Elly De La Cruz Is Not Like Other Baseball Players
8:57 AM EDT on July 21, 2023
Superhuman Reds phenom Elly De La Cruz is slumping a little bit. In seven games since the all-star break, De La Cruz has two hits and 12 strikeouts in 28 at-bats. The extremely fun and frisky Reds don't work so well without De La Cruz's heroics: Their 2–5 record over this span has dropped them into second place in the NL Central and a game back of the National League's second wild card. Excepting a wild 11–10 barnburner loss to the Giants on baseball's historic Day Of Mashing, the Reds have failed to score more than three runs in a game since July 8. Eventually they will need for De La Cruz to get back to smacking the ball around and stealing bags and turbocharging the offense.
But that doesn't mean your new favorite player isn't still doing cool stuff. De La Cruz is incapable of participating in a baseball game without producing highlights. In the final game of a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers on July 16, De La Cruz threw the fastest recorded infield assist in the eight-plus-year history of baseball's Statcast service. De La Cruz was playing third base that afternoon—despite being a world-class shortstop, for reasons of lineup maximization De La Cruz has actually played more games at third (23) than in the hole (15) so far in his MLB career—and was stationed there in the third inning when Brewers rookie Joey Wiemer hit a chopper to the left side. De La Cruz initially broke toward the plate on contact, but then retreated several steps, so that his momentum was moving away from the direction of his eventual throw. And Wiemer has serious wheels: Statcast says the outfielder's average sprint speed is in baseball's 91st percentile. It took a 97.9 mph laser for De La Cruz to get Wiemer by a half-step at first:
De La Cruz's July 16 throw may have topped the previous fastest recorded throw by just 0.1 mph, but on the play De La Cruz became just the third player to ever record an infield assist of at least 97 mph, joining fellow cannon-armed baseball gods Fernando Tatis Jr. and Oneil Cruz. An impressive throw and feat, yes, and extra cool that it came in De La Cruz's 33rd big-league game, but there was reason to believe he'd not yet gone Full Sauce on a throw in the majors. For one thing there's the matter of De La Cruz's ill-advised Family Circus-ass path on the play, and the fact that the throw was slightly rushed. For another, De La Cruz has made mightier throws at lower levels of the Reds organization. On May 17, as a member of the Triple-A Louisville Bats, De La Cruz bobbled a hard-hit grounder at shortstop and then fired a strike to first at a terrifying 99.1 mph, again without the benefit of momentum or much time for a full load-up. This also only hints at the man's true arm strength. Back on May 6, playing third for the Bats, De La Cruz hauled in another chopper and whipped the ball across the diamond at 99.2 mph. Here I would like to reiterate that in almost nine seasons of tracking throws Statcast has never recorded a major-league infield assist of even 98 mph.
Which brings us to Thursday night. De La Cruz was back at shortstop for the final tilt of a four-game series against the San Francisco Giants. In the fourth inning, Giants outfielder Luis Matos smoked a ball to deep left field, where it sailed past the glove of Reds outfielder Will Benson. Giants first baseman Wilmer Flores, running from first on the play following a walk to open the inning, chugged around second base. This was going to be two-out double that ended with Flores at third base, except that Benson misplayed the ball's carom off the outfield wall, and Giants third base coach Mark Hallberg saw an opportunity to wave the big man home. "I saw Mark read that bobble and made a quick decision," recalled Giants manager Gabe Kapler.
This wound up being a miscalculation, and your heart has to break a little bit for the slow-moving Flores, who chugged 270 grueling feet only to get summarily mowed down at the plate by a damn rookie. Benson's strong and accurate heave from the warning track actually led Cruz from shallow left toward the infield, setting up an absolute bazooka of a throw to the plate. "I knew on that throw I was going to be able to throw it as fast as possible," De La Cruz recounted after the game. Flores had no chance at all.
This was De La Cruz's fourth recorded major-league assist of at least 95 mph, which is tied for the most among infielders since MLB started tracking such things. It is notable that the only other player with as many in baseball's Statcast era, per Sarah Langs, is Tatis Jr., who has played approximately seven times as many career games as an infielder and has recorded eight times as many assists. While we are here, none of the five pitchers who took the mound in Thursday's game threw the ball harder than 97.4 mph. De La Cruz's right arm is extremely not normal. And there might be more juice in there! "We had to get that guy out at home," the never-humble De La Cruz said after the game. "But you know what? I can definitely throw harder than that." I believe him.