It’s pretty easy to get hyped about hitters in the Angels’ system, thanks to the already present star power of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols. They combine for one of the most dangerous stacks in the league, providing RBI and run opportunities for everyone around them. As CJ Cron was tearing up the minors, he began to look like another threat to add in.
Cron was powerful enough to land himself on quite a few national watch lists, putting up isolated slugging marks over .200 on his first three stops in the minors. He made his debut in 2014 and managed to appear in half a season’s worth of games (although just 253 plate appearances), and once again was impressive both mechanically and in the stat line. He posted a wRC+ of 113, with a monstrous .195 isolated slugging as a 24-year-old rookie. Things started to get bright as he was seemingly cementing himself in the middle of the order for the near future, perhaps longer. Even though he lost rookie eligibility, he still shot up dynasty rankings.
While Cron finished the 2015 campaign with respectable numbers, he still took a noticeable step back, fueled largely by a slow start that demoted him to Triple A for part of the year. His end of year 105 wRC+ and .177 ISO were disappointing, and not even a strong second half showed improvement over his rookie season (110 wRC+ and .183 ISO).
He has a track record of struggling to adjust to new leagues, but with his early mastery it doesn’t add up. His strong lower half needs to be utilized well for him to be at his best, but with an awkward weight shift (he keeps most of his load on his back foot even throughout the swing) pitchers can start to pitch against him easier. His hands aren’t as quick as you might expect from someone with his power grades. The ultimate result is then struggling to create enough loft on all pitches, needing help from pitchers to keep pitches elevated against him to keep the ball in the air where he can do real damage.
How pitchers started attacking him was clear. Keep the ball low most of the time, and throw hard and up to get off balanced whiffs. Look at where his isolated slugging came from by zone percentage over his two season, split up:
He was forced to get his power lower in the zone, as shown. Where this appears to be nice, as you would like a hitter to perform well on all areas of the strike zone, it sapped his fly ball power which is where the real damage comes. His fly ball percentage crashed to 37%, way too low for him to get the power doubles and homers needed from the first base position. His pitch weighted value on the fastball fell from 7.0 runs above average to 1.4 runs below average. Pitch weights can be volatile, but combined with the other underlying numbers, this is worrisome.
To gain more insight into Cron’s approach, here are some words straight from his mouth, to David Laurila of FanGraphs:
I’m trying to hit everything back up the middle. Get my bat on a good path for as long as possible. Try to hit the fastball into the gaps. That way, if I get an off-speed pitch I’m not too far out in front and have the left side of the field to work with. For me, it’s all about sending the ball back where it came from, and trying to damage with every pitch.
“I don’t ever try to pull home runs. I try to hit the ball over the fence dead center. I try to stay inside the ball and have a nice bat path. If the pitcher happens to make a mistake with an off-speed pitch, my bat is on the plane and I’ll catch it a tad bit more out in front. That approach gives me a little more room to work.”
Trying to put everything up the middle is a contact-centric approach, not one for a power hitter. Center field at Angels’ Stadium has a tendency to play large as well, which limits power too.
Another comparison is helpful here, look at his different spray charts from his seasons:
Despite him feeling better about putting the ball up the middle, something he did better in 2015 than 2014, he hits worse when it happens. He pulled the ball 46% compared to just 33% last season, and his hard contact percentage fell from 34% to 27% at least partially because of this.
His more cautious approach has some benefits, as his strikeout rate fell from 24.1% to around major league average at 20.3%, and the swinging strike rate fell a percentage point as well to 10.1%. But again, while this is good perhaps for a middle infielder, strikeouts are acceptable for someone with Cron’s skill set. His power is unlocked when he swings hard and yanks pitches into the stratosphere, not by shooting towards the gaps or up the middle. That’s something we expect from Ichiro.
Overall, CJ Cron has immense talent in his big frame that could lead to 30+ homer seasons. With a setback in 2015, he opened up concerns about that ability, but it looks like the real culprit is how he’s attacking mentally. Without a change between the ears, it’s very possible that his potential stays just that. But with enough coaching and adjustments, he could still unlock his power and realize himself as a legit bat in the heart of a dangerous lineup.
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