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The regression of Bryan De La Cruz

De La Cruz seemed destined to stick on the Marlins active roster for most of the 2022 season, but his offensive and defensive production has taken a noticeable step back.

Miami Marlins right fielder Bryan De La Cruz (14) rounds the bases after hitting a 3-run home run in the top of the seventh inning during the baseball game between the Miami Marlins and Houston Astros on June 12, 2022 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The emergence of Bryan De La Cruz was one of the very best things about the 2021 post-trade deadline Miami Marlins. Plucked from the Astros farm system in exchange for pending free agent reliever Yimi García, De La Cruz broke into the big leagues in a pressure-free situation. Within a few weeks, he was hitting over .300 and he didn’t dip beneath that elite threshold until the final days of the regular season. Wow!

Most analysts anticipated DLC’s batting stats to regress as a sophomore. However, with an innate feel for finding gaps in opposing defenses and the versatility to handle all three outfield positions, he was poised to help them win meaningful games in 2022. This didn’t look like a plain, replacement-level player.

In reality, Bryan De La Cruz has been a plain, replacement-level player. I actually had that line prepared earlier in the week—several recent fielding gaffes have plunged him into sub-replacement-level territory.

  • De La Cruz with 2021 Marlins: .296/.356/.427, 115 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR in 58 G
  • De La Cruz with 2022 Marlins: .218/.279/.323, 75 wRC+, -0.6 fWAR in 53 G

We should begin with the glovework because that was what initially got me excited about De La Cruz in 2021, even before the hits were falling for him. He took efficient routes and demonstrated good arm strength and accuracy. He has never had traditional center fielder agility, but seemingly had just enough athleticism and fundamentals to contribute there.

Baseball Savant’s outs above average metric was skeptical of De La Cruz in CF last year—minus-2 OAA in 199 13 innings—and it’s gotten even worse this season (minus-3 OAA in 140 innings). That aligns with the eye test. His mistakes are impossible to miss.

He’s still a satisfactory late-inning replacement for Jorge Soler in left field, but is that enough to merit a precious spot on the Marlins 26-man active roster? Not when he’s struggling just as much offensively.

De La Cruz’s home run, walk and strikeout rates are practically unchanged from his age-24 to his age-25 season. He has been close to the MLB average in each of those areas.

The main difference draining De La Cruz of his value is his sudden lack of singles. DLC is making more frequent hard contact and hitting a higher percentage of line drives, yet his batting average on balls in play has plummeted year to year from .380 to .270. Also, his home-to-first time has slowed a bit, preventing him from compiling as many infield hits.

Opponents are rarely shifting their infield against DLC, and it isn’t affecting his results even when they do. Outfielders are shading him more to the opposite field compared to 2021, so that’s something.

Non-shifted defensive positioning vs. De La Cruz in 2021
Non-shifted defensive positioning vs. De La Cruz in 2021
Baseball Savant
Non-shifted defensive positioning vs. De La Cruz in 2022
Non-shifted defensive positioning vs. De La Cruz in 2022
Baseball Savant

Just because De La Cruz was “lucky” as a rookie does not mean this lousy 2022 version is “the real him.” Combining both years, his .312 weighted on-base average (wOBA) is almost identical to his .310 expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), according to Baseball Savant. He is getting what he deserves overall.

However, the Marlins are finding out that De La Cruz is not as complementary with the other players on their roster as they once hoped. Injuries to Brian Anderson and Joey Wendle have increased his playing time and he has been unable to take advantage. After scalding left-handed pitching in 2021 (160 wRC+), he’s been woeful in those favorable matchups in 2022 (28 wRC+).

If De La Cruz’s bat is not functioning well in a platoon, and if he is not impacting the game much off the bench as a fielder or baserunner, what is the appropriate role for him once Anderson (back) and Wendle (hamstring) return from the IL? The Marlins must decide how to handle that next week, and it frankly shouldn’t be a tough decision: send DLC down to Triple-A Jacksonville.

Although a flawed center fielder himself, Jon Berti is the better option to receive sporadic starts at the position when Jesús Sánchez is out. If the Marlins find themselves with an active roster spot to spare, newly signed speedster Billy Hamilton potentially fits as an experienced CF who can do the little things in high-leverage spots to tilt a game in Miami’s favor.

Beyond 2022, De La Cruz will have two more minor league options remaining. He’s not yet at one full year of MLB service time. The charismatic Dominican outfielder could be a useful Marlins depth piece for many years to come. All I’m saying is, the Fish aren’t benefiting this young player or themselves at the moment by jamming a square peg into a round hole.