While the Reds’ haven’t officially announced their roster, Fernando Cruz is one of eight relievers to have seemingly locked up a bullpen spot. It’ll be his first Opening Day in an MLB uniform, and to say it’s been a long journey for Cruz would be an understatement. On his 33rd birthday, let’s dive deeper into his long road to the big leagues and how he’s finally earned a shot.
Cruz’s professional baseball career started in 2007 when he was drafted in the sixth round by the Royals — as a shortstop. He also played third base and eventually tried his hand at catching in 2009. But after struggling at the plate, he converted to pitcher in 2011 as he attempted to keep his career alive. The transition was bumpy, and the Royals ultimately released Cruz in 2012. He continued his career in the Puerto Rican Winter League for three years before getting another chance with an MLB organization. The Cubs signed him before the 2015 season, but he was released again during spring training in 2016. From then until 2021, Cruz pitched all over the place, including Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Canada, and the United States (independent ball).
Cruz caught the Reds’ eye and — six years after his last stint with an MLB organization — was signed to a minor-league deal before the 2022 season. He spent most of the year in Triple-A and was Louisville’s best reliever. With the Reds well out of the race late in the season, Cruz finally realized the dream he had when he was drafted 15 years earlier: he was heading to the big leagues. Cruz joined the Reds as a September call-up and appeared in 14 games over the final month of the season.
The late-season promotion wasn’t merely for the feel-good story. Powered by a mid-90s fastball and a nasty splitter, Cruz earned his call-up by posting a 2.89 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and 4.01 xFIP with a 29.3% strikeout rate, 8.4% walk rate, and 23 saves in 56 innings at Triple-A. With the MLB bullpen in shambles due to injuries, Cruz provided some valuable innings and acquitted himself well down the stretch. In 14.2 innings, he allowed only two earned runs with an impressive 21 strikeouts. While his strikeout rate was impressive (32.8%), his walk rate (14.1%) was a clear area for improvement. Cruz largely limited hard contact, reflected in his 3.34 xERA and .285 xwOBA.
Cruz relies on three pitches: a slider, splitter, and four-seam fastball.
His primary offering is the slider, which he threw about 45% of the time in his MLB stint last year. It’s a pitch he likes to use earlier in counts to get ahead of hitters as opposed to late in counts to get strikeouts. By most metrics, it grades out as an unspectacular pitch. It gets slightly above-average horizontal movement and spin, but below-average drop. Advanced pitch modeling metrics such as Pitching Bot and Stuff+ also grade Cruz’s slider as average. However, the slider was effective for Cruz against right-handed hitters, registering a 44.8% whiff rate.
It’ll be interesting to see if Cruz throw the slider a bit less against lefties in 2023 in favor of his splitter.
Cruz’s best pitch is the splitter, which he threw about 30% of the time last year. The pitch was effective against hitters on both sides of the plate and got an absurd 61.9% whiff rate in his September cup of coffee, the highest among any pitcher who threw at least 40 splitters in 2022. While his splitter probably won’t miss bats at that clip in the long run, it’s clearly his money-maker. MLB batters managed only one hit against Cruz’s splitter. The pitch gets very little spin (845 rpm), which results in late downward movement — about two inches of drop above average. Both the Pitching Bot and Stuff+ models grade his splitter as his best pitch in terms of factors like movement, velocity, release point, and spin.
With Derek Johnson’s “be great at what you’re good at” mantra, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Cruz throw the splitter more in 2023.
Cruz throws his fastball about a quarter of the time. It gets slightly above-average velocity (63rd) with mediocre spin (56th) and spin efficiency (90%), and it isn’t much of a swing-and-miss pitch (17.6% whiff rate). More than anything, his fastball helps him set up the splitter. Cruz’s height helps him get a bit more out of his fastball, however. Standing at 6-foot-6, Cruz is an imposing figure on the mound. His height also helps him get a lot of extension, meaning he’s closer to the plate when he releases the ball than the average pitcher. It makes his 94-mph fastball look even faster to the hitter. Cruz ranked in the 93rd percentile in extension last season, which made his average perceived fastball velocity (95.7 mph) over 1 mph higher than its actual velocity (94.4).
This pitch to Albert Pujols was registered at 94.6 mph, but the perceived velocity was 96.0 mph. Pujols was slightly late on the pitch and only managed to tip it into the catcher’s glove.
Cruz is one of those rare pitchers with reverse platoon splits; as a right-handed pitcher, he’s more effective against left-handed batters. He owes much of that to the success of his splitter, which tails away from lefty hitters. Here were his splits last year across all levels:
- vs. RHH: .206/.310/.331, 26.4 K%, 10.1 BB%
- vs. LHH: .174/.246/.244, 34.6 K%, 9.2 BB%
While Cruz was always a part of the bullpen competition, he was perhaps on the outside looking in as spring training began. But with Tony Santillan and Lucas Sims starting the season on the injured list, Cruz cemented his spot rather early in camp. He also pitched for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic and held his own, striking out five and allowing one run on four hits and two walks over 3.2 innings.
Without any proven high-leverage relievers aside from Alexis Díaz, Cruz will get the ball in some important spots to begin the season as David Bell figures out who he can turn to with the game on the line. Bell will also give high-leverage opportunities to Ian Gibaut, Derek Law, and Buck Farmer, per the Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale. Whether Cruz proves himself capable of handling a high-leverage role could depend largely on whether he can throw strikes consistently.
For what it’s worth, the projection systems aren’t high on Cruz — hardly surprising considering there isn’t a long list of pitchers to debut at 32 years old and have an extended track record of success.
- FanGraphs Depth Charts: 4.72 ERA, 4.61 FIP, 23.5 K, 9.8 BB%, -0.1 WAR
- Steamer: 4.38 ERA, 4.29 FIP, 24.2 K%, 9.5 BB%, 0.1 WAR
- ZiPS: 5.05 ERA, 4.93 FIP, 22.7 K%, 10.0 BB%, -0.3 WAR
Regardless of how his role evolves and the 2023 season pans out, though, it’s impressive that Cruz is in this position. After more than a decade of fighting to keep his pro career alive, the 33-year-old rookie will be a part of player introductions on Opening Day, the culmination of an incredible baseball journey.
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