A few weeks ago, the Detroit Tigers decided to take a low-risk flier on C.J. Cron, signing him to a one-year, $6.1 million deal. Earlier this month, the Minnesota Twins released Cron, a move that may have raised an eyebrow or two, although most found it not especially surprising. After all, while he wasn’t exactly pricey at $4.8 million, Cron did little to help the team down the homestretch and amassed only 0.3 WAR on the season. Although the Tigers’ reasoning for picking him off the scrap heap may be nothing more than hoping for a solid first half to flip him at 2020’s trade deadline for younger talent, I believe this may be the low-profile signing of the offseason. Because Cron can do one important thing way better than any other Tiger: He can barrel the hell out of a baseball.
Cron-Magnon: Evolution of a Bona Fide Barrel Boss
Cron is easy to overlook, since he’s always seemed to be a fringy quasi-DH bat, and his surface stats haven’t really changed much over the years, leading folks to conclude he “is what he is.” Although he was a first-round pick in 2011 who was projected to hit for both average and power, that hadn’t materialized in his first four MLB seasons, never topping 16 home runs (with an ISO below .200) and a batting average that bounced within the .240-.270 range. In 2018, his 30-homer campaign in 2018 raised some eyebrows, yet it didn’t stop him from getting benched in September (granted, mostly for Rays contract-manipulation purposes). And despite the “rabbit ball” Cron’s 2019 overall season line fell short of those 2018 numbers. But looking under the hood, something changed in 2019. Something that, were it not for injury, could’ve taken him from replacement level to near-elite level.
If you are skeptical, then I implore you to look at Statcast’s Barrel% leaderboard and observe who is ranked sixth. It’s Aaron Judge. But right after him at No. 7 is Cron, which is also very, very good.
|Year||Barrel%/BBE||Exit velocity (mph)||K%||Barrel/PA||Barrel/PA MLB Rank|
The whole picture here is nice, with improvements coming on slowly before shifting to Ludicrous Speed this year. In fact, Cron’s exit-velocity jump was the second-best in baseball last year, behind only Carlos Santana. And if you recall, Santana’s 2019 was fantastic. But it’s the barrels where Cron’s improvement is greatest and most impactful. If you’re new here, a barrel is a ball struck over 95 mph within a range of launch angles most conducive to homers and extra-base hits, and it’s more important and predictive than exit velocity in determining hitter performance. For reference, the MLB average Barrel%/BBE is 6%, and Cron’s continually climbing Barrel%/BBE in 2019 was nearly triple that. If you don’t think that matters much, remember that in a typical season, barrels result in an .822 average and a 2.386 slugging percentage (2016). So even if Cron hadn’t improved his K rate at all, he’d help his average a good deal just by hitting more of those ultra balls, so it’s a good thing that he seems to be focusing his game around that improving skill.
Still, while Cron’s barrel rate has improved when he makes contact (per BBE), amplifying this effect is his reduced strikeout rate further increasing the frequency of his barrels in general. If a player doubles their Barrel/BBE but also doubles their strikeout rate, it doesn’t help anyone, and it would not improve his Barrel/PA (See: Tyler Austin). So Cron’s fantastic 11% Barrel/PA means he hits a near-guaranteed extra-base hit or homer in one of every nine or 10 plate appearances, which is a wonderful thing. While sometimes strikeout-rate improvement is more luck than anything, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. While he has and likely always will be a bad-ball chaser, his O-Swing was a career-best 36% (39% in 2018) and his 76% contact rate and 12% swinging-strike rate are also somewhat improved (73 contact% and 14 SwStr% in 2018). It’s far from Mookie Betts-esque, but I’m more impressed that he managed to hit the ball harder than ever without having to sacrifice contact, and instead incrementally improved it.
Although the hitters above Cron in Barrel/PA (Nelson Cruz, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, Mike Trout, Miguel Sano, Judge) are superior overall, Cron’s name may stick out—but his numbers don’t. Cron’s average exit velocity of 91 mph and 96 mph on FB/LD is the same as Sanchez’s, and Cron doesn’t strike out nearly as much as four of the superior barrelers: Sanchez (28%), Judge (32%), Gallo (38%), and Sano (36%). Then again, Cron walks less, too, and it’s due to Cron’s lower K rate that he ranks this high on barrels per plate appearance, whereas when K rate is negated by using barrels per batted-ball event, Cron ranks 20th in MLB. That’s still very strong, ahead of other more notorious mashers like Bryce Harper, Matt Olson, Eugenio Suarez and George Springer, to name a few.
