Is Elly De La Cruz Fixing His Strikeout Issue?

Even as I realize I’ve been writing about prospects for more than a quarter of a century, there are still so many aspects that remain fresh, fun and fascinating. 

And then every now and then, a prospect comes along where you’re both baffled and blown away at the same time. Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz is that kind of prospect.

He’s a switch-hitting shortstop who’s similar in size to Oneil Cruz, but with even more athleticism, a stronger arm and just as much power. 

You already know about how he’s got a top-of-the-scale arm with top-of-the-scale power and top-of-the-scale speed. And he’s one of the players who can handle shortstop at 6-foot-5, thanks to elite body control. He also draws raves for his magnetic leadership skills.

But he’s also long been a prospect with one fatal flaw. He strikes out too much, compiling multiple seasons with a strikeout rate higher than 30% that is usually the kiss of death for prospects.

De La Cruz struck out in 31% of his plate appearances last year. The list of current MLB regulars who struck out in 30% or more PAs in any full MiLB season is very small. There’s Jazz Chisholm, Joey Gallo, Jose Siri, MJ Melendez and a very long list of minor leaguers who flamed out. For his career, De La Cruz has struck out in 29% of all pro plate appearances, which is also a high rate. 

Usually, players with De La Cruz’s strikeout rates are taught a very tough lesson by the minor leagues.

Gallo was able to make it to the majors despite a 35% strikeout rate thanks to absurd power. He broke home run records around the minors. But he also was a .254 hitter for his MiLB career. His struggles with hitting for average were apparent throughout the minors. Chisholm’s 30% strikeout rate in the minors explained his .256 batting average in the minors. In both cases, they did walk enough to mitigate many of their batting average issues.

De La Cruz has had no such issues. He’s a .299 career MiLB hitter, and he’s hitting .301 since he came to the US to begin the 2021 season. He hit .304 between High-A and Double-A while striking out 31% of the time.

De La Cruz has performed wherever he’s hit in the minors. Since coming to the U.S. and making his post-Covid MiLB debut in 2021, De La Cruz is hitting .301/.360/.580. His counting numbers per 550 plate appearances are even louder. De La Cruz is averaging 36 doubles, 14 triples, 30 home runs and 42 steals in 53 attempts per 550 plate appearances.

And this is where De La Cruz’s aggressiveness, strikeout rates and walk rates become harder to square. 

It’s hard to say that De La Cruz has learned the lesson that over-aggressiveness can trip him up, because so far there’s no level of the minor leagues that has been able to prove to him that it will. De La Cruz is one of those rare players who may simply be too athletic and too good to get truly tested until he reaches the major leagues.

But what has been fascinating to watch this year is De La Cruz showing signs he’s fixed the one remaining clear hole in his game, even if he’s yet to be forced to by a stretch of struggling.

And this is another way that following prospects never gets old, because you’re trying to solve questions and connect dots toward answers that are never fully obvious at the time.

De La Cruz was held back for several weeks by a hamstring injury and didn’t make his Triple-A debut until April 20. In those first five games back, De La Cruz was 2-for-22 with one walk and 11 strikeouts.

Since then, De La Cruz has been making contact and drawing walks at the best rates of his young pro career. Here’s a rolling 14-day average of his strikeout rates and walk rates since he arrived in the U.S. The shading marks every time he was promoted to a new level.

See that plunge off a cliff on the blue line? That’s De La Cruz’s strikeout rate falling to the lowest levels of his young career in the past month. Similarly, the skyrocketing red line is his walk rate easily climbing to the best rates of his pro career.

Now, this is why writing about prospects is tough. That could just be an excellent stretch for De La Cruz without being a true change in talent. Or it could be the sign that De La Cruz has gotten to the point where he’s fixing the final remaining item on his to-do list toward becoming an MLB star.

Multiple previous studies have shown that walk rates and strikeout rates are among the fastest stats to stabilize, which means smaller samples give a more accurate indicator of true talent than batting average, home run rates or many other stats. After as few as 100 plate appearances, a hitter’s walk rate and strikeout rate has already begun to stabilize, while a hitter’s slugging percentage or on-base percentage would need many more plate appearances before we can be confident that is the hitter’s true talent level.

With that in mind, here’s a look at rolling 28-day averages for De La Cruz. In a normal 28-game stretch, De La Cruz averages around 120-130 plate appearances. This is roughly how he fares month over month and should flatten out some of the noise that comes with a 14-day average.

De La Cruz’s massive improvements in his walk rate remains quite clear here, and the trend line is very encouraging. His strikeout rate improvement is still there, but isn’t as clear as it was in a 14-day rolling average.

And this is where we’re staring into a foggy future. On a more granular level, De La Cruz’s chase rate this year (33%) is basically identical to last year’s at Double-A Chattanooga (32%). His swing-and-miss rate has gone up from 31% to 33%. But his overall swing rate is down from 49% at Chattanooga to 42%. And that has made a massive difference. Last year at Double-A, he was behind in the count 40% of the time, ahead in the count 34% of the time and even 26% of the time. This year, he’s behind in the count 30% of the time, ahead 43% and even 27% of the time. By flipping how often he’s behind and how often he’s ahead, De La Cruz is keeping pitchers on the defensive, drawing more walks and striking out less.

But there’s one more complicating factor. Triple-A is using automated ball-strikes (ABS) where on Tuesday-Thursday games, all pitches are called by the computer. On Friday-Sunday, umpires call balls and strikes, but hitters, pitchers and catchers can challenge any pitch, with each team allowed three unsuccessful challenges.

And one could say that most of De La Cruz’s improvement has come with the ABS system.

Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday (ABS)
69 PAs, 12 BBs (17.4%)
69 PAs, 18 Ks (26.1%)

Friday-Saturday-Sunday (Challenge System)
75 PAs, 8 BBs (10.6%)
75 PAs, 24 Ks (32%)

Is it a sign that one of baseball’s best prospects is figuring out plate discipline? We can’t say for sure, even with a whole lot of effort to try to figure it out. But if he is, he’s adding to his chances of being a big league star.

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