a lot more compact now than he was previously. He used to stand tall throughout the approach, but now he’s compressing his body more for whatever reason.
The most significant issue, though, is that he was further away from the plate before and used to continue to dive towards it after this frame. With his current setup, he now stays squarer to the pitcher.
None of that is especially problematic, but it’s a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, and I’m not sure what exactly precipitated this change. If nothing else, he’s clearly standing closer to the plate this year and compressing his approach to the ball. Hopefully none of the Dodgers coaches did anything to him, because with a timing device like his and a ton of moving parts, him hitting well is more dependent than most on his timing, and taking steps to change that is foolish.
With all that said, none of this (and I mean none of it) is going to compensate for the skill aspect of his struggles. A top prospect with all the tools in the world will struggle at times to become a major-league regular, so a career minor-leaguer becoming a regular was always going to be the longest of shots.
Correcting the pitch selection or mechanics of guys like Chad Billingsley or Matt Kemp or Carl Crawford or even James Loney will be far more impactful than fixing Luis Cruz because of the talent gap. But he’s never been THIS bad, so subtle changes to his current approach could lead to respectable production, which could land him in a utility role due to his plus defense at two positions.