Breakout Candidate: Bryan De La Cruz

As MLBTR’s Mark Polishuk discusses in his Miami Marlins Offseason Outlook, the Fish are still looking for quality hitters. Despite spending the 2021 offseason improving their outfield by bringing in Avisaíl García (four-year, $53MM) and Jorge Soler (three-year, $36MM), neither player had overly productive seasons, and the Marlins are still looking for their first potent outfield since the 2017 homegrown trio of Marcell Ozuna, Christian Yelich, and Giancarlo Stanton. Like that 2017 Marlins outfield, the Fish might already have a future outfield building block on their team in 25-year-old Bryan De La Cruz.

Originally signed when he was 16-years-old by the Astros for $170K in 2013, De La Cruz made his Astros debut in the Dominican Summer League in 2014. He progressed quickly, joining Double-A Corpus Christi when he was only 20. However, De La Cruz had a challenging time adjusting to higher-level pitching and bounced between Low-A and Double-A during the 2017-2019 seasons before eventually reaching Triple-A Sugar Land in 2021 where he hit a robust .324/.362/.518.

At the 2021 Trade Deadline, the Astros traded De La Cruz to the Marlins as part of a package for reliever Yimi Garcia. When De La Cruz arrived in Miami, he continued his strong hitting slashing .296/.356/.427 (114 wRC+) in 199 at-bats. However, his 2022 season would not be as successful.

During the 2022 season, De La Cruz showed flashes of excellence, hitting .313/.476/.500 over his first 14 games before faltering and slashing .197/.229/320 from May through August. However, De La Cruz finished strong. In his final 85 at-bats, the righty mashed an extraordinary .388/.419/.718 with six homers and ten doubles. De La Cruz also spent time in Triple-A, mashing .320/.370/.620 in 50 at-bats. Collectively, De La Cruz finished the season with a positive .252/.294/.432 (104 wRC+) line, although marked by inconsistently.

Nevertheless, De La Cruz’s underlying metrics show promise. Out of all outfielders who had at least 300 plate appearances this past season, the righty had the ninth-highest HardHit rate (39.5%), greater than Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Kyle Schwarber, and Mookie Betts. Additionally, out of all outfielders with 300+ plate appearances, De La Cruz ranks second in Soft Contact, only behind MVP-favorite Aaron Judge. Statcast is even more bullish on De La Cruz’s bat, ranking him in the 82nd percentile for Average Exit Velocity, 84th percentile for Barrel%, and 86th percentile for HardHit Rate among all 2022 batters.

So, what is holding Bryan De La Cruz back?

While his 2022 strikeout rate is a bit above league average (25.4% vs. 22.4%), his 2022 walk rate is below league average (5.4% vs. 8.2%). However, a closer examination of De La Cruz’s walk rate shows a different story. De La Cruz generated 5 walks in his first 21 plate appearances (23.8%), and only 14 over and his next 334 plate appearances (4.2%). Thus, a limiting factor in De La Cruz’s offensive potential is his free-swing approach.

Statcast ranks De La Cruz in the 34th percentile for Chase Rate and 22nd percentile for Whiff%. Combined with a low propensity for walks, this lack of strike zone command hinders De La Cruz’s ability to fully utilize his bat.

Look no further than De La Cruz’s magical final 85 at-bats. During September and October, the outfielder dropped his strikeout rate to 21.3% and increased his walk rate to 5.3%, the second-highest mark for a month-long period during his 2022 season.

Additionally, when analyzing De La Cruz’s success during his stints in Triple-A Jacksonville and Sugar Land, it is clear that the righty can control the zone. During 2021 in Sugar Land, De La Cruz walked at a 5.8% clip but only struck out in 20.1% of all at-bats. Similarly, during his time in Jacksonville, the righty walked at a strong 7.4% and struck out at a 24.1% rate.

On the defensive side of the field, De La Cruz has split his time between all three outfield positions but is rated between slightly-below-average to below-average, depending on the metric (-1 by DRS, -5.8 by UZR, and -3 OAA). While he possesses slightly above-average sprint speed (62nd percentile) and outfielder jump (60th percentile), De La Cruz will likely develop into a corner outfielder with his strong arm reaching 96 mph during the 2022 season.

As with most young hitters, adjusting to Major League pitching takes time and patience. Early struggles controlling the strike zone are not rare, and De La Cruz’s raw talent has produced mammoth results, albeit inconsistently. With De La Cruz only arbitration-eligible after the 2024 season and making the league minimum, the Marlins have time to evaluate his growth.

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