Elly De La Cruz - Baseball's Most Interesting Minor Leaguer
For my first “The Drummey Angle” article, I’m going to be diving into one of the most fascinating players in the entire sport. Elly De La Cruz is a twenty-year-old phenom who is having an exceptional season, leading some analysts to view him as a top-tier prospect. At the conclusion of the 2021 season, De La Cruz was ranked as the Cincinnati Reds 10th best prospect by MLB Pipeline, 13th best by me, and 3rd by Fangraphs (which was viewed as quite bullish at the time). After breaking out in the 2022 season, Elly has vaulted himself into a top 20 prospect spot, and the infielder is undoubtedly the best prospect in the Reds farm system.
What’s Accounted for This Change
The Dominican native has always been a scout’s dream and possesses physical tools that jump off the page. Standing at 6’5” and 200 pounds with above-average athleticism, it doesn’t take an expert to spot his massive potential. He was signed by the Reds for $65,000 back in 2018 (their largest bonus of the international free agent class). De La Cruz didn’t make it stateside until 2019, when he saw 200 at bats in rookie ball. The numbers were solid, but nothing to gawk at. He was essentially viewed as farm depth with major league upside at the time. Then came the 2020 Covid-19 layoff, which put Elly among hundreds of other minor leaguers in an unfortunate predicament. A year of lost development certainly hurt Elly, who was considered to be more of a project prospect. In his return to professional action in 2021, De La Cruz tore up the Arizona Complex League, earning him a quick promotion to Low A Daytona. Similarly to 2019, he posted formidable numbers. At the beginning of the 2022 season, De La Cruz was assigned to High A Dayton, where at 19 years old, he was almost three years younger than the average player. This is where Elly De La Cruz really began to shine. He destroyed A+ pitching, posting a 161 wRC+ through 306 plate appearances. While impressive, looking at the breakdown of how those hits came is even more impressive. Elly led all of minor league baseball with a .306 ISO. If you don’t already know what ISO is, it is a metric used to determine power and can be thought of as a more advanced version of slugging percentage. Here is the formula directly from Fangraphs…
ISO = (2B + (2*3B) + (3*HR)) / AB
Aaron Judge is the only MLB with a higher ISO than De La Cruz had in Dayton. Elly was an extra-base hit machine through his first few months in High A and produced generationally impressive numbers. Not surprisingly, the extremely strong results earned him a quick promotion to AA. While there typically tends to be a bit of a learning curve while adjusting to a new level, De La Cruz assimilated quickly. Through Sunday (8/28), he has posted a .425 wOBA, 154 wRC+, and .310 ISO through 139 plate appearances.
Cause for Pause
All of the statistics and points I’ve brought up thus far would suggest a player who could be considered a top-five prospect in baseball. While Elly De La Cruz has hit incredibly well this season, there are still some things holding him back from being ranked among baseball’s most prominent minor leaguers. The most critical red flag is De La Cruz’s astronomical strikeout percentage of 30.6 percent through A+ and AA. While analytics have found that big leaguers having a higher strikeout rate doesn’t necessarily matter if they can produce great results, that thought process drastically differs at the minor league level. A high strikeout rate in the minors usually is a sign of below-average plate discipline and/or struggles to hit breaking balls. While I don’t have the specific data to analyze what type of pitch De La Cruz most frequently whiffs on, I think it’s fair to assume that it’s breaking balls (AA pitchers generally don’t have high enough velocity to garner major fastball swing and miss). MLB organizations do have access to this data and can very easily be able to use it to formulate a successful game plan against Elly in the future. Being 60% above league average as a hitter while striking out 30% in the minor leagues is so unprecedented that I took a deeper look into the numbers.
I compiled a list of all the players to strikeout at a 30% clip or above and hit for a 150 wRC+ or higher over the last ten years(minimum 400 plate appearances)
Elly De La Cruz - Cincinnati Reds, 2022 (A+, AA)
Moises Gomez - St. Louis Cardinals, 2022 (AA, AAA)
Imanol Vargas - Los Angeles Dodgers, 2022 (A+)
Mason Martin - Pittsburgh Pirates, 2019 (A, A+)
Niko Hulsizer - Tampa Bay Rays, 2019 (A, A+)
Bobby Dalbec - Boston Red Sox, 2018 (A+, AA)
Ibandel Isabel - Los Angeles Dodgers, 2018 (A+)
Dylan Cozens - Philadelphia Phillies, 2016 (AA)
Joey Gallo - Texas Rangers, 2014 (A+, AA)
Joey Gallo - Texas Rangers, 2013 (A)
This list puts Elly’s torrid stretch into perspective. He is not in stellar company. Of the ten players who have managed to put up great numbers while running a high strikeout rate, only Gallo has found success at the big league level. This isn’t to say that De La Cruz will end up a bust, it just offers some depth to the numbers and analysis beyond the face value of his results.
Elly De La Cruz truly is an outlier and is an incredibly tough player to evaluate. His raw power is generational, but his offensive profile isn’t complete enough for me to be fully sold. Elly is a plus runner and average fielder who will probably end up at third base in the MLB. He will live and die by his offensive production. Risk-averse evaluators will be incredibly low on De La Cruz, but those who value ceiling could arguably rank him within the top ten. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle and can see him fitting into the back end of my top 25. That being said, he definitely has the biggest bust potential of any top 50 prospect. Worst case scenario, he ends up never being a big league regular, but the best case scenario sees Elly end up strongly resembling Kyle Schwarber’s offensive output. His 50th percentile outcome would probably be a 2021 Patrick Wisdom scenario, a strong power hitter who is held back from elite hitter status due to strikeout issues. To put into perspective how I project De La Cruz’s tools to project at the major league level, here are my current scouting grades for him.
Future Value: 55
Seeing such raw power coupled with struggles at the plate is almost fascinating. It is very rare to see a player with this much hype and question marks simultaneously, so watching to see how Elly De La Cruz’s big league career turns out will be incredibly interesting.
"Elly De La Cruz" via Ian D'Andrea licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0