Fantasy Baseball: What's wrong with Elly De La Cruz? Diving deep into the speedster's slump

As the calendar hits June, Elly De La Cruz is the No. 9 player in Fantasy. His batting average (.233) is a bit low, but with a 162-game pace of  24 homers, 86 steals, 103 runs, and 68 RBI, he’s been just about everything you could have hoped for when you invested a second-round pick in him. 

But it sure doesn’t feel like it, does it? The overall numbers might be exactly what you wanted, the shape of De La Cruz’s season has probably left a sour taste in a lot of Fantasy players’ mouths. Because it looked like he might be so much more than what you expected in April.

De La Cruz was the top player in Fantasy in April, and it wasn’t all that close, as we got a glimpse of what the best-case scenario could be. De La Cruz cut his strikeout rate to a manageable 30.3% and was walking 13.9% of the time, leading to a .279/.385/.577 line, with eight homers and 18 steals – good for a tie for fourth in the majors in homers and four more steals than anyone in the league. 

That incredible month was met with much victory lapping from those who took De La Cruz early in their drafts, and plenty of handwringing from those of us who maybe, possibly had De La Cruz listed, perhaps, as a bust coming into the season. Sure, I took pains to note that his best-case scenario might be better than any player in baseball whenever I wrote about him, but there was no getting around it: Right there, as the lead image for my Busts 1.0 column from this preseason, is De La Cruz. Whoops. 

But wait a minute … was I secretly a genius? De La Cruz opened May with a couple of doubles in his first two games, but then went 0-for four straight games, and is now hitting just .191/.279/.270 since May 1, with a 35% strikeout rate. He’s still running a ton, leading the majors with 14 steals since May 1, but that’s where the good news ends. His per-162-game-pace in that time is just 59 runs, 32 RBI, and five homers to go along with 76 steals. He’s been a taller Billy Hamilton for more than a month now. 

And the concern here is that this is almost exactly the same pattern De La Cruz followed as a rookie. He came out of the shoots like a bat out of hell, hitting .328/.366/.533 with a manageable 29% strikeout rate in his first 29 games before things started to unravel for him. From that point on, De La Cruz struck out 36% of the time and hit just .192/.271/.353, remaining an elite source of steals, but not doing enough else to cover his glaring flaws. 

So, is this article just an opportunity to do my own victory lap? Did I go find my first busts column from back in February just to prove how smart I am? Of course not! Just like De La Cruz’s incredible April didn’t represent who he was going to be forever, neither is his terrible, no-good May representative of the new normal. 

The truth is somewhere in the middle. He’s still an unbelievably talented player, one capable of athletic feats basically nobody else in baseball can match. And, it’s worth noting he has shown real growth even amid the May regression. De La Cruz has cut his chase rate from 33% to 26% so far, and he’s down that without sacrificing quality of contact; he’s actually improved from a 51st percentile barrel rate last season to a 75th percentile rate, and he’s walking a lot more, allowing him to put his speed into play even more frequently. De La Cruz has also taken a step forward as a defender, insulating him from playing time risk even when he’s slumping – he’s the only viable SS on the Reds roster, but he’s also a legitimate difference maker, pairing improving instincts with elite range and arm strength that could make him the best defender at the position.

But it’s not all positive, obviously. Despite better swing decisions overall, De La Cruz’s whiff rate has jumped from 29.7% to 34.3%, mostly because of worse results on balls in the zone – he had a respectable 79.8% in-zone contact rate last season, which would have ranked in the 25th percentile among qualifiers, but that has collapsed to 71.9% this season, which ranks 155th out of 157 qualifiers. 

Zooming in on April vs. May performance, the biggest issue here seems to be with the batted ball profile. After hitting 51% of his balls in play on the ground in April , that number was up to 56% in May, with most of that rise coming from the line drive bucket, the most valuable batted balls for any hitter. De La Cruz has also been hitting the ball to the pull side a lot less often, and that, combined with the rise in groundball rate explains nearly all of the drop in power output. Combine that with strikeout regression, and well, that’s how you get to a point where one of the hardest hitters in the game can go a month-plus with just one homer while hitting below the Mendoza Line. 

Of course, De La Cruz isn’t the only factor here. You have to account for how pitchers are approaching him, and as you would expect for a player with his kind of profile, De La Cruz is seeing fewer fastballs since April. Pitchers were reluctant to challenge De La Cruz with fastballs throughout his rookie season, throwing him less than 50% fastballs every month, but that was a little different in April, as he saw 51.5% fastballs – and absolutely crushed them. He had a 94.7 mph average exit velocity against fastballs and a .510 wOBA against them. 

His fastball rate dipped below 50% in May, which isn’t a huge change, but still fits in with what you’d expect to see. Especially when he continues to struggle mightily against offspeed and breaking pitches – he is missing on 46% of his swings against breaking pitches and 39.6% against offspeed pitches for the season, and you have to think only his improved selectiveness against all pitch types has kept pitches from truly spamming him with slower, bendier stuff. Though, it’s worth noting that De La Cruz couldn’t hit fastballs during this slump either, holding just a .278 wOBA, with significantly diminished quality of contact metrics. 

Pitchers made some slight adjustments against De La Cruz in May, as you would expect, but that doesn’t seem to explain the regression here. And it’s not like De La Cruz saw significantly more left-handed pitchers in May, one possible explanation, given his continued struggles hitting from the right side – he has a career .565 OPS as a righty, compared to a .795 mark as a lefty, though whether De La Cruz is wasting his time as a switch hitter is a discussion for another day, perhaps. And, while pitchers did become more cautious with him as his hot April went on, with his rolling 30-game in-zone pitch rate dropping to a season-low 37.3% on May 5, it has climbed to 41.2% over the past 30 games entering Tuesday’s action. He’s been seeing more pitches in the zone during his struggles, in other words:

The truth is, De La Cruz’s regression in May looks like it’s mostly on him, not on adjustments pitchers made. Which is pretty worrisome, honestly. But it also means his success or failure might just be in his own hands. And those are still the same hands that created all that value in April. We’ve seen stretches where De La Cruz looks kind of hopeless at the plate, and he’s currently stuck in one of them. But we’ve also seen stretches where he looks like the best player in Fantasy in each of his first two seasons. This might just be a slump, and De La Cruz might just slump harder than anyone in baseball when he does. But his highs might be higher, too. 

The truth might be somewhere in the middle, and if you’re looking to project moving forward, that’s where I’d land. He’s a fringe first-round pick if we were re-drafted, one who might run away with the steals crown but might also hit .200 the rest of the way. He has more tools than just about any player in Fantasy, and when things are going right, he’s going to look like the best player in baseball; he’ll also look completely lost when things are going poorly, and I’m not sure there’s much in his profile to suggest we have any ability to predict when the good stretches are coming.

I suspect they are coming, though. If you have De La Cruz, I think right now is exactly the wrong time to trade him, just like the end of April was the wrong time to try to trade for him. These kinds of wild swings seem like they might just be a fact of life as he continues to develop. And hey, maybe he never develops the way we want, and he remains inconsistent forever. That’s certainly possible. 

But, if all De La Cruz is right now is the best steals specialist in the game and an inconsistent source of power, that’s still a huge valuable profile for Fantasy, especially in categories leagues. And unless someone is offering a package worthy of a first-rounder – or I just have a huge surplus of speed – I’m probably not trying to trade him right now.

I’d just wait until the next hot streak. 

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