When you need a hit, there’s nobody you’d rather have at the plate right now than Bryan De La Cruz.
On Sunday, the Marlins needed a hit. They were on the precipice of suffering another frustrating one-run loss in a season full of them, of becoming the first MLB team since 2020 to get swept in a series by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Down 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth, speedy Magneuris Sierra had made his way to third base, but with two outs, it would take a teammate to pick him up.
De La Cruz fouled off a couple Chris Stratton fastballs, watched a couple curveballs miss below the zone, then pounced on an 80 mile-per-hour hanger and lined it up the middle for the game-tying single.
Just like that, the charismatic rookie swung the Marlins’ win probability from 16% to 56%. They sealed the victory with a Lewin Díaz walk-off the next inning.
Getting De La Cruz from the Houston Astros in exchange for pending free agent reliever Yimi García is immediately proving to be a successful trade for Miami. The magnitude of that win is still to be determined, depending on how frequently he’s capable of doing this kinda thing moving forward.
DLC owns a .329 batting average entering Monday’s game, which would lead the majors this season if he had enough playing time to qualify. Narrowing our focus to all qualified hitters since July 30—the day he debuted for the Fish—it’s the eighth-best mark.
No doubt, he’s been the beneficiary of some good luck. So far, De La Cruz has a .418 batting average on balls in play (which excludes home runs). It’s been nearly a century since the last time a MLB qualifier hit that mark over a full-length season, and it won’t happen again unless the sport undergoes radical rule changes. Defensive positioning is too smart and modern gloves are too effective.
During the pitch-tracking era (since 2008), the overall MLB BABIP has floated between .291 and .300. The Mets’ J.D. Davis (.434), White Sox’s Luis Robert (.420) and Angels’ Brandon Marsh (.416) are having comparable campaigns to De La Cruz in that department, but nobody else has maintained this in a season of 100-plus balls in play, according to Baseball Savant.
In investigating the curious case of Yoán Moncada earlier this year, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello concluded there are tangible skills that can help players consistently “hit ‘em where they ain’t.” Does Bryan De La Cruz fit the bill of a BABIP overachiever?
MiLB Track Record
At each stop of his professional journey since 2018, De La Cruz has posted great BABIPs. That includes the Dominican Winter League, though I’ll omit that from this section because the sample sample size was microscopic (18 games played over two seasons).
Here is what he did with his 2018-2021 Minor League Baseball affiliates:
- 2018 Low-A Quad Cities—.359 BABIP (65 games)
- 2018 High-A Buies Creek—.378 BABIP (54 games)
- 2019 High-A Fayetteville—.318 BABIP (41 games)
- 2019 Double-A Corpus Christi—.343 BABIP (64 games)
- 2021 Triple-A Sugar Land—.373 BABIP (66 games)
That is more than 800 total balls in play at dozens of different ballparks suggesting the Dominican outfielder is partially controlling his own destiny. Adding to the legitimacy, he was younger than the league average at all levels, per Baseball-Reference.
Batted Ball Profile
It’s good to hit line drives. De La Cruz is doing that on 27.0% of his batted balls, Baseball Savant says, topping the MLB average of 25.4%. It’s also good to avoid hitting ground balls and pop-ups. De La Cruz checks those boxes as well—43.5 GB% and 6.1 PU% compared to the collective 45.1 GB% and 7.1 PU% of his peers.
But what separates De La Cruz from everybody else is his production on those grounders: a .460 BABIP. No other major leaguer is on the same planet as him. The gap between DLC and Mike Trout’s second-ranked grounder BABIP (.394) is the same as the gap between Trout and No. 22 Ty France.
The quality of the 24-year-old’s contact is nothing extraordinary. His average exit velocity of 88.3 miles per hour is precisely the MLB average. He’s in the 54th percentile in maximum exit velo (108.0 mph) and the 55th percentile in hard-hit rate (41.7%). Perhaps opponents just need more time to figure out his tendencies and align themselves accordingly.
Even batting from the right side, De La Cruz typically gets down the first-base line in less than four seconds when running at max effort. His 27.9 feet per second Sprint Speed ranks in the 73rd percentile league-wide.
That athleticism allows De La Cruz to make something out of nothing in the rare instances when he mis-hits a ball:
He has already accumulated a handful of infield hits (seven in Baseball-Reference’s estimation, six according to FanGraphs).
At first glance, the data—and the eye test—point to Bryan De La Cruz being a good MLB hitter, but not a generational talent (this may be the last time you see him and Trout in the same sentence). Sustaining his elite BABIP through the final two weeks of the season wouldn’t necessarily change his outlook, either. Results on balls in play often lack year-to-year stickiness, and even those who possess that skill cannot rely on it carrying them throughout their careers.
Remember being excited about Jorge Alfaro? Before he was a non-tender candidate, he was an ultra-athletic catcher who had a .406 BABIP as the Phillies’ primary catcher in 2018. Although he has continued to excel on balls in play for the Marlins, it is negated by his struggles to make contact. Alec Bohm (.410 BABIP in 2020) seemed to be emerging as the next terrifying Marlins killer; fast-forward one year, he’s been demoted to Triple-A. Justin Ruggiano was a bright spot on the 2012 Fish with his .401 BABIP. Unfortunately, that phenomenon fizzled almost as suddenly as it started.
That being said, I am relatively bullish on De La Cruz’s future. He looks comfortable in all hitting situations and against all pitch types. He is a plus defender in the corner outfield spots and an adequate one in center field. Evolving from a non-prospect into this speaks to his strong work ethic.
Is it possible that the genius Astros so casually gave away an impact player? Well, they’ve done it before! Coming off their 2017 World Series championship, they dealt Ramón Laureano to the rival Athletics rather than make room for him on their 40-man roster. Laureano, like DLC, debuted in the majors at age 24 right after the trade deadline, and like DLC, BABIP’d his way into being an instantly valuable player (.388 in 2018).
It is not a perfect comp. Laureano is stronger and faster with a better knack for finding the barrel. You can’t count on De La Cruz, eight years into his professional career, to meaningfully develop those attributes more than he already has.
De La Cruz’s ceiling, in my opinion, is a hybrid between Laureano and Odúbel Herrera (who—you guessed it—posted a .387 BABIP as a rookie in 2015). And I’m not totally comfortable with that evaluation either considering these guys have been suspended for performance-enhancing drugs and domestic violence, respectively. The point is, he could peak as an All-Star if everything goes right.
At the very least, De La Cruz brings a fun and important aesthetic to the Marlins. His acquisition has inched them closer to being a contending team in the coming years.