Padres: Is Jake Cronenworth the next Ben Zobrist?

(Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
(Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /
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The Padres rookie has been a major reason for the team’s success, but just how big is the rookie’s upside? Can Cronenworth be the next great utility man?

Don’t you just love some overreactions to small sample sizes in the morning? As sports fans — and, more importantly, Padres fans — it’s practically a constitutional right. That’s precisely what I will be delivering to you, right now, as I attempt to compare Jake Cronenworth‘s play to that of former All-Star Ben Zobrist.

Of course, the most obvious reason for this comparison is that, like Zobrist, Cronenworth is a utility-infielder having played at least some time at every infield position, second base being the primary. While he doesn’t garner as many headlines as Manny Machado or new king of baseball, Fernando Tatis Jr., Cronenworth’s breakout has been arguably just as important to the Padres success as any.

Through 31 games, he’s got a monolithic slash line of .356/.411/.624, to go along with 9 doubles, 3 triples, and 4 homers. Cronenworth’s start has been about as explosive and ludicrous as the first 25 minutes of Face/Off, and his defense has been nothing to spit at either. I’m not ashamed to admit I often pull up his absolutely majestic, jaw-dropping MLB Statcast profile when I’m in dire need — thanks to the putrid stench of a year that is 2020 — of some good ole’ fashion eye-candy.

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Zobrist, on the other hand — and who you might be surprised to hear hasn’t actually retired yet — didn’t nearly have as impressive a start. Back in his major league debut for Tampa in 2006 (way back when they were called the “Devil Rays”, remember that?), his first 31 games ceded a .235/.268/.339 slash line, with nary a triple and only two homers. During Zobrist’s first true breakout 2009 season, and perhaps the best season of his career, his numbers through 31 games were far better (.289/.372/.651) and measure up to Cronenworth’s current pace, with his numbers in May of that year (.313/.439/.625) being a near-exact replica.

I say all this to emphasize just how unbelievable a start Cronenworth has had and, considering the circumstances for him to have even gotten a shot in the first place, been as remarkable a story as any player in the entire league this season. Remember, one of the presumed reasons Cronenworth was able to sneak onto the 40-man roster in the first was outfield prospect Jorge Mateo‘s positive result of COVID-19. Even further, Eric Hosmer‘s gastrointestinal issues early on is what resulted in Cronenworth having a chance at first base — which isn’t exactly his primary position — where he, well, made some extremely lovely plays. Fast forward a bit and he’s the frontrunner for rookie of the year.

You could bring up any number of technical differences between the two; from their similarily clean, short strokes at the plate and ability to play multiple positions, to the difference in Zobrist being more of a pull-hitter by comparison (career pull percentage of 44.8 opposed to Cronenworth’s 36.5 percent) and Cronenworth’s still-untapped bonus feature of being a talented pitcher that can throw in the mid-90s.

But the greatest point to make here isn’t about their statistics, but their stories. Like Cronenworth, Zobrist’s rise to prominence was hardly something that could’ve been predicted. Both were average, middling prospects even by their mid-20s, and for teams that had more recognizable superstars already on tap. But they’re necessary utility men that every team with championship aspirations gleefully appreciates when they, albeit rarely, come along.

Cronenworth’s numbers may be, as they currently stand, a bit unsustainable (.395 BABIP being one indicator), but there are some encouraging signs that this is all legit, like his low strikeout rate being in line with his minor league numbers. If the guy really is the next Zobrist, then the Padres second basemen of the future could already be figured out, which only gives the team more flexibility in trying to improve other areas of the team by, dare I say, moving some of their infield prospects.

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While we’ll still have to see on whether Cronenworth can live up to the Zobrist comparison, one thing’s for sure. They’re both fine examples of the beautiful, unpredictable nature of baseball.

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