One of the best things to gauge in spring training is the health of players. As they ease into the season, many are coming back from injuries and are looking to show they are playing at 100 percent.
C.J. Cron, 31, is one of those players and there is a really good sign — specifically the speed of the ball leaving his bat on a double that hit the left-center field wall — that he has completely recovered from a 2020 knee injury.
After an impressive 2019 campaign with Twins where he hit .253/.311/.469 with 25 homers, Cron signed a one-year, $6.1 million deal with the Tigers in 2020. On a ground ball in a game on Aug. 10, Cron bent down to scoop the ball and crumpled to the ground. His left kneecap had popped out of place. His season was done. Later that month, Cron had surgery to repair a damaged ligament in his knee to better stabilize his patella.
By October 28, Cron was a free agent. Months went by as he rehabbed his knee, just waiting for a team to come calling. That team turned out to be the Rockies, who signed Cron to a minor league deal on Feb. 16.
Cron has now played in 11 of the Rockies’ 16 games this spring and is hitting .323/.344/.581 with two homers, two doubles, three RBI, and six runs in 31 at-bats. One of those doubles and one of the homers came on March 9 against the Diamondbacks, but the double might turn out to be more statistically significant.
Cron and his double hold the top spot in Eno Sarris’s Athletic article “6 spring training stats (and players) that might actually matter this season” from Thursday. Sarris points out that
“Cron smoked a ball 115.8 mph this spring, which was 3.8 mph harder than the hardest ball he hit last year, and almost a direct match for the max exit velo that he showed in 2019, when he had a top 20 maximum and a top 15 barrel rate among qualified hitters.”
In 2020, Cron’s average exit velocity was down 5.6 mph from 2019 when he posted a career-high of 91.1 mph. His hardest-hit ball came in the first game of the season, a homer on July 24 that clocked 112 mph and flew 447 feet. He topped 100 mph five more times in the following 40 at-bats in 12 more games, still managing to hit four homers and three doubles while his average dropped. He finished the injury-shortened, already short season hitting .190/.346/.548.
While exit velocity isn’t everything, as it can produce double-play balls and lineouts, it is certainly a good sign of a healthy swing that is maximizing power, and not one that is lacking stability from a bad knee. Slugging percentages and extra-base hits often have higher exit velocities, but, of course, launch angle matters too if you want the homers. Cron has proved he can hit homers, smashing 30 of them in 2018 and 25 in 2019.
FanGraph’s ZiPS project Cron as hitting 29 homers with 86 RBI and slashing .275/.343/.540 with a 1.4 WAR. The 115.8-mph double could mean that those projections could come true or even be modest. As Sarris writes,
“Rob Arthur wrote for The Athletic that for every mile per hour above 108 on a batted ball, a hitter is projected to gain about 6 points of OPS relative to their predicted number, but at this point that is probably included in most projection systems of note. What’s different is that we’re now getting this information in spring training in 11 parks, and therefore that double probably is not included in those projections.”
Only time will tell and the battle for the starting first baseman is still playing out with Cron trying to beat out Josh Fuentes. Conner Joe is also putting on a decent spring show and Greg Bird is trying to resurrect his career in Colorado. Through 16 games this spring, Fuentes, who’s also got some time at third base, is hitting .290/.333/.419 with four doubles, four RBI, and six runs scored in 31 at-bats. In 20 at-bats, Joe is hitting .400/.556/.950 with three homers, two doubles, seven RBI, and eight runs in addition to six walks (tied for a team-high with Sam Hilliard). Bird is hitting .148/.250/.259 with a walk-off homer, three RBI, and three runs in 27 at-bats. The first base group is responsible for 29 percent of the Rockies 21 homers so far this spring.
In 2020, the Rockies had the worst offensive production from the first-base position in the majors. Like Cron’s exit velocity, hopefully that production will be on the rise in 2021.
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It’s been a wild ride for Kyle Freeland. 2018 was amazing. 2019 was a disaster. 2020 was – well 2020 – but still a step in the right direction. Freeland, now loaded with moxie and a mission to prove people wrong, told Nick Groke: “I got bit in the ass. I got complacent. I got humbled pretty good. And I had to take a step back and really learn how to use my arsenal.”
A central principle in his new outlook is to produce groundballs a lot, even more than last year when his 51.5 percent groundball mark was third best in the NL. Groke loaded this with quotes with positive praise for Freeland from coaches and from fellow pitcher Daniel Bard, who said, “He’s got an attitude and a chip on his shoulder, which I love, because it rubs off on the other guys.”
It was a rough offseason. With grim predictions for 2021, this article actually awakens a small bit of hope.
The standouts according to Jordan West: Jameson Hannah, Dom Nuñez, and Yonathan Daza. This is pretty solid list.
Hannah, despite not playing in the majors before, has made a name for himself as a great player to get in the Jeff Hoffman deal. Before spring training, he was on track for the Double-A Yard Goats roster, and while his 1.200 OPS and .400 batting average may not have changed that, it certainly won’t hurt the 23-year-old’s chances of climbing the ladder faster. Nuñez and Daza have struggled in their callups with the Rockies in the past and this spring success could give them more playing time. Nuñez is set to be the backup for Elias Díaz, both of whom should add more offense to the position. In Daza’s case, he’s out of options and has to make the opening day roster or else he’ll be designated for assignment. On Tuesday, we went 4-for-4, including a homer and a double.
West’s duds: Eric Stamets, Greg Bird, and Charlie Blackmon. I am not worried about Blackmon, despite his 3-for-22 performance thus far. Stamets signed a minor league deal with the Rockies in 2019 and Bird did the same in February. They weren’t likely to make the Opening Day roster anyway, but they have both struggled in spring with Stamets hitting .059 in 15 games and Greg hitting .148, but he did hit a walk-off home run.
After a day off on Thursday, the Rockies will return to spring training action on Friday with a 2:10 p.m. MT game against Cleveland. Jon Gray will get the start for Colorado, his second of spring training. Gray got his first start on March 14 vs. the Rangers and gave up one run on three hits in 2 2/3 innings with two walks and three strikeouts.
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