This year has been so much fun. As a Reds fan, I was fully expecting another brutal season of 90+ losses, with ownership and the front office using prospects as a way to delay accountability for their failure to field a competitive team. Four months ago, the biggest question on my mind was what type of return the team would get in return for Wil Myers.
I almost forgot he was ever in a Reds uniform!
The surprise turnaround that has been the 2023 Reds has been driven by the success of the young team core, many of which are rookies. The resurgence appeared to start when the team called up Matt McLain, but things went into the stratosphere with the callup of top prospect Elly De La Cruz.
I’m not sure I can remember a prospect with the same level of hype as Elly De La Cruz. Tales of his minor league exploits seemed hyperbolic, as did player comparisons. Even recently, the Reds’ broadcasters made the on-air statement that De La Cruz had the power of Adam Dunn, the speed of Billy Hamilton and the charisma of Brandon Phillips.
It’s like middle school me created a baseball player in a video game.
Since his call-up, Elly has demonstrated some extremely high highs (*cough hits for the cycle* *cough steals home*), but he has also demonstrated some struggles as well. With over two months of Major League playing time under his belt, it’s time we drill down into the data and better understand this potential generational talent.
Outcome vs. Expected Metrics
Over the small sample size of 318 plate appearances, De La Cruz has a slash line of .241/.296/.435 with an OPS of .731, giving him a 93 OPS+ and 87 wRC+ (slightly below average). Considering the fact that he’s a 21-year-old rookie, this level of production is something he should be proud of. He’s also demonstrated his superb power, demonstrated by an ISO of .194 (average is .166).
Traditional baseball metrics, unfortunately, are not the best way to evaluate a player, particularly with a sample size of data this small. There is simply too much luck that could skew the results. To get a better idea of who he is as a player, let’s look at his expected statistics.
Expected statistics evaluates a hitter by looking at their quality of contact and suggesting what should have happened, rather than the actual final outcome. A screaming line drive that unluckily gets caught by an athletic dive is a better example of hitting prowess than a swinging bunt that ends up being an infield single. Expected statistics essentially remove good and bad luck from the equation and show what a player’s stat line should be.
Based on his quality of contact, De La Cruz has an xBA of .238 and an xSLG of .387. For most players, this would suggest that he’s gotten lucky and is due for negative regression. However, Elly is a special type of athlete. His sprint speed is literally in the 100th percentile, making him the fastest man in baseball. Due to his extreme speed, hits that would be an easy out for the average player can be turned into a hit.
Barrel rate is one of my favorite advanced metrics, as it has strong predictive capability when evaluating hitters. Instead of measuring the outcome of a plate appearance, barrel rate simply shows the percentage of times the hitter barrels the ball (a barreled ball is the ideal combination of launch angle and velocity). For context, a barrel rate of 8.1% is MLB average.
Examining Elly’s month-to-month barrel rate splits reveals a positive trend.
Taking a closer look at Elly’s month-to-month barrel rate splits uncovers an encouraging trend. In the month of June, De La Cruz generated a below-average barrel rate of 5.1%. However, he managed to elevate it to an impressive 9.0% during the month of July and an even better 10.3% in August.
Currently, De La Cruz sits in the 82nd percentile for hard-hit rate, and he’s been hitting the ball harder as the season has progressed. During the month of June, Elly’s hard hit rate was a strong 44.1%. In August, it has risen to 50%.
Interestingly, this increase in contact quality has not translated into better overall production or significantly improved power numbers.
During the month of June, Elly’s slash line was remarkable, boasting .307/.358/.523 with an .881 OPS and 131 wRC+. However, in July, those figures dropped to a subpar .238/.277/.410 with a .687 OPS and 72 wRC+. His performance has worsened in August with a .188/.261/.386 slash line and .647 OPS and 65 wRC+.
Putting the Ball in the Air
Why hasn’t Elly’s improving contact quality led to better results? One criticism of De La Cruz is his launch angle. Too often, he hits the ball on the ground. With his extreme speed, he is able to leg out many of these and reach first base, but more often, he’s simply thrown out.
For the year, he has a ground ball rate of 53.3% (league average is 44.7%). As his barrel rate has increased, he’s seen a corresponding drop in his ground ball rate; however, it still remains higher than league average.