To Affinity and Beyond
Statcast has a relatively new feature called “Player Similarity,” which takes a player’s frequency of barrels and five other kinds of contact, plus frequency of walks and strikeouts, and finds the players with the highest correlation.
Look, I’ll be real with y’all. I don’t know when this feature came out, but it hasn’t gotten much if any attention, and its makes me feel like a klepto kid at a free candy store. Actually I take that back, if it were free maybe the kid wouldn’t enjoy the thrill of taking it. But the point stands that this feature is not only fun, it’s also quite useful to spot potential sleepers and busts based on their frequency distribution of batted-ball types (though it also factors in K% and BB%). It’s a mere algorithm that completely ignores context of position, actual surface stats, sample size, baserunning, name value, age, scouting or history. By virtue of that, this context-free data can alert us to potential positive or negative biases toward hitters that may overlook potential statistical indicators of potential breakouts or busts. Statcast has this Affinity feature for pitchers as well, but I find it more useful for hitters, as hitters are the ones more in control of batted-ball outcomes.
Most players will probably have their top comps be mixed—some great and some mediocre players—but great hitters will generally score as most similar to other great hitters and vice versa. For example, the top four full-season (min 400 PA) comps for Austin Meadows are Marcell Ozuna, Nicholas Castellanos, Paul Goldschmidt, and Mike Yastrzemski, in that order. For fellow new Tiger Jonathan Schoop, his are Brandon Drury, Tim Beckham, A.J. Pollock and Willy Adames. That seems to pass the sniff test. Well, here are Cron’s top full-season comps, starting with the most similar:
.77 Christian Yelich (L),
.76 Josh Bell (L)
.75 Jose Abreu (R)
.72 George Springer (R)
.71 Marcell Ozuna (R)
Again, this is C.J. Cron we’re talking about. So these comps probably seem ridiculous to you, and I don’t blame you. For one, as I previously mentioned, this Affinity feature does not account at all for baserunning, only batted-ball outcomes and BB/K. This admittedly does bias it a good deal against speedsters who add value both in stolen bases and by legging out more base hits and extra-base hits, and in turn, is more favorable to base-cloggers. Also note that these comps are far from a be-all and end-all, and Cron’s top Affinity scores are not super-high. Some players match with others with an .80+ or even .90 Affinity score (such as Whit Merrifield and Tommy Edman, interestingly). And then there’s Trout, who is rated as similar to absolutely no one on a statistically significant level, the closest being Yordan Alvarez way down at .64, which frankly doesn’t even count. You do you, Mr. Trout.
But as for Cron, it’s worth noting that for his similar hitters, most of these hitters are excellent to elite. Two hitters who I removed due to only playing partial seasons, Ian Happ (.79) and Pablo Sandoval (.76), while far inferior, were quite effective in their limited time in 2019. Happ hit .264 with a .564 SLG%, 11 HR and .898 OPS in 140 PA, and Sandoval, the worst of the bunch, still hit .268 with 14 HR and a .507 SLG% in 298 PA. While of course it seems silly to compare Cron outright to his top comp, he of No. 3 ADP Christian Yelich, let’s compare Cron to the two other first baseman and see how he stacks up.
Note that when you compare the 2019 stats of Cron to Jose Abreu…holy habaneros, their stats are pretty darn similar, and Cron actually looks like the better player! Granted, Abreu had the larger sample size, but Cron is superior defensively, though that’s like saying that the movie Cars 3 was superior to Cars 2. I have no desire to watch either, nor do I want to see these guys field their position. While Josh Bell does have decidedly better plate discipline, he actually comes out closer to Cron in terms of expected stats, though Bell edges out Cron in every non-barrel category.
