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Fernando Cruz's Splitter Is Untouchable, But Hitters Keep Trying

Phil Didion/The Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

It's not fair to say that Fernando Cruz was a late bloomer. That would mean he was the hope, and he wasn't, at least not really. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2007 draft as a shortstop, but did not make it out of A-ball in four years. He tried to pitch after that, and it worked, but it wasn't enough for the Royals to keep him. He has bounced around the minors, indy ball, and winter league circuit for over a decade. He played in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Mexico. He lived a life full of baseball, and almost without collegiate football. In the winter of 2021-2022, however, Cruz put on a show, posting a 2.03 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 61 innings of work across three leagues and the Caribbean Series.

You can have major league power without ever getting into professional baseball, and the Reds have seen it. They signed Cruz to a minor league deal before the 2022 season and sent him straight to Triple-A, where he was one of the best pitchers in the minors right away. He earned a promotion to the majors in September, and never looked back. Now, at age 34, he's tied for the best in all of baseball when it comes to lost at-bats. It's an amazing story, and he's a player to be celebrated. How did he get through the world for so long, and how is he thriving now? I hope I can tell you.

The first thing that jumps off the page when you look at Cruz's statistical record is his strikeout rate. He has a career 36.5% mark in the majors, the ninth-best mark all-time among pitchers with at least 90 innings. Of course, nine of the top 10 are currently active pitchers, and the all-time strikeout leaderboard is heavily skewed toward modern players (shout out to Diamond Pipkins, who struck out 19 batters in 15.2 innings for the Cleveland Cubs 1931 by cracking the top. 25). But even if this is just a list of modern active pitchers, Cruz is on that list!

The next thing that pops off the page is that he throws a splitter 44% of the time. It's not really a change of pace; it's just his speed. There is a simple and effective system at work here. Counting ahead of time? Cruz will throw you a fastball or a cutter, something you can catch if you score or strike out. After counting? He'll stick to it, leaning heavily on his fastball as he continues behind. But when he comes forward, it's time to split, and you don't want to reach splittin' time when you hit.

0-1 count? Cruz throws his splitter 69% of the time. 0-2? We talk about 96% of the time; you might as well dump his entire arsenal and only look at that. He throws it 94% of the time in 1-2 counts, 70% of the time in 2-2 counts, and even 67% of the time in 3-2 counts. If there is a strike in the line, you will probably see a separator. Or, well, you'll go find out separator. Not sure if Joc Pederson ever saw this one:

I didn't choose it by accident. That's the archetypical Cruz splitter. A strike that comes out of his hands but turns into a ball, and there is really no way to hit it. Opponents turned 40 and separated Cruz in the strike zone. They missed 34 of them. No one in baseball has a worse offspeed pitch. Honestly, no one has a bad chase pitch, timing, or Nick Lodolo's curveball that even comes close to the data.

OK, that's great, but isn't that a small sample of us mathematically inclined types? 40 points? That's how Lance Lynn threw a tough inning. We will need more data. But the good news: The additional data is very compatible with the 2024 version only. Of course two pitchers have missed bats more often with their out-of-zone offspeed over the past three years: Félix Bautista and Kodai Senga. That's one of the best closers in baseball and the divisive guy is so ridiculous that he earned his nickname. Yes, I think it will.

If I were a hitman, I'd like to think I could come up with a strategy to counter this attack. This isn't one of those times where the pitcher throws mostly seconds, but “mostly” means 60%. Guys like that tend to sneak fastballs when you're sitting on their curveballs. But there is no real threat from Cruz. In 1-2 figures, he threw 29 splitters and two fastballs. He only threw an 0-2 fastball. There is no trickery here.

If there is a binding for the hitters, it is determined whether the separator they receive will be in the field or in the foul field. He's averaging a 30% pitch per pitch so far this year, and that's consistent no matter how it counts. A “constant take” plan doesn't work if Cruz can, at least occasionally, get one to strike.

On the other hand, swinging has not been a good counter tactic. They convert to 77% of the Cruz zone separators, a respectable rate. In fact, they probably swing a lot; that's about the league average, and they chase 45% of the time, the highest number.

The worst thing about the batsmen is that those swings did nothing for them. They still swing and miss more often, a third this year and 45% of the time throughout his major league career. If they made contact, it was really bad. Cruz has given up exactly one homer in his career split, and ironically, that pitch was outside the strike zone. It's just hard to add; In fact, hitters have hit six of their 70 swings on the field this year (thanks Statcast!). Even if they touch each other, they repeat a quarter of it. For what it's worth, the league average across all dividers is 33.3%.

