For the first month of last season (and remember, last season was only about two months long), Jake Cronenworth seemed to be the runaway favorite to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award. On Aug. 31, he was hitting .356/.411/.624.
Then September happened. Cronenworth hit just .183 with a .543 OPS for the month, falling out of contention for the award and heading into his first offseason in the Majors with a whimper, not a bang.
But Cronenworth seems to have put all that behind him, at least to get the 2021 campaign started. Not only was he hitting .333 with three doubles and a triple entering Thursday’s series finale against the Pirates at PNC Park, he’s hardly missed when he’s swung at a pitch, with a second-ranked 3.2 percent whiff rate (minimum 50 swings).
In other words (or numbers), Cronenworth had swung at 93 pitches entering Thursday and missed three of them.
“It’s not like I’m trying to do it,” Cronenworth said. “I’m just trying to have a quality at-bat, and obviously the best way to do that is to stick to your approach, and hopefully [the pitchers] give in to it. You’re not really going to go up there every at-bat and get a good pitch to hit or get something to put the bat on, but hopefully a guy makes a mistake and you jump on it.”
One advantage Cronenworth has that is unique among most hitters is that he knows very well what the view is like from the other side of the pitcher-hitter battle. He was a two-way player through college at Michigan, where he posted a 2.76 ERA over 52 appearances (six starts). He even appeared in seven games out of the bullpen for Triple-A Durham in 2019, not yielding an earned run over seven innings.
“I think the biggest thing for me is seeing the strike zone from a different side and kind of getting that understanding,” Cronenworth said. “It’s more or less having a pitcher’s mindset when I’m at the plate. You still want to be a hitter, but if you can think a little bit like them, it can maybe help formulate a plan that day.”
There is one rather well-known player in the Majors who is still excelling both on the mound and at the plate: Shohei Ohtani. Cronenworth, who knows how hard it is to do both even at the college level, is enjoying watching Ohtani do the incredible things he’s doing on baseball’s biggest stage.
“There are guys that have the ability to do it, but can they do both at the highest level? Guys do both in college and do both in the Minors, but can they be the best on the mound and at the plate in the big leagues? He’s really the first in a long time to do it, and it’s awesome to see,” Cronenworth said. “He is super special.”
What Cronenworth has done to start the season, particularly in using that pitcher’s mindset to excel with his contact rate, is certainly special as well. He may not have five homers and isn’t “throwing 1,000 mph and striking everybody out,” as he put it, but he’s been big for a Padres club that is trying to survive an avalanche of injuries to start the season.