Elly is Minors' most electric player -- just ask his peers

May 19th, 2023

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Everyone has an Elly De La Cruz story.

For Louisville teammate Andrew Abbott, it was a homer last July with Double-A Chattanooga that went an estimated 512 feet, which is longer than any Major League home run in the Statcast era (since 2015).

“I remember he hit the ball, and our dugout and their dugout all went to the TrackMan unit in the corner to see how far the ball went,” said the left-hander, “because when he hit it, everyone was like, ‘Oh my.’”

For Chuckie Robinson, it was when De La Cruz tripled to left-center on April 27 in Iowa and made it to the bag in 11.19 seconds, the second-fastest home-to-third time in Triple-A this season.

“I’m pretty sure he was jogging the whole time,” the catcher said.

For Pat Kelly, it was De La Cruz’s first Triple-A hit on April 20 -- a bouncer past a diving second baseman that De La Cruz somehow turned into a double.

“No human runs that fast,” said the Bats skipper. “I mean, I had Billy Hamilton, and I don’t think Billy runs that fast.”

The basis of each of these seemingly tall tales is a simple truth: The Reds’ top prospect is the most electric player in the Minor Leagues right now.

So here’s maybe the most important story worth telling -- De La Cruz’s batting eye and approach are improving, just in time for him to push for the Majors.

The switch-hitting infielder’s exceptional power, speed and throwing tools -- did we mention he has multiple throws clocked at 99-plus mph this season? -- have always come with the caveat that the Cincinnati phenom will strike out. He fanned in 30.8 percent of his plate appearances between Chattanooga and High-A Dayton last season (the seventh-highest K rate in the Reds' system), creating concern that he wouldn’t make enough contact against more advanced arms to make the most of his considerable tools.

The Reds promoted De La Cruz to Triple-A to open his age-21 season to test out that contact ability against the Minors’ most experienced pitchers, and it’s looking like the Dominican Republic native is turning perhaps his only weakness into a strength.

De La Cruz went 1-for-3 with a pair of walks in Thursday’s 13-1 win over Jacksonville in the MLB Pipeline Game of the Month. Since May 9, he’s walked 13 times in nine games, most among all Minor Leaguers in that span. Comparatively, he’s struck out only nine times over 44 plate appearances for a much more palatable K rate of 20.5 percent. He’s slashing .333/.546/.700 in those nine contests, adding patience to his standard top-of-the-scale power.

To De La Cruz, the answer for the turnaround is simple.

“It’s all about just stopping swinging at bad pitches, waiting for my pitch and taking my walks when I can,” he said via Reds team translator Jorge Merlos.

OK, it’s a little more nuanced than that.

“Really, it’s all the breaking balls in the dirt,” De La Cruz said. “Now, I’ve learned that they’re going to throw me those pitches, and I’m just not going to swing at them anymore.”

The data is backing up the No. 4 overall prospect’s words.

From his season debut on April 20 to May 8, De La Cruz swung at 32.4 percent of pitches outside the zone, according to data compiled by BrooksBaseball.net. (Major League average for O-swing percentage this season is 28.3 entering Thursday.) From May 9 through Thursday’s two-walk performance, he swung at only 25.2 percent of balls outside the zone. On balls specifically lower than the strike zone, his swing rate dropped from 38.8 percent before May 9 to 30 percent after it -- enough of a delta to explain the difference between overall O-swing percentages on its own.

On Thursday alone, he faced 16 pitches outside the zone and only swung at two (12.5 percent).

De La Cruz’s season slash line now sits at .280/.379/.570 through 24 games for Louisville, while his 2023 K rate sits at 28.7 percent, his lowest-ever mark with a full-season club.

“I think he's recognizing how clubs are pitching him,” Kelly said. “They're pitching around him a lot of times, especially if there's an open base. It’s a lot more offspeed stuff. He's learning to take it, especially balls out of the zone. It's been very impressive.”

In his job as a backstop, Robinson, who earned his Major League debut last summer, has to be able to break down hitters, and even he admits he wouldn’t know what to do with De La Cruz when he’s spitting on bad pitches like he is now.

“He can hit it opposite field, and he can pull it,” said the 28-year-old catcher. “He has a great eye. He’s keyholing, so you have to come to him. If you miss middle, he can hit a ball a long ways.”

De La Cruz proved what he can do with meatballs on May 9 (the start of this latest hot streak) when he crushed two homers and a double all at 116-plus mph exit velocities. No Major League team -- never mind individual player -- in the Statcast era had crossed that exit velo threshold thrice in a single game.

That was just another chapter in the tall tale of 6-foot-5 Elly De La Cruz. The next could be written in the Queen City.

“We’re close, we’re definitely close,” De La Cruz said. “We’re still out there on the field, getting our work done. But it’s not like I’m really trying to force myself out there. It’s just that I know I’m close enough to be called up.”

And now that the final tool may be locked in, so is De La Cruz’s confidence.

“Everything’s ready,” he said. “We’re just waiting for that call to get us up there.”