However, Cron has the best ground-ball rate (low is better for sluggers), with a 42 GB% compared to Bell’s 44% and Abreu’s 46%, and also has the lowest career ground-ball rate at 40%. If he can increase his fly balls (unlike Abreu and Bell, Cron’s 36% FB% mark this year was actually a career low), some positive regression will also help pad his power totals. Also, remember that Bell and Abreu are going in the top 100 picks regularly, with a Pitcher List 12-Team Mock ADP of 75 for Bell (71 on Fantrax) and 91 for Abreu (85 on Fantrax). Cron’s ADP was 250 (295 on Fantrax), and it only was that high because I reached for him with an admittedly overaggressive high pick of 205. In two of the six Pitcher List mocks he wasn’t even drafted. But if you’re still reading this, you can at least see why I was so bullish. If his 2020 numbers end up even close to Bell’s or Abreu’s, getting him over 100 picks later will still look like a steal.
Cronology: From Breakout to Breakdown
As I mentioned at the beginning, Cron’s surface stats still look quite bland because the injury that limited his playing time is the same thing that sank what had been shaping up to be a breakout season. Through June, he was hitting a surprisingly cron-ulent .271/.344/.488 with 17 HR, 33 R and 53 RBI in 288 ABs (316 PA), though the bulk of the production came in May when he hit .299/.374/.589 with 8 tates. While pitchers certainly could have adjusted and caused him to regress while healthy, when Cron was placed on the 10-day IL July 7, manager Rocco Baldelli said that Cron had been dealing with the injury for “some time” and that it would be better to rest him now than wait until the All-Star break.
How long “some time” was is unclear, but it’s worth pointing out what was a terrible July before the IL stint, hitting just .188/.235/.406 with 1 HR in 32 AB, and later on when Cron’s thumb issues once again reared their ugly heads in September, he hit a measly .185/.228/.259 with 1 HR in 54 AB. While it’s certainly a sloppy science guessing injuries, if we just remove those two damaged months from his season, his season line would be 100 hits in 372 AB for a much healthier .269 AVG. and 23 HR in 304 AB. Sure, you can argue it’s cherry picking data, since it’s rare that any player is healthy and playing at 100% all season, but here I think it’s worth exploring. After all, Baldelli himself said the injury was more than normal soreness and had been affecting Cron’s swing, and warned that it could linger. And there are some clear signs that this is indeed what happened.
As you can see from the other years, some fluctuations are normal, and old Cron used to have way bigger slumps than anything he had this year. Cron’s first big 2019 peak came during his mammoth May, but the date of that second smaller peak on June 25 is where his rolling expected wOBA suddenly starts to steeply plummet, and it was down at the resulting trough on July 6 when he finally hit the IL. Upon returning he started to heat back up with his final peak being on September 5 before plummeting again, hitting the IL once more on September 15 and being a non-factor down the finish line. Note that this is expected wOBA and not actual wOBA, so this seems to be more than just coincidental bad luck.
Although this involves a fair amount of conjecture and speculation, it’s not outrageous based on Baldelli’s comments that Cron’s late-June to early July swoon and September slump were at least in part caused by increased severity of his thumb problem, which forced him to compensate by changing his swing. Given the fact that most of his second half was hampered by the lingering injury, it’s pretty incredible he still put up the barrel rates and expected stats he did. Had it not been for those injuries, he could have perhaps been a top-five barreler with an xBA pushing .290 and xSLG pushing .560 or even .570 as he had been earlier in the season. Of course, he’d still have to convert those expected stats to actual production, but if he did, that’s easily a Top Five first baseman. Did I mention this is C.J. Cron?
So considering that Baldelli and the Twins brass supposedly knew this, it’s pretty surprising they were so willing to cast him off as two other teams did before them. Maybe they know something we don’t. Maybe I realized something they don’t. Maybe Cron wears out his welcome on ballclubs with puns as bad as mine. Although the Twins offense is undeniably loaded with talent, he could’ve at least been a lefty-mashing platoon bat (he absolutely obliterated lefties to the tune of a .326/.385/.626 with 11 HR in just 129 PA vs lefties). But now he’ll have another shot in Motown.
2020 Outlook: Everything’s Cron in the future
I actually said to Nick Pollack on the On the Corner podcast a few weeks ago that I would love to see the Tigers get Cron, but that was more for my love of the Tigers than love of Cron. Still, it should be good for Cron as well, as he’ll be entering the season fully healthy and without any even halfway decent competitor for playing time at first base, which had been an issue both in Tampa and Minnesota. Although Niko Goodrum is an everyday player who played plenty of 1B last year, these two signings seem to indicate he’ll be spending most of 2020 at shortstop, at least until Willi Castro is ready to hit his way out of a wet Little Caesar’s pizza box.
