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Contact in a time of strikeouts: How Jake Cronenworth and others are preserving a lost art

Jake Cronenworth is a former hockey player with an “annoying” amount of natural talent, an ex-teammate said. (Gregory Bull/AP)
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Jake Cronenworth, a 27-year-old second baseman for the San Diego Padres, can’t explain why he is able to make contact so frequently at a time when major league hitters are making less contact than ever before.

His old hitting coordinator from his days in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, Dan DeMent, thinks some of it comes from the hockey player in Cronenworth, a Michigan native who played hockey until he focused on baseball and emerged as a two-way standout at the University of Michigan. Good hockey players have good hand-eye coordination. They would have a tough time handling the puck without it.

An old Michigan teammate, pitcher James Bourque of the Chicago Cubs, thinks part of it is Cronenworth’s approach, the way he never seems to be rushed when he’s in the batter’s box ― a combination of elite bat-to-ball skills coupled with the confidence to rely on them in any count.

He also thinks Cronenworth simply has an “annoying” amount of natural talent — the kind that allowed him to be as good at pitching as he was at hitting, to pick up a ball during infield practice one day in college and throw it around the infield left-handed just for the heck of it. Cronenworth, who touched 94 mph and didn’t allow a run during a seven-inning experiment with the Class AAA Durham Bulls in 2019, throws right-handed.

“Everybody at this level is as elite as they come,” Cronenworth said. “I think it’s maybe some approach stuff. But I also think, honestly, it’s a talent some guys are born with.”

Wherever it comes from, Cronenworth is one of a handful of largely under-the-radar major leaguers raging against the dying of the contact hitter, putting the ball in play at high rates when more players than ever are striking out more than ever before.

He — as well as Los Angeles Angels infielder David Fletcher, Chicago White Sox rookie Nick Madrigal, St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman, Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Adam Frazier, Houston Astros outfielder Michael Brantley and a few others — is putting the ball in play and avoiding the strikeout so consistently that he proves good contact hitting is not impossible, even if it is harder than ever.

A decade ago, major league hitters averaged an 80 percent contact rate when they swung. That number jumped to 88 percent against pitches in the strike zone. This year, hitters are making contact on 75 percent of the pitches at which they swing and 83 percent of pitches in the strike zone. Put another way, in 2011, major league hitters struck out in 18.6 percent of their plate appearances. Ten years later, they are striking out in 24.1 percent of plate appearances — almost 1 out of 4.

Hitters are swinging and missing at nearly 27 percent of pitches at which they are swinging, according to Baseball Savant. Exactly how much that number differs from past years is unclear because Baseball Savant has tracked that number, called Whiff%, only since 2015. But even that year, the number was far lower — 23 percent.

“I feel like guys are getting better and better every year. It’s pretty crazy what we’re seeing now,” Cronenworth said.

Amid all the swinging and missing, Cronenworth is one of a handful of hitters who are somehow staving off the swing-and-miss trends. In 224 plate appearances entering Saturday, Cronenworth had put 170 balls in play. For context, his $340 million teammate, Fernando Tatis Jr., an elite hitter by almost any measure, put 93 balls in play in 148 plate appearances.

Admittedly, many elite hitters with power will walk more often than guys such as Cronenworth, players who are less of a power threat than the hitters behind them. He certainly benefits from seeing pitches and being protected in the lineup by elite hitters such as Tatis and Manny Machado.

But Cronenworth’s proclivity for contact is not merely the product of favorable context. He swung and missed just twice in his first 44 plate appearances this season, a number tracked on a Padres fan Twitter account called @DaCroneZone that answers the question: “Did Jake Cronenworth swing and miss today?” — and often tweets simply “No.”

“I just like having him in the batter’s box, whenever that is,” Padres Manager Jayce Tingler said recently. “You feel good. You feel like you’re going to get a quality at-bat. He’s going to be a good decision-maker.”

