Expectations, Elly De La Cruz and Narrative Busting

Expectations, Elly De La Cruz and Narrative Busting

It’s no exaggeration to say Elly De La Cruz performed at an MVP level in his first sixteen games with the Reds.

He played on a 162-game pace to hit 30 homers, steal 80 bases, drive in 100 runs and score 180. At that rate, De La Cruz would have finished first or second in the Majors in hits, doubles, triples, runs scored and stolen bases. He’d batted an eye-popping .359/.423/.641. His wRC+ of 179 would have bettered every other batter in the NL, even surpassing league MVP Ronald Acuña Jr.

Also, of course, were the individual feats of strength and speed, enough to celebrate Reds Festivus for a decade. By June 25, De La Cruz had already obliterated a Noah Syndergaard fastball (the one with a family), hitting it farther than any other Reds player would hit a ball all season. He’d smacked another baseball harder than any other Reds player would hit a ball in 2023. And De La Cruz had become the first Reds player in more than 30 years to hit for the cycle.

We’d seen him play only a couple weeks and Elly De La Cruz had already become Superman, with dreads in place of a cape.

To be fair, the 21-year-old had arrived in Cincinnati already a legend, based on his minor league accomplishments. Then we watched the charismatic sensation play with infectious joy and enthusiasm. Elly De La Cruz hit, ran and threw his way into our hearts.

On top of that, the Reds won 14 of Elly’s first 16 games, the team rocketing up the standings from an after thought into first place.

As fans, we were held breathless by the exciting and unexpected situation. We had no time or inclination to process what we were witnessing. Our hearts had fully grasped Elly De La Cruz. But our heads were another matter. This Reds phenom was beyond our comprehension. Even the All-Star break a few weeks later didn’t offer sufficient pause to inhale a healthy dose of reality about the Dominican star.

We were unprepared for what came next. Elly De La Cruz fell to Earth.

In his remaining 80+ games over 356 plate appearances, De La Cruz’ wRC+ dropped from 179 to 65. He struck out more than a third of his plate appearances, hitting .191/.271/.355 after the All-Star game. His decline in production was sharp and sustained. Starting June 25, in every subsequent two-week period, De La Cruz batted well below average.

Amid the fireworks, a few warning signs had been there, if we’d cared to look:

  • A ground ball rate of 58% (league average was 42.5%)
  • A BABIP of .476 (league average is .297, he finished at .336)
  • A chase-rate and strikeout rate above league average
  • An astronomical 43% HR/FB (league average is 13%)

The “simple fatigue” narrative

Reds President Nick Krall suggested (Mark Sheldon) that De La Cruz “was gassed” and “got tired” and “didn’t understand what it was like to play more than six games without an off-day.”

Fatigue may have played a part, but it’s hard to square that explanation with the fact that De La Cruz’s slump began on June 25, not August 25. He had played in just 54 games (16 with the Reds, 38 at Triple-A). Compare that to the 120 across levels the year before. Elly’s 2023 hot streak lasted 71 plate appearances. The “second-half” collapse was five times that length.

Another tell that De La Cruz’s slump wasn’t primarily about being tired is the number of things the Reds have asked their shortstop to work on this offseason (Charlie Goldsmith): shorter swing, reduced leg kick, higher strength training, better balance through his swing, improved diet, keeping his weight back, staying behind the ball. De La Cruz’s swing was analyzed by two biomechanics experts. His hitting coach made two trips to work with him.

The Reds were concerned with more than Elly De La Cruz being gassed.

The “late-season improvement” narrative

Another popular EDLC narrative – in direct conflict with the previous one – is that he showed improvement in the last few weeks of 2023. This evidence for this is De La Cruz cutting his chase rate toward the season’s conclusion. Add to that a September “conversation with a veteran” when De La Cruz talked with Robinson Cano. The former All-Star is reported to have counseled the Reds shortstop about chasing too many pitches and needing a more compact, consistent swing.

Let’s take a closer look at De La Cruz’s chase rate. Chase rate (O-Swing%) is the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone that the batter swings at. It’s an important measure of plate discipline. The average major league chase rate last year was 28.5%, about half-way between career numbers for Joey Votto (22%) and Brandon Phillips (35%).

De La Cruz averaged a 33% chase rate in 2023, which put him in the bottom quarter of the league. For context, the best Reds in chase rate were Jonathan India (19%) and Will Benson (19.4%). Only Christian Encarnacion-Strand (35.7%) had a higher rate than De La Cruz. Other rookies were on the positive side: Matt McLain (25.6%), Spencer Steer (23.9%).

