I’ll admit it—C.J. Cron has been a much bigger upgrade than I expected. Last season, the Twins used Joe Mauer as their primary first baseman, and Mauer earned about 1.2 WAR. When the Twins claimed Cron off waivers, I expected him to be a slight upgrade over Mauer, but not by much. Cron’s best season had been worth 2.0 WAR, and Mauer had topped that as recently as 2017, when he was worth 3.3 WAR.
However, Cron is on pace for a career year. Through 64 games, he has already accumulated 1.7 WAR. This puts him on a full-season pace of roughly 4.3 WAR. He also hasn’t seen any major changes to his game to credit with this increase, but a couple of small tweaks seem to be responsible for the uptick in production.
Patience at the plate has seemed to make all the difference for Cron. He’s never walked much as a big leaguer, last season’s 6.6% walk rate was the high-water mark, and overall he’s walked in about 5.6% of plate appearances. This season, however, he is walking 7.6% of the time. While a single percentage more walks may not be significant on its own, when coupled with some other numbers, it tells a pretty convincing story.
Not only is Cron walking more, he is also striking out less. He’s been a strikeout prone hitter for most of his career, and took a K in over a quarter of his plate appearances the last couple years. This season, that number is down to 21.5%. Combined with his increased walk rate, his BB/K ratio is at a career high 0.35, which suggests to me that Cron has been more patient, and has improved his eye at the plate. Not only has this had an impact on the true outcomes, but also on the balls he’s put into play.
Line Drive percentage is a decent stand-in for quality of contact, as a well-hit ball is more likely to be a line drive. Cron is also at a career high in this category, while reducing the number of grounders and fly balls. It might be old-school baseball logic, but line-drives are desirable precisely because they are the most likely kind of contact to result in a hit, and especially an extra base hit.
If we pull that thread a little further, it’s not unrealistic to say that better pitch selection is resulting in better contact. This might be a little speculative, but its also simple enough logic to follow. The proof is in the pudding, as well, as Cron’s batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, and isolated power are all at career-best numbers. His BABIP is a bit on the high side compared to his career numbers, but at .300 is very sustainable based on the changes he has made.
While I have absolutely no insider knowledge to back up the following statement, I believe that the credit for these changes goes directly to the “new Twins.” The institutional changes made by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to focus on analytics, the increased resources given to scouting and analytics, and most of all the new coaching staff are paying off here. While the profile of C.J. Cron as a hitter has remained largely the same, a few small changes to play to his strengths have made a waiver-wire pickup a real find for the Twins.