This is great news for Cron, since he obviously would lose nearly all of his fantasy value were he in a platoon, as he would be on the short side as a lefty masher. While he did hid a paltry .225/.281/.404 with 14 homers in 356 PA vs righties in 2019, just last year he hit an improved .231/.300/.467 with 22 homers in 390 PA, and sports a .252/.305/.449 vs. righties over his career. On an elite team, those rates may still be cause enough to pair him with a righty-masher, but on the Tigers, even the worst of his splits are likely better than any of their other options. In addition, he’s a virtual lock to hit in the heart of the order, as Cron, same-day signee Schoop, and the hollowed-out shell of what once was Miguel Cabrera are the only hitters on the club with even a pulse. This should at least get him more plate appearances per game. While he likely won’t suddenly reach 700 PAs, he should be able to surpass 600 for the first time in his career, and perhaps approach 650. This would certainly help him pad his home run and run production numbers, which is one important piece of the puzzle of how Cron’s stats could be more like Abreu’s.
Of course, one negative is that the surrounding Tigers lineup is, well, hot stinking garbage. But it’s young hot stinking garbage. At least there is some hope that at least one if not more of the players surrounding Cron: Jake, JaCoby, Jeimer, Schoop, (Which is probably the closest baseball will ever get to John Jacob Jingleheimer-Schmidt) will step up and not be horrible, and instead be merely bad or maybe even just below-average. But overall the badness of the offense is essentially a wash, as it should largely be canceled out by the higher spot in the order and increased playing time. As we said with Trey Mancini or Jorge Soler last year, being on a bad offense won’t slow you down much if you’re a really good hitter.
The other factor that may drive away previously interested buyers is the idea that Cron’s power will evaporate in Detroit, as Comerica has a long reputation as a pitcher’s park. And to that I say, think again, mostly! According to Baseball Prospectus’s Park Factors for handedness, Comerica was the sixth-highest run-scoring park for right-handed batters like Cron, and 12th for right-handed home runs. Target Field, meanwhile, was actually worse, being ranked 21st in right-handed runs and also 21st in right-handed home runs. And as Scott Chu pointed out in the Tigers team preview, the spacious outfield has a huge doubles and triples alley that can help for easy extra-base hits, which should increase RBI and run production, though I doubt Cron will leg out many triples.
But even more importantly, Comerica is known for one of the best batter’s eye in baseball, with an all-dark green wall with no people near it, which allows hitters to see the ball much better and could help Cron hit even more barrels. So while he may lose a few home runs to center field (he hit 35% to center in 2019), his production should still be strong as he celebrates his 30th birthday. So it’s actually quite possible that the move to playing half of his games at Comerica may help fuel his breakout, even with him missing out on being able to feast on Tigers pitching. I mean, that did manage to be the least awful part of the Tigers, really. Sorry if I’m being too harsh on the team, it’s my sworn duty as a Tigers fan (Hey, at least it’s not the Lions).
But enough about the Tigers. What does all of this mean for you? Essentially, there’s a substantial amount of both statistical and circumstantial evidence that Cron is being completely undervalued entering 2020 and is one of my favorite sleepers. Even with a bit of regression, just by staying (mostly) healthy and getting 550 to 650 PA this year, he’s a near-lock to hit at least .265 with 30-35 homers, which would make him a great value. However, if he can maintain or build further on his barrel rate, he could hit .280+ with 35-40 HR, 80+ R and 90+ RBI. Even with that lack of elite run production, a perfect world would still make his production worthy of the top five rounds, and the OK-world package ain’t too shabby either.
I’ll be paying close attention in coming months to see how the move impacts his ADP in future drafts. It’s likely his ADP may rise given the low-cost signing, the poor surrounding offense and Comerica’s pitcher-friendly reputation. But for now let’s just assume it remains steady, as it may start to climb if other folks catch on to his breakout potential and he becomes a popular sleeper. On draft day, while you can try to be cute and hope to snag him close to his current Fantrax ADP of 293, I believe he’s worth being aggressive on and getting him before pick 250 or even 240. If you miss out on your top first base options and they’re all gone by the seventh round or so, just wait many rounds later before stealthily absconding with your Cron jewel.
Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)