If you dig a little deeper into De La Cruz’s numbers, he did slash his chase rate sometime around the middle of August. From August 16 to the end of the season, his O-Swing% was just 25.7%. Prior to that, it had been 36.8%. That’s a substantial improvement and it wasn’t gradual. In the second half of August, his chase rate was a Votto-esque 22.1%.

But at the same time he stopped swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, De La Cruz also stopped swinging at pitches inside the zone (Z-Swing%). League average Z-Swing% was 65.5%. From his June 6 debut to the middle of August, De La Cruz swung at 62% of the pitches in the zone. But from mid-August on, he cut that rate sharply. By the second half of September, his Z-Swing% was 51%. He took called third strike after called third strike.

This graph shows both the decline in his O-Swing% and Z-Swing% starting about the same time. Note the dashed lines are league average.

This graph puts the two together, showing De La Cruz’s decreased aggression at the plate as the season wore on. He spent the second half of the season extremely passive, in the bottom quarter of ball players. Note the solid light blue line at 0% is MLB average. Passivity isn’t plate discipline.

The folks at Pitcher List also calculate a batter’s “decision value” which is the weighted average of his decisions to swing at pitches inside and outside the zone. It’s a way of combining the plate discipline choices to swing and take.

For example, here’s the graph for Juan Soto’s 2023 season. Note that his line, while up and down, is above MLB average all year.

Here’s the same graph for De La Cruz:

Again, we’re just talking plate discipline, not overall production. De La Cruz spent most of the year making below average swing decisions but did get above MLB average about two-thirds into his season. Also note his decision value plummeted at the end. His strikeout rate fell, but at 31% in September was still far above the league average of 23%.

A couple conclusions from this data. Elly did cut his chase rate, but he also reduced his overall swing rate, including at pitches in the strike zone. He became significantly more passive at the plate. His called-strike rate went from 15% to nearly 20%.

The “Robinson Cano Conversation” narrative made for a nice reporter story but didn’t survive contact with actual data. De La Cruz didn’t experience improvement in his chase-rate or overall decision making the last two weeks of the season. His bat was so cold, David Bell sat him several times in the final two weeks while the Reds remained in the postseason chase.

Conclusion

We caught tantalizing glimpses of Elly De La Cruz’s mile-high ceiling last June. We learned he can be one of the most exciting and impactful players in the game.

But there’s no avoiding the conclusion, based on his entire rookie season, that De La Cruz still hasn’t figured out how to hit in the major leagues. Faster than a speeding bullet? Check. More powerful than a locomotive? Also, check. Able to leap Big League pitchers in a single season? Not so fast.

It wasn’t simply that he got tired or just had a bad second-half split. For more than 80% of his 2023 season, De La Cruz hit well below average. He became Clark Kent in late June, not September. That’s the only fair conclusion to be drawn from the numbers.

Yet, there’s nothing pessimistic or surprising about that. Elly De La Cruz was 21 years old. 99.9% of major league players don’t have it figured out at that age. Sure, a handful of the all-time greats did. Think of Griffey Jr., Mantle, Acuña Jr., Trout, Harper and ARod.

On the other hand, Reds stars Barry Larkin, Eric Davis and Joey Votto didn’t break through until their age-24 seasons. Experts (Steamer, ZiPS, Marcel) project De La Cruz will hit .247/.314/.443 in 2024. That’s based on comparisons to similar players over the years and represents a midpoint of possible outcomes. It puts De La Cruz a bit below average but 10% better than last year.

This spring, we’ve already seen him trying a new open stance and he’s ditched last year’s pronounced leg kick. New hitting approaches make for appealing media narratives, but are no guarantee of success. We saw that over and over with Nick Senzel.

Elly De La Cruz may well take his quantum leap this season. Or he may not. At 22, he has ample time to become the player we hope for.

That is, if we let him. Our expectations for Elly De La Cruz have had a way of escalating beyond reason. Every one of his amazing feats was amplified by shouting from local broadcasters and hopium peddled by podcasts. The national media couldn’t avert its gaze. The only thing more unstoppable than Elly’s talent was the hype surrounding him. Look! Up in the sky!

One of Elly De La Cruz’s most endearing qualities is his obvious love for the game. As fans, let’s internalize that with clear-eyed, reasonable expectations as we enjoy watching him play.

Featured image by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire

Steve Mancuso

Steve Mancuso is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up during the Big Red Machine era. He’s been writing about the Reds for more than ten years. Steve’s fondest memories about the Reds include attending a couple 1975 World Series games, being at Homer Bailey’s second no-hitter and going nuts for Jay Bruce at Clinchmas. Steve was also at all three games of the 2012 NLDS, but it’s too soon to talk about that.