The Padres’ Other Middle Infielder

The San Diego Padres have been one of baseball’s most engaging teams this year. Playing in a division where the best record is reserved for the Dodgers no one would blame the Friars for struggling to consolidate their talent and sustain competitiveness. Less than a year ago they finished the 2019 season as the National League West’s cellar dwellers. They sat seven games below the San Francisco Giants – an ageing team so obviously in peril with no immediate light at the end of the tunnel.

But in San Diego, the light at the end of the tunnel was blinding. The organization was and continues to burst at its seams with talent headlined by Fernando Tatis Jr. The shortstop went from one of baseball’s most anticipated talents to budding for Mike Trout’s title of baseball’s best in less than a year. He’s backed by veteran talents such as Wil Myers, Tommy Pham, Manny Machado and the revitalized Eric Hosmer.

That ignores the high ceilinged pitching staff headlined by Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, and yet to debut MacKenzie Gore. Any casual baseball fan can appreciate the upside and dynasty that San Diego sits on. But the talent does stop there. The San Diego Padres have a secret weapon.

His name is Jake Cronenworth. The shortstop was acquired from Tampa Bay last November when San Diego sent Hunter Renfroe and Xaiver Edwards to Tampa Bay. His productivity may have been anticipated by some who were attentive to Cronenworth and the 2019 Durham Bulls, but otherwise, he has been some sort of surprise for San Diego.

The Jake Cronenworth story starts before 2015 when he was playing for the University of Michigan as a two-way player. Dual duties aren’t as distinguished at the college level, however, Cronenworth fulfilled both roles on the mound and at the dish with an impressive degree of effectiveness.

In three years at Michigan, he posted a 2.76 ERA in 93 innings (53 games, 6 starts) with 104 strikeouts, a 1.26 WHIP, 37 walks, and 0.28 home runs per nine innings. He also collected 27 saves, frequently serving as the team’s closer.

Cred. Hannah Foslien, AP

As a hitter, Cronenworth was just as dominant. He slashed .312/.400/.436 with 10 home runs, striking out just 10.07% of the time, and walking in 11.77% of plate appearances. He also went 42 for 59 in stolen base attempts.

In 2015, playing his Junior season at age 21, Jake was drafted by the Rays in the seventh round, 208th overall. Beginning his career in Fishkill, NY with the Hudson Valley Renegades he split time between shortstop and second base. It was a strong campaign for the prospect. He struck out nearly twice as often as he walked, but was generally valuable posting a 140 wRC+ alongside a .382 wOBA. However, his value remained anchored to his lack of extra-base hits. That season, in 51 games, through 234 plate appearances his slugging sat one point below his on-base percentage, resulting in a colorless isolated slugging of .107.

The following season saw strides for Jake. He excelled in full A improving his lagging strikeout rate (nearly matching his walk rate) while further improving his propensity to earn a hit. It’s worth noting that despite another fruitful season, he still was unable to hit for extra bases, his slugging a mere seven points above his on-base percentage. His efforts translated to a .405 wOBA and 159 wRC+. He was deservingly promoted to A aadvanced in July where he struggled to maintain any level of productivity.

In Charlotte, Cronenworth was unable to crack the Mendoza line, upholding very poor numbers all around. His 20.63% strikeout rate remains the second-highest of any point in his career. It wouldn’t be until the following season that Cronenworth righted the ship.

Still in Charlotte, the 2017 season was much more characteristic. He reverted to his old self, producing numbers not far below what he had previously attained. He continued at this pace before earning another July promotion to AA where he was able to transition seamlessly. Cronenworth’s career continued with little to note until 2019, where Jake started the season in Durham with the AAA Bulls. Here, his career took a turn.

In Durham, Cronenworth mastered the final missing element of his game: Power. In 2019, he played what would be a career season. He surpassed virtually all career highs. A .334/.429/.520 slash put him on the map as a future piece. His strikeout rate was as low as ever at 15.3% while he had maintained a serviceable – and consistent – walk rate. But most importantly, thanks to some added muscle, he finally unlocked his power. His isolated slugging percentage, .186, surpassed his previous best by over 70 points. A .412 wOBA and 147 wRC+ through 88 games (406 plate appearances) made Cronenworth a player to keep an eye on – a prospect.

Breaking out wasn’t the only thing that happened in 2019. Jake was also reintroduced with the mound for the first time in his professional career. He made six appearances as an opener, each an inning long. In those starts, he struck out 8 batters, walking six and surrendering not one run. It’s unclear if Cronenworth will ever again be leveraged as a two-way player, but this was a glimpse into what could – and in Jake’s mind should – have been. Four years prior, he was anticipating a draft selection that would make him a professional pitcher, not a hitter.

The off-season to follow would bring the trade that sent Cronenworth to sunny San Diego. Suiting up in Padre brown for 11 spring training games, Jake slashed .320/.393/.400 with three walks and four strikeouts in 28 plate appearances. Upon the resumption of play, San Diego accepted the truncated spring showing as enough to waive any minor league prelude and he broke camp with the major league team as a utilityman.

Initially spotting for the injured Eric Hosmer, Jake had a brief opportunity to start. Now, he’s shown the Padres why he’s too good to stash on the bench. Through just 25 games Cronenworth has established himself as a rookie of the year candidate. There’s no better place to start than his StatCast profile. If you saw it without a name attached you might think it was Willie Mays.

Forget how good each of those numbers is. Jake is transcending baseball in every way possible all at once. Rarely does a hitter who has power is comparable to Cronenworth’s retain elite strikeout and whiff rates. His expected batting average sits beside Charlie Blackmon, his expected weighted on-base average beside Juan Soto, exit velocity beside Giancarlo Stanton, whiff rate beside Michael Brantley and his sprint speed matches that of Michael A. Taylor.

Jake Cronenworth’s profile is not dissimilar to what you’d come up with if you created a player in a laboratory. He’s also got the benefit of being left-handed and his wOBA against the shift is 40 points higher than against a standard alignment. All that comes with his ability to hit all pitches. Even if some pitches have been more efficient against Cronenworth, he’s shown he can turn on anything – he doesn’t just rely on hitting fastballs.

When you see Jake hit, it becomes clear why he’s dominating the league. First, he takes pitches really well. He’s seldom surprised, always composed at the plate. When he is fooled by a pitch or its location Cronenworth is visibly aware of what’s happened and what he needs to change. You can see on his face he’s processing a method for preventing similar outcomes. His spectacular eye allows him to take pitches just outside the zone without flinching. A skill rare that makes Jake standout. It’s difficult to quantify plate discipline. Not having to try is a strong indicator of true talent.

When Cronenworth does swing he does so with authority. Before a wrap-around follow through, Jake connects early, out in front of the plate – a significant contributor to his elite exit velocity. His maturity is obvious at the plate. He can turn on a pitch and only will if it’s worthwhile. He’s also very capable of making adjustments. A pitch lower in the zone will prompt him to drop his back elbow to compensate. His swing’s “scooping” path allows him to get into the ball or match any break that might result in a strikeout for any other batter – this has translated into his ability to hit just about any pitch that comes his way.

If Cronenworth continues to sustain and use his strength to add the power we’ve seen this year to his otherwise perennially perfect profile he could have an exciting career ahead of him. And the Padres, who are peeking around the corner of some memorable years, will no doubt find a full-time role for their other first-class middle infielder, Rake Cronenworth.

All data sourced from fangraphs.com, baseball-reference.com, baseballsavant.mlb.com, and thebaseballcube.com.