His whiff rate is just 12.1 percent — a number that would be even lower were it not for a week-long mini-slump in which he went 3 for 21 and struck out twice (gasp!) in one game against Cy Young candidate Corbin Burnes of Milwaukee.

One of those strikeouts was looking. Burnes set a major league record this month when he struck out his 52nd batter to start the season without issuing a walk. In three at-bats against him, Cronenworth swung and missed at three pitches. He made contact on three others.

“As a pitcher, if you’re thinking, ‘Okay, my breaking ball is my best pitch, and I have to throw it in the perfect spot to get there; now what do I do?’ — he’s already playing mind games with you,” said Bourque, who is recovering from an injury in Arizona. “And at the same time, his hands are fast enough that if you go up and in, I mean three weeks ago he hit a pitch three inches off the plate off the wall. As a pitcher, you’re just like, ‘Okay, dude, what am I supposed to do?’ ”

Cronenworth said he rarely tinkers with the mechanics of his swing, and he believes the part of his success he can control comes largely from his approach. DeMent said a large part of Cronenworth’s emergence was spurred by the idea that his ability to make contact did not always mean he should do so.

“He was putting a lot of balls in play early in counts in his minor league career, and he figured out that those weren’t always good pitches to put in play,” DeMent said. “He always had the hand-eye coordination and the ability to do that, but I think when Jake started to become what we see today is when he started to lay off those pitcher’s pitches early in counts that he could put in play. We said: ‘Jake, you can hit a lot of balls. We’re not looking for you to hit every single ball.’ ”

Instead, DeMent and the Rays’ coaching staff urged Cronenworth to wait deeper into counts and swing at more favorable pitches that would still yield contact — just better contact. As he rose through the ranks and those pitcher’s pitches became nastier and nastier, putting the ball in play earlier in the count simply because he could was less important than forcing the pitcher to make good pitches repeatedly and taking advantage of mistakes.

The Rays traded Cronenworth to the Padres before the 2020 season, and he introduced himself to San Diego fans with a .285 batting average in 54 games as a rookie. Like many of the aforementioned hitters putting the ball in play at exceptional rates, Cronenworth is not someone the Padres rely on to hit home runs. His isolated power — a statistic used to measure raw power by taking only extra base hits into account — is .141, below the major league average of .157.

But his weighted runs created plus (wRC+, a statistic widely accepted as one of the clearest indicators of relative offensive value because it adjusts for park factors as it estimates the number of runs a player creates based on his ability to get on base and hit for extra bases), is 120 — well above the major league average of 97, within a point or so of stars such as Mookie Betts, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, José Altuve and Juan Soto.

Those players have signed — or soon will sign — massive deals for their offensive performance, in part because teams value power so highly. At a time when putting the ball in play is difficult, putting the ball over the fence is an efficient way to keep scoring. For that reason, DeMent said he sees many hitters try to trade consistent contact for inconsistent power, only to realize they need to learn to make contact enough to show off that power somehow.

And while so many major league hitters and hitting coaches now emphasize launch angle and groundball rates as a measure of whether a player is maximizing his ability to hit for power, Cronenworth — known as a dogged student of pitchers’ tendencies — takes a far less dogged approach to Statcast.

“I might take a look at it once or twice a year, but it’s not going to change my mind about what I’m doing or my approach at the plate or what I’m thinking with my swing,” he said. “I try to stay away from that stuff as much as possible just because I’m trying to go up there and have a quality at-bat every time. If it looks like crap, it looks like crap.”

So far, little Cronenworth has done has looked like crap, and almost all of it has been crucial to the Padres’ climb to the top of the National League West despite injuries to Tatis, top-of-the-order stalwart Trent Grisham and others. After a slow week against the Brewers, he is hitting a mere .288 — still 28th best in baseball, though that average was over .300 a few days ago and easily could be so again soon.

Experts argue batting average is an antiquated stat, not indicative of ability but indicative of results. Perhaps that’s perfect for Cronenworth, a hitter with anachronistic skills staving off the challenges of an era that has made making contact more difficult than ever while incentivizing it less and less.