A look at San Diego Padres’ infielder Jake Cronenworth.
The Padres acquired Jake Cronenworth and Tommy Pham from the Ray for Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards last offseason. While Pham was the big name coming over, the Padres’ front office insisted that Cronenworth was not a throw-in piece for the trade.
At the time, he was a two-way prospect that spent time at shortstop and as an opener who would pitch to the top of the order before being pulled. Had the 2020 season gone as planned, he seemed like a perfect fit for the 26th man on the roster. His versatility as an infielder and ability to be an extra pitcher made him an attractive fit. Of course, due to COVID, the rosters were expanded, and he was locked in as a bench piece.
Eric Hosmer’s injury gave Cronenworth his first shot as a starter, and he did not disappoint. He was lights out on defense, then made a lot of quality at-bats. Once Hosmer returned, Cronenworth was able to slide over to second and secure the starting job there.
He finished the season as the runner up in the tight NL ROY of the race. He was a huge part of San Diego’s success this season. He made countless highlight reels on defense at both first and second base. He was one of the five Padres to hit a grand slam within the six-day span that created the “Slam Diego” moniker. In the playoffs, he stepped up and became one of the best bats in the playoffs for the Padres.
He slashed .285/.354/.477 over 192 plate appearances. Advanced analytics show that the slash line is a lot lower than what he should have done. Using expected statistics, he should have had a .324 batting average and a .541 slugging percentage. The foundation of those expected statistics comes from his 89.8 mph average exit velocity. That places him squarely at 50th overall for average exit velocity in 2020. These advanced analytics show that his success has a strong foundation and should be repeatable next year.
In the second half, he did slump, as will be discussed in the negatives section. A positive is how nicely he bounced back in the playoffs. In 16 plate appearances, he slashed .389/.542/.667 with a stolen base.
On the defensive front, he showed a lot of versatility, playing all over the infield. Playing mostly 2nd base, he finished the season with 3 outs above average. The only position he struggled at was shortstop, and that largely won’t matter because of some player named Fernando Tatis Jr. He makes good reads off the bat and could be a viable outfielder.
The main knock on his shortened season is his second-half slump. In the second half of the season, he slashed .237/.312/.361. In a full season, the two halves of the 2020 season could be seen as a hot and cold month, respectively. Had he not had this long slump, it is possible he would have won the NL ROY.
Looking at how the slump started, Cronenworth was connecting with the ball at ideal angles. His line-drive rate dropped from 31.3%, in the first half, to 20.3% in the second half. More of the balls in play were grounders or fly balls instead.
Another factor in how he started to struggle was his approach. He was a very heavy pull hitter in the first half, with 43.8% of the balls in play going to his pull side. Only 18.8% of his balls in play went to the opposite field. In the second half, that basically flipped with 40.5% of the balls going oppo.
At this time, it’s unclear if Jake Cronenworth will be a starter next season. The acquisition of Ha-Seong Kim creates a lot of competition at second base. It appears as though Cronenworth may move around and be a super-utility player. This means he will not be sticking at one position, but he will be getting a lot of playing time as Jayce Tingler gives other players days of rest. He has proven that he is a versatile infielder, and it will remain seen if that translates well to the outfield.
Cronenworth will still be a good batter like he was in 2020. For all the damage his slump did to his overall number, they were still very good. All the expected analytics put him in the top 98 percentile in expected batting average even with a bad second half. It’s reasonable to assume that he will be more of the first half hitter.
The Padres will need Cronenworth if they are going to push for the World Series. His name was tossed around in trade rumors, but it looks like he is here to stay. For a good reason, the Padres are taking a page out of the Dodgers book and keeping good batters who are versatile on defense.