Newly improved De La Cruz on the cusp of a breakthrough

September 20th, 2022

MIAMI -- Bryan De La Cruz was inches away from the first multihomer game of his career when center fielder Michael Hermosillo made a spectacular leaping catch to end the eighth inning.

“Next time hit it harder so they can’t grab it,” De La Cruz said via interpreter Luis Dorante Jr.

That’s exactly what De La Cruz did on his grand slam during a five-run third inning in the Marlins’ 10-3 win over the Cubs on Monday night at loanDepot park. Jon Berti and Charles Leblanc also went deep for Miami.

De La Cruz, who entered the series opener batting .160 with just one homer on offspeed pitches this season, sent lefty Wade Miley’s 3-2 changeup over the right-center-field wall. It’s a testament to the game-planning he has focused on since rejoining the big league club.

“I've been working really hard on making adjustments with the changeup,” De La Cruz said. “The last home run against [Noah] Syndergaard was also a changeup. Tonight, this pitcher, he has the cutter in. That's the way he was working. Cutter in, changeup outside, so I was expecting that pitch and trying to react to it.”

Since being recalled on Sept. 1, De La Cruz is batting .333 with three homers and 12 RBIs. He has driven in a run in four straight games for the first time in his career. 

“Definitely, I've seen in it,” manager Don Mattingly said. “You know the guy's swing is good, and you see the strength the ball comes off his bat. But if you're just going to go up there and wail, you're going to be in trouble. To see him a little more disciplined with what pitchers are trying to do, I know [hitting coach] Marcus [Thames] and those guys are always talking about it. Sometimes it takes a while to get through. So hopefully De La has kind of made that breakthrough.”

De La Cruz, whom Miami acquired ahead of the 2021 Trade Deadline for Yimi Garcia, impressed in his first taste of the big leagues by slashing .296/.356/.427 with a 112 OPS+ in 58 games. But he became the odd man out when the Marlins signed veterans Avisaíl García and Jorge Soler, then committed to starting Jesús Sánchez in center field. 

So Miami optioned De La Cruz during Spring Training because he wasn’t going to get regular reps, only to recall him for the Opening Day roster as a fourth outfielder. De La Cruz struggled in that role, slashing .205/.249/.332 in 90 games. That’s not to mention the numerous baserunning gaffes and missed plays in the outfield. It made the decision to option De La Cruz for a third time, on Aug. 12, an easy one.

“I think the defense for me, it’s always been good,” Mattingly said. “He was uncharacteristic early in the year. Guys try to do too much. They end up getting themselves in trouble. Again, we talk about principles on the bases. They're the same principles in the outfield of what you do and don't do in certain times of the game. So when they get out, they try to do too much, they make uncharacteristic mistakes. I thought he made some uncharacteristic mistakes early, and he's young. He's still young. It's not like this guy's been playing 10 years. So you expect some mistakes, you just want them to learn from them.”

When De La Cruz spoke to media upon his return to the Majors, he said being sent down wasn’t a surprise because he knew he wasn’t performing at the level he should have been. His time in the Minors (.990 OPS in 13 games with Triple-A Jacksonville) was spent improving in the areas he needed to in order to get back up to this level quickly.

That included changing his approach: looking to make contact and trusting his good vision of the plate so he was a model of consistency. It also meant tweaking his swing from lifting his leg to more of a toe tap to maintain his timing.

With Soler sidelined, and García joining him, De La Cruz received another opportunity. He has taken advantage of it, garnering more playing time. He has started twice in left field, as well as three times in center and right. His early work showed in the sixth inning, when he robbed P.J. Higgins of extra bases in right-center on a play with a 39 percent catch probability.

“I wasn't scared or unsure of myself,” De La Cruz said. “I knew it was going to come around in time. I trust myself, trust my talent, trust the batter I am.”