Teams are already pitching around Elly De La Cruz

Teams are already pitching around Elly De La Cruz

It’s only three weeks into Elly De La Cruz’s major-league career, and he’s already dazzled fans in Cincinnati and beyond.

He’s the fastest player in baseball. His maximum exit velocity (116.6 mph) ranks in the 98th percentile. He has two of the five hardest-hit balls by Cincinnati hitters in the entire Statcast era (since 2015). He hit for the Reds’ first cycle since 1989 — and in the process, helped erase a five-run deficit in front of a sold-out home crowd.

It’s not exaggerating to say he’s lived up to the enormous hype so far. He’s hitting .299/.357/.532 with three home runs, eight stolen bases, and a 133 wRC+ through his first 84 plate appearances. He already ranks sixth among Reds position players in fWAR (0.7).

And here’s the rub: we still haven’t seen the best of De La Cruz. While he’s already provided a long list of highlights in 19 games and has been 33% better than the average hitter at 21 years old, he’s still adjusting to the game’s highest level and how opponents are — or aren’t — pitching to him.

The lone knock on De La Cruz during his quick ascension to top-prospect status was his plate discipline. Namely, he struck out a lot and didn’t walk much. Coming into 2023, he had a career 29.4% strikeout rate and 7.1% walk rate in the minors. He showed a better eye during his time in Triple-A Louisville this season, walking at a 14.0% clip and striking out a bit less (26.9%).

De La Cruz picked up where he left off in the minor leagues after arriving in the majors, walking five times in his first eight games. But he’s walked only once in the last 11 games. His strikeout rate has steadily declined as well, although it’s shown signs of creeping back up in recent games. For the season, De La Cruz has a 31.0% strikeout rate and 8.3% walk rate. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, those marks would rank in the eighth and 45th percentiles, respectively. His 30.2% whiff rate — the percentage of misses on all swings — would rank in the 22nd percentile.

One thing became evident quickly about the way teams pitch to De La Cruz: they’re already afraid to attack him. Among 390 hitters who’ve faced at least 300 pitches this season, De La Cruz has seen the lowest rate of fastballs (37.5%). He’s the only player in that group who has been thrown more breaking balls (136) than fastballs (130).

It’s for good reason, as De La Cruz has hit .407 with an .741 slugging percentage and .493 wOBA on the fastballs he has seen. He also doesn’t swing and miss on fastballs nearly as often as other pitches, with just an 11.5% whiff rate against four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters.

This makes it all the more important for De La Cruz to make good swing decisions and force the opposition to throw pitches over the plate. Sliders, curveballs, and changeups don’t end up in the strike zone as often as fastballs. So far, 45.7% of pitches to De La Cruz have been in the strike zone, well below league average (49.0%).

De La Cruz will have to prove he can lay off them to start seeing more fastballs. So far, he’s still working on that.

De La Cruz has swung at 35.4% of all pitches thrown outside the strike zone, quite a bit above the league average (28.4%). Fastballs haven’t been the problem. While he’s swung at a high heater here and there, his chase rate against fastballs (23.2%) is better than league average (25.1%). However, his chase rate against breaking balls is 37.7% (league average: 30.7%) and 45.5% against off-speed pitches (league average: 33.7%), which are classified as changeups and splitters by Statcast. Changeups (47.2% chase rate) and sliders (45.8%) have given him the biggest fits.

MLB pitchers have also kept him on his toes by pitching backward: throwing him breaking balls and off-speed pitches early in at-bats rather than fastballs. In the first pitch of his plate appearances, De La Cruz is seeing fastballs only 39.8% of the time — that’s 20 points lower than league average (59.5%). He’s seeing breaking balls on 48.2% of first pitches, versus a league average of just 30.1%.

Adjusting to the plan of attack

Even against this somewhat dramatic plan of attack against De La Cruz, he’s managed to do plenty of damage. His average exit velocity is right at league average (88.9 mph), but his hard-hit rate (43.1%) is well above average (39.7%). When he puts the ball in play, his xwOBAcon (xwOBA on contact) is .385, also above league average (.369). But it’s clear that even with all his talent, De La Cruz is still adjusting to life in the big leagues.

Overall, De La Cruz isn’t swinging as much (46.1% swing rate) as the average hitter (47.2%). On pitches in the zone, he’s swinging 57.9% of the time, well below the league average of 66.9%. In other words, he’s watching some hittable pitches go by. This has shown up most notably with two strikes. Of his 26 strikeouts, eight have been on a called strike three and several have been fastballs over the heart of the plate.

