Although depth at first base improved heading into 2021, identifying late round upside plays will be pivotal in case the tiers run dry. In 2019, CJ Cron played through a nagging thumb injury in the second half of last season but still launched 25 home runs in 499 plate appearances spanning 125 games. He only appeared in 13 games with Detroit before suffering a season ending knee injury. Over those 13 games he hit four home runs with eight RBI and a confounding .190/.346/.548 slash line. A low average but an enticing .894 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).
Within his small sample size in 2020, Cron drew nine walks versus only 16 strikeouts. In comparison, he finished 2019 with a 5.8 walk percentage, 21.4 strikeout rate and .216 isolated power. He scored 51 runs with 78 RBI and a .253/.311/.469 slash, which on the surface do not dazzle, but should not be ignored either.
Cron's first half of 77 contests accruing 331 plate appearances with 36 runs, 18 doubles, 17 home runs, 54 RBI and a .266/.326/.495 slash line should not go overlooked. After the All-Star break, and playing through a nagging thumb issue, his production cratered to six doubles, eight home runs and 24 RBI with a .229/.280/.420 line in 45 games. This included two stints on the injured list.
Reducing his swinging strike percentage to 11.8 percent in 2019, down 2.1 percent while increasing his contact rate by over four percent to 76.4 percent along with his Z-Contact (in the strike zone) to 84.8 percent. Carrying over plate discipline gains can be tricky at his age, but it’s worth noting as he transitions to Colorado.
According to Statcast, Cron recorded 353 batted ball events with 53 barrels (15 percent), an average exit velocity of 91 MPH and a 12.7 degree launch angle in a full 2019 sample. Despite missing just under 40 games,he ranked 16th in barrels in the majors. He also surged in hard hit rate with 44.6 percent of them coming with an exit velocity of 95 MPH or better. During 2020, he recorded a mere 26 batted ball events with five of them the barrel variety.
From 2019, Cron's .277 expected batting average and .548 expected slugging suggest he incurred some bad luck compared to his .253 average and his expected weighted on-base average of .366 sits 42 points above his actual wOBA (.324). He improved versus off-speed pitches with a .328 average against them after hitting .165 versus them in 2018. Cron improved his zone contact by 3.5 percent, reduced his chase rate and cut his whiff percentage by 3.7 points. Here’s his zone profile courtesy of Statcast from 2019:
Noting some of the red areas above, Cron could benefit hitting the ball to right field and down the line in his new home ballpark with the Rockies.
Cron's 42.5 ground ball percentage, 23.8 fly ball rate and 26.3 line drive percentage pulling the ball only 38.2 percent of his batted ball data. However, he generated a 41.9 percent pull rate in 2017 and 43.5 pull percentage in 2018 which would mean a simple adjustment in his approach could unlock an uptick in power in Coors, but he needs to avoid center field, though the thin air insulates his home run upside.
He improved his barrel percentage in between 2017-through-2019 and owned a .327 isolated power when pulling the ball last season. Plus, his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field could unlock some home runs as well if he avoids Detroit's deep center field fence. Plus, speculative owners will track his health this spring regarding reports on his thumb. But, focusing on his first half last year when healthy could yield a nice bargain in upcoming drafts and auctions. Here's his projection sets after his free agency deal with the Rockies:
Cron’s two years removed from hitting 30 home runs with Tampa Bay in 2018. He’s now playing in an advantageous ballpark which inflates batting average on balls in play, so his average could reach the projections above. Given health, he could be one of the cheaper 30 home run hitters at his present price point. Heed the counting statistics from the projections and profit if he plays in 135-plus games. He feels sneaky to target but his average draft position may continue to rise as April approaches. Plan accordingly.
ATC courtesy of Ariel Cohen
THE BAT and THE BAT X courtesy of Derek Carty
ZiPS courtesy of Dan Szymborski