C.J. Cron has quietly had a breakout season
Unless it’s Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, or another small handful of superstars, every batter is going to have his warts. It can be in the form of a lack of speed, power, too many strikeouts, not enough walks, a low batting average, or another few hundred aspects of the game. Ideally, young hitters can improve upon some weaknesses, allowing them to turn into better all-around hitters as they develop, but the majority of players see these deficiencies become an unfortunate reality they simply must accept.
The relative scarcity of marked improvements means whenever a player truly takes a significant step forward, it’s cause for excitement. Advancements can spur substantial improvements in overall numbers, so noteworthy developments often earn the attention of many baseball analysts. Oddly enough, one player has done just this, but is getting very little recognition for his adjustments. The lack of buzz may be due to the broken hand that has cost him a month-and-a-half of the season, but it’s time to talk about C.J. Cron.
Cron, who was activated from the disabled list last Saturday, broke onto the scene in 2014 with a .256/.289/.450 line and 11 home runs over 253 plate appearances for the Los Angeles Angels. The line backed up his minor league results—poor plate discipline and good power. At 24 and tied to first base, his season didn’t bring too much excitement, but a 113 wRC+ from the rookie was nothing to sneeze at.
Cron’s sophomore season was largely more of the same: 16 home runs and a .262/.300/.439 line over 404 plate appearances. His strikeouts were still around league average at 20.3%, but the former first-round pick’s overall production was brought down by the poor 4.2% walk rate and worrisome tendency to swing at pitches outside the zone. Pitchers were able to attack him above the strikezone, a location that was too attractive for Cron to pass up on despite the fact that he struggled to drive the ball when it was placed up there.
Going into this season, fantasy owners expected a similar line from Cron…it looked like we knew who he was after a second season of similar results. But the start of 2016 was anything but expected, and in the worst possible way. Cron’s line after his first month sat at .203/.295/.290. Luckily, things quickly rebounded: Cron’s hit .296/.339/.515 since May 1st.
The sudden change was, according to Cron, a product of him trying to “simplify things.” More specifically, he’s been more patient, tightening up his strike zone and laying off the tantalizing high pitch I mentioned earlier. Cron’s swing rate on pitches outside the zone has fallen by 5%, and his swing rate on pitches inside the zone has increased by a similar amount. Naturally, this has led to an improved walk rate and strikeout rate. Although his 5.9% walk rate is still below league average, he’s taken a chunk out of the strikeouts—all the way down to 14.3%. As a result, his BB/K is exactly twice as high as last year’s.
The improvements are not only reflected in his walks and strikeouts, though. Cron’s batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage are all career bests, as is his isolated power mark. He’s not only been more selective, but the 26-year-old is hitting the ball harder. It’s a very encouraging development for Cron, as his biggest flaw, a below average ability to get on base, has been improved, without sacrificing his biggest strength.
Cron’s overall line isn’t going to scream ‘breakout,’ though: he’ll likely fall short of the 400 plate appearances due to the injury, and a terrible April (.203/.295/.290) will drag down a successful rest of the season. Still, Cron could be in for a big 2017 with a permanent place in the middle of the Angels lineup (likely splitting time between first base and designated hitter). He has the power to reach 30 home runs if things break right, and now he might not kill fantasy owners in on-base percentage. Cron might not be the sexiest name on the first base market, but he has the talent to provide some real thump with the bat.