In other words, Cruz's splitter is one of those baseball pitches that hitters can do very little with. They rarely make contact, and do little damage even when they do. The combination of a high swing rate – hitters swung at about 50% of Cruz's splits – and negative swing results are extremely rare. The pitch is at a higher level – we're talking Yu Darvish's elbow curve, Edwin Díaz's slider, Michael King's changeup, things like that. Pitchers just don't put together that combination of regular and unproductive swings.

Quick time aside: I've watched many Cruzes try to figure out what makes this platform so dangerous. I didn't come up with many answers. It looks vaguely like many other splitters that aren't nearly as good. It's the one that splits the league by a hair, but it doesn't sink in the way you'd expect because that little spin he puts on the ball brings some height. His release point is unusual. You get a nice extension, but nothing offensive. I think there's some deception going on in his delivery, and that hitters aren't getting it in his hand because of it, but I can't really figure out why from watching him pitch.

So is Cruz the best hitter in baseball or something? Well, no. He amplifies this statement completely, so that it is clear. It's one of the best pitches in baseball, so he just throws it every time. No one throws dividers more often than Cruz. Few pitchers throw non-fastballs consistently, and they are all sliders with in-zone assistance. But there is a weakness in his plan: He can't throw a dang thing to strike.

That 30% local rate I was talking about is terrible. Not only in baseball, but it's the 497th of 519 second basemen thrown at least 40 times. There are some really good pitches in that area — Corbin Burnes' slider, Zack Wheeler's curveball, Luis Castillo's changeup, Framber Valdez's curveball — but those are outside pitches and part of the big guns, not first and last options. .

The obvious counter to this method of splitters is just swinging a bit. It's hard to control, obviously. But batsmen are increasingly managing it. Cruz has an 11.6% walk rate in his major league career, and it's an unimpressive 15.5% this year after Monday's disastrous three-footer. Give him a chance, and Cruz will score a run.

Sadly, the batsmen don't seem to care. I understand protecting the plate with two strikes, of course. But let's put it this way: Cruz has thrown 63 pitches with 0-1 and 1-1 counts this year; 40 of those pitches were splits. Hitters swung in 52.5% of those that split and 56.5% of the others. This is just an extremely bad strategy. The swings did not benefit the batsmen. The take has been incredibly profitable. Cruz only throws 30% of his pitches in those two figures in the strike zone – including four seamers and cutters. My bold suggestion: Don't skimp on these figures at all until they fix it.

The Diamondbacks did this to Cruz on Monday. Three hitters who walked only swing if they are leading in the count or by a double. They didn't let Cruz play his usual game of getting into the driver's seat and breaking the splitters over and over again. His backup plan for fastballs and cutters aren't anything but average pitches, while his splitter is earthbound. It's a smart defensive move against a pitcher who completely maximizes his ability to get outs.

At some point, there will be a correction. If hitters are going to leave the bat on their shoulders when Cruz wants to throw splitters, he's going to have to start putting things together. Honestly, I'm still confused that he was able to cast 70% splitters with 0-1 stats and get away with it; you just don't see numbers like this. If I were a hitter, I would probably keep the bat on my shoulders for double figures. Sure, he might get one to strike, but it's not like I would have connected with it anyway. Otherwise, the most likely scenario is a pitch in the dust.

For now, that's a theory. They don't hit there is stepping out of their shoes when they shouldn't. Cruz is something to part with it. Or, well, he says to get away from it. He has a 4.24 ERA on the season, although his FIP (2.07), xFIP (.206), and xERA (3.13) are all much better than that. The Reds seem to think he is good; he jumps in big places, has the highest penetration rate in the team. And if hitters aren't doing well in his game, I think he'll continue to be successful in those situations – he already has nine shutouts on the season, the most on the team.

Could it all be an illusion in the end? Can the strikers see him tomorrow? I think so, indeed. But anyway – and I don't think so – what a great story. Cruz has played in more leagues than most baseball fans can name. He kept working hard waiting for an opportunity. And when he got that opportunity, he turned it into gold. He is now the best reliever in the league, and has one of the best outfields in all of baseball. How cool is that?

Okay, okay, one last bonus. Pederson also hit a Cruz splitter on Monday night. His reaction tells you all you need to know about what it's like to try to beat this idiot.

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