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Champ or Chump: Jake Cronenworth

It was widely known before the season that the shorter schedule would favor fringe contenders, and no team has taken better advantage of it than the San Diego Padres. They needed Fernando Tatis Jr. to continue producing like a star despite less-than-stellar peripherals in his rookie season, and he has. They needed Eric Hosmer to learn how to hit a fly ball, and he has. They also needed some surprise producers to emerge, and Jake Cronenworth has more than delivered the goods.

Cronenworth doesn't have the prospect pedigree of most players who explode on to the fantasy radar, being the 208th selection by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2015 Amateur Draft and ranking 19th in the Padres system per MLB Pipeline before the season began. He was an auxiliary piece in the Tommy Pham trade, but wasn't considered a prime get for the Padres. At age 26, he's also older than many fantasy owners realize.

That said, it's tough to ignore a .360/.415/.605 batting line with three homers and a steal over 94 PAs, especially considering that it comes with eligibility at three different positions in Yahoo! leagues (1B, 2B, SS). He's still widely available with a 60% ownership rate as of this writing, and he makes for a great pickup as long as you have realistic expectations. What are realistic expectations? Keep reading to find out!

Be sure to check all of our preseason fantasy baseball rankings for Roto, Points, H2H, dynasty, best ball, prospects and more:

 

A Statcast Darling

If you use Baseball Savant for your fantasy baseball research (and you absolutely should), you're probably aware that Statcast loves Cronenworth. Here is a snapshot of how Cronenworth ranks in several key metrics:

This author finds Cronenworth's .395 xBA and .724 xSLG particularly amusing, but it's important to remember that we are working with less than 100 PAs of data here. Cronenworth is unlikely to sustain his current BABIP of .412 because nobody sustains a BABIP that high. Statcast gives Cronenworth full credit for his 32.4 LD%, but nobody hits that many liners over a full campaign either. The numbers above also make no distinction between airborne and ground ball contact, which is particularly important in a case like Cronenworth.

Cronenworth's grounders have an average exit velocity of 90.1 mph this season, ranking 30th among qualified batters. That's really good! His airborne batted balls average 92.8 mph, ranking 140th in the same subset of players. That's above average, but it isn't elite. These two metrics suggest that Cronenworth is best as a high-average hitter specializing in ground ball base hits, especially considering that he seldom strikes out with a 16 K%. Cronenworth's 28.4 ft./sec Statcast Sprint Speed also allows him to wreak havoc on the bases, potentially helping his BA play up in fantasy.

 

What the Scouts Say

 

Scouts generally agree that Cronenworth is a high-average hitter with minimal power upside, matching the conclusion above. Here are his 2020 scouting grades per FanGraphs:

We see an above-average hit tool with further room to grow, below-average power, and plus speed. Cronenworth didn't rate highly enough as a prospect to receive scouting grades on Baseball Savant, but his scouting report notes that he has been "long able to hit for average" while "managing the strike zone well." It also notes that he added muscle and adopted a more aggressive approach at the plate in 2019, but his minor league numbers don't bear that out. The rest of the report focuses on the novelty of Cronenworth as a two-way player at Triple-A, serving as an effective opener with a strong curve.

 

Cronenworth's Minor League Resume

Scouts see Cronenworth as a batting average play, and this author's interpretation of his Statcast metrics leads to the same conclusion. His MiLB performance clinches the argument. Cronenworth first reached the High Minors in 2017, slashing .285/.363/.342 with a homer and a steal over 180 PAs for Double-A (Montgomery). His 22.1 FB% and 3.3% HR/FB suggested that there's virtually zero power potential here, but finishing the trial with identical 10.6 K% and BB% rates is great news for a guy who can run. His 22.1 LD% was also above-average, suggesting that he might be able to hit more liners than most.

The Rays asked Cronenworth to repeat the level in 2018, and he took a step backward with a .254/.323/.344 line with four homers and 21 steals over 470 PAs. His FB% increased somewhat to 27%, but the accompanying 20.4 IFFB% suggests that he just added a bunch of useless pop-ups that drove his BABIP down to .291. His 9.1 BB% and 14.7 K% were both still strong, and his 24.6% line drive rate actually improved. He was also caught stealing a paltry three times, leading to an outstanding success rate of 88%.

The Rays saw that Cronenworth's peripherals were stronger than his surface stats and gave him a brief taste of Triple-A (Durham) in 2018 before starting him there in 2019. He raked to the tune of a .334/.429/.520 line with 10 homers and 12 steals over 406 PAs, again demonstrating mastery of the strike zone (12.1 BB%, 15.3 K%) while cutting his IFFB% to 9.8%. Cronenworth's BABIP overcorrected to .382, suggesting that his average was a little inflated. His 29 FB% was still a little low to project him for much power, and his 12.2% HR/FB was very low considering the environment he played in.

According to Baseball America's 2019 MiLB park factors, Durham's 1.051 HR factor ranked in the 91st percentile among all minor league parks, while its 0.991 BABIP factor ranked in the 75th. The combination of a nitro-charged baseball and minor league pitchers allowed batters to post stupid numbers at the level, but Cronenworth's were merely good. In all probability, he was still the high-average, low-power guy we saw at Montgomery.

 

Conclusions

Cronenworth's .605 slugging percentage might be tricking fantasy owners into thinking that he has power potential, but his 28.2 FB% at the MLB level suggests that he hasn't added any additional loft since his days on the farm. His liners are also going to decline the first time he slumps, and his MiLB rates only suggest a slightly above-average rate moving forward. If you're looking for pop on the waiver wire, Cronenworth may not be the add for you.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Cronenworth should be avoided like the plague. His low fly ball rate and excellent ground ball exit velocity should allow him to post plus BABIPs for the foreseeable future, while his low strikeout rate should allow him to make the most of his BABIP. He's also fast enough to be a factor on the basepaths, though you should probably expect a 20 SB pace over a full season as opposed to 40+ based simply on how often he ran in the minors.

The Padres generally hit their surprise contributor sixth, a role that doesn't offer the counting stats fantasy owners might like. That said, you have to think that he could be promoted if he keeps getting hits to drop in. Cronenworth is a great target for owners looking for batting average, OBP, and/or steals, with the potential for runs if he improves his lineup slot. Just don't target him for HR.

Verdict: Champ (based on strong batting average/OBP indicators and speed even if his power is largely a mirage)



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