What might be happening here? Well, it’s not likely that De La Cruz has ever been pitched this way. Minor-league pitchers typically don’t have the command or stuff to throw as many sliders, changeups, and curveballs as he’s seeing in the majors. De La Cruz has also made a concerted effort to be more patient at the plate this year. It helped him get to the big leagues. In hitter’s and pitcher’s counts in the minor leagues, he probably had a pretty good idea of what was coming and could lay off breaking balls and changeups more easily. Now he’s being pitched differently and will have to continue working at his pitch recognition.

A side effect of seeing so many breaking and off-speed pitches down in the zone is that De La Cruz is hitting a lot of ground balls. His 62.7% ground-ball rate is third-highest among all players with at least 80 plate appearances this season. That’s not always a bad thing when you’re the fastest player in baseball. De La Cruz has legged out his share of electrifying infield singles — five of them, in fact. But ideally, De La Cruz will start to lift the ball more often. His low average launch angle (1.3 degrees) is why his expected stats lag behind his actual output (.245 xBA, .347 xSLG, .292 xwOBA).

Fortunately, this wasn’t much of a problem for him previously. He had a 42.4% ground-ball rate in the minor leagues, which is almost exactly league average. This should improve as he gets more comfortable against big-league pitching.

In general, the strategy teams are employing against De La Cruz isn’t groundbreaking. The league usually makes young hitters prove they can hit or lay off non-fastballs. Matt McLain, for example, is also seeing fewer heaters than he did when he was first called up to the big leagues. Working against De La Cruz is that he already had a reputation for being an aggressive swinger with a thunderous bat when he entered the big leagues. It would’ve been malpractice for opponents not to throw a steady diet of non-fastballs.

But it is eye-catching just how committed teams have been to throwing anything but a fastball to De La Cruz. He’s not just seeing a low amount of fastballs for a rookie — he’s seeing fewer fastballs than any other hitter in the game. Even when De La Cruz is ahead in the count, teams aren’t throwing him heaters. He’s in some good company there:

In a way, it’s a sign of respect that the league is just as afraid to throw De La Cruz a fastball as they are Aaron Judge, Corey Seager, and Jose Ramirez. But it’s also a challenge to De La Cruz to better identify secondary pitches, wait for more fastballs he can crush, and take his walks if he doesn’t get them.

The good news is that even though De La Cruz hasn’t always made the best swing decisions, he has slowly but surely been making more contact on pitches both inside and outside the strike zone.

Final thoughts

The point of this analysis isn’t to dump cold water on Elly De La Cruz’s fiery start, but to illustrate that:

  1. Teams are already pitching him like some of the game’s top hitters
  2. He’s far from a finished product and has still been a force at the MLB level

De La Cruz should adjust over time. He did so at every level of the minor leagues, and it never took him long. Remember, he hasn’t even played 20 games in the big leagues yet. It’s impressive that he’s managed to be 33% better than the average MLB hitter when he’s seeing so few fastballs. Will he ever be Joey Votto in terms of plate discipline? Maybe not. But with elite bat speed (and sprint speed), De La Cruz doesn’t have to be. As he sees more pitches, he should start to make better swing decisions and lay off pitches out of the zone. When that happens, get your popcorn ready.

Featured photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire

Matt Wilkes

Matt Wilkes got hooked on Reds baseball after attending his first game in Cinergy Field at 6 years old, and he hasn’t looked back. As a kid, he was often found imitating his favorite players — Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Sean Casey, and Austin Kearns — in the backyard. When he finally went inside, he was leading the Reds to 162-0 seasons in MVP Baseball 2005 or keeping stats for whatever game was on TV. He started writing about baseball in 2014 and has become fascinated by analytics and all the new data in the game. Matt is also a graduate of The Ohio State University and currently lives in Columbus. Follow him on Twitter at @_MattWilkes.

1 Response

  1. Joshua Calloway says:

    And to make all of this information more impressive, he does it from both sides of the plate.

    I can forgive some of the swings on pitches he has no business swinging at…because he’s adjusting to it left and right handed…and his long arms seem to buy him more hits (not just singles, either) when he needs to protect. Oh, and his speed has certainly shown that he can buy infield hits by forcing throwing and fielding errors.

    Great article!