How has this impacted line drives and fly balls? From June to July, Elly increased his line drive rate from 22.0% to 31.3% (league average is 24.9%). August has seen it decline to 19.0%. His fly ball rate also increased month over month from 15.3% to 28.3% in that same period (league average is 37.4%).
Walks & Strikeouts
Here’s an interesting fact about walks and strikeouts: If you walk, you are guaranteed to get on base. If you strike out, you are guaranteed to not get on base.
Some real brain-bending analysis there!
Even during his time in the minor leagues, De La Cruz was recognized as a player with a high strikeout rate, which remained quite consistent as he progressed through the ranks. In Low-A, his strikeout percentage (K%) was 31%, and in High-A, it was 30.7%. When he reached AA, it was 30.9%, and in a limited sample size in AAA, he managed to lower it to 26.9% before earning the call-up to join the Reds.
Unfortunately, his strikeout issue hasn’t seen much improvement since he joined the club. Since the call-up, he has sustained a K% of 34.9%, aligning closely with his performance in the minor leagues.
Interestingly, Elly’s observed increase in barrel rate in July correlated with a rise in his strikeout rate. In June, his K% was at 30.5%, which wasn’t particularly impressive, but things worsened in July when it ballooned to reach 35.5%. August has shown a season high strikeout rate at 39.1%. This indicates that, despite the promising uptick in barrel rate, his strikeout rate simultaneously saw a less favorable trend during that period.
One aspect of Elly’s game that contributes to his high strikeout rate is his tendency to chase pitches outside the zone. Among 294 hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, De La Cruz has the 41st-highest chase rate (15th percentile). During his remarkable June, Elly’s chase rate was 36.2%, and it slightly increased to 38.8% in July (with the league average around 31%). On a positive note, it has decreased to 31.4% in the month of August.
Check out this mapping of Elly’s on swings and misses and strikeouts. Essentially, Elly does a fine job making contact on pitches in the middle of the plate, but he struggles with pitches on the edges and outside of the strike zone.
This is even more pronounced when he is hitting right-handed. As you can see in the charts below, when hitting from the right side of the plate, Elly’s whiff rate and strikeout rate both increase essentially across the board.
These metrics improve fairly significantly when Elly is hitting as a lefty. His contact rate is much higher here, although he still struggles against pitches on the outside of the plate.
In addition to a rise in strikeouts, Elly has also walked less as the season has gone on. During the month of June, Elly had a decent walk rate of 7.4%. Over the next month, however, Elly saw his walk rate plummet to an abysmal 2.7%, although it sits at 8.2% in August. Still, he ranks in the 32nd percentile in walk rate for the season. In order to take his game to the next level, he’s going to have to learn to become a more patient and selective hitter.
As Elly rose through the ranks in the minor leagues, his reputation as a switch hitter reached near-mythical proportions. However, his success in the Majors hasn’t fully reflected his minor league prowess. Let’s take a look at his overall splits when batting from each side.
When batting left, Elly continues to struggle with strikeouts and hitting ground balls too often, yet he remains an effective hitter. The slight gap between his expected and actual metrics can be attributed to his exceptional sprint speed, which allows him to turn potential outs into hits.
On the other hand (literally), when batting right, Elly’s effectiveness diminishes significantly and across the board, from contact ability to power.
The dramatic splits are evidenced by his hits spray chart. When he’s on the right side of the plate, he has the ability to pull the ball for high power. He does also have one opposite field home run when hitting form this side. When he hits from the left side of the plate, he tends to keep the ball in the infield and on the ground.
Summary & Conclusion
The 2023 season has been a delightful surprise for Reds fans, with the team’s young core, including top prospect Elly De La Cruz, driving their resurgence. Elly has lived up to the hype, showcasing incredible power, speed, and charisma. However, there are some major flaws in his game.
For Elly to reach the next level in his game, he needs to work on his plate discipline and become a more patient and selective hitter. Despite the struggles, some of the positive trends in his performance, combined with his extraordinary talent, suggest that he has a bright future ahead. As he gains experience and adjusts to Major League pitching, Reds fans can expect to witness the continued growth of this promising young talent on their team.
Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire