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Continuing The Theme

(A post in the same vein as the one about Feierabend a few days ago.)

While I've already written about my favorite late-season call-up, there's another guy in the bunch that people have been waiting to see all season long, a guy who, after coming over as a waiver claim last August, went on to lead all minor leaguers in strikeouts this year with 185. One of the most statistically tantalizing arms the Mariners have had in the high minors in years, Francisco Cruceta was a popular discussion topic throughout the summer, his performance drawing considerable attention in light of the struggles of the Major League rotation. The most frequent context was something along the lines of "he couldn't possibly be worse than Joel, could he?" But Cruceta wouldn't get his shot until it was far too late for him to make a difference, and now he's only going to throw a handful of innings by which we'll have to determine whether or not he's ready to help out the ML club in 2007. And, needless to say, he hasn't made a real strong first impression.

So who is Francisco Cruceta, anyway? Let's step back for a moment. Signed as an undrafted free agent in May of 1999, Cruceta made his professional debut as an 18 year old with the Dodgers' Dominican affiliate. He moved along slowly at first, but there was a lot of talent in his powerful right arm, enough to make him an attractive part of the three-player package the Dodgers used to get Paul Shuey from the Indians in 2002. He joined the Cleveland organization with a sparkling Sally League ERA and earned himself an instant promotion to high-A Kinston, where he struggled with his control but still managed to avoid getting hit very hard. He was clearly an unpolished work in progress, but with a strong arm and a lot of untapped natural ability, he was worth keeping an eye on as one of Cleveland's better sleeper prospects.

Everyone has their problems, though, and Cruceta's was this - he was telegraphing his pitches. He threw his fastball and offspeed stuff from completely different places, and while the little guys in A-ball might've had trouble taking advantage, this was surely going to pose a problem against more advanced competition at higher levels. So advice was given, adjustments were made, and pitches were added in an effort to make Cruceta both more consistent and effective. And it worked in AA, at least for a while, before Cruceta bottomed out with an ugly half-season in Akron in 2004. Nevertheless he got promoted, not once but twice, getting all the way to Cleveland where he made a pair of (short-lived) Major League starts.

As it turns out, though, that second promotion might've just been a last-ditch effort on Cleveland's part to see if they actually had anything in Cruceta, because after a poor ML debut and four mediocre months in AAA Buffalo the next summer, he was designated for assignment and sent off the 40-man roster. That's when Greg Hunter spied him, made his case to Bavasi, and brought Cruceta to Seattle as a waiver claim. He was still pretty rough around the edges and approaching busted-prospect status, but with a little upside and a roster spot to burn, it was a worthwhile pickup.

Cruceta only appeared in two games for Tacoma last year, but when he showed up to camp this past March he made his case for breaking camp with the big club. He generated significant enthusiasm by striking out 16 hitters in 14 spring innings, and instantly became someone to watch as a potential early-season call-up.

What he did over the course of the summer certainly didn't discourage such excitement. Some mechanical adjustments worked wonders for Cruceta's statistical profile, and he started whiffing hitters left and right. Consistently finding the zone was still a problem, but you don't lead the minors in strikeouts by accident. Francisco Cruceta had "found himself," so to speak, and Mariner fans were all over him, wondering when the guy with all the K's would come up and replace one of the seven-figure assclowns starting every five days in Seattle.

Yet, despite all the clamoring and all the outrage, Cruceta stayed in Tacoma to ride out the season, fanning ten in his final start for good measure before finally getting the call. He made his first Mariner appearance in relief a week ago and started his first game last Friday, but neither display was particularly encouraging. Which brings us to today. Why did he struggle? And where does he stand in the organization's eyes now that he's looked bad and godawful in his first two games?

This is the thing about Cruceta - the strikeouts are great and all, but they've blinded some people to a few glaring weaknesses. For one thing, while he theoretically possesses a four-pitch arsenal, he only throws two or three of them (depending on the day), and only has control of one. And, for another, he's an extreme flyball pitcher who got burned in AAA to the tune of 25 homers in 161 innings. Not only are these bad characteristics for a pitcher to have, but they both stem from Cruceta's delivery, which you can see here (FB = fastball, SP = splitter). Because of some backwards tilt, a short stride, and a straight back, Cruceta releases the ball very high and very early, leading to a number of problems. I'll make a list:

  1. Difficult to spin a breaking ball with that sort of arm action, because you can't get your forearm out in front of your body. This could explain why he's become predominantly a two-pitch pitcher (fastballs and splitters are thrown with different grips but the same motion), frequently avoiding the curve he used to throw more often.
  2. Hard to control the ball. Anyone who's ever pitched knows that the easiest way to throw the ball where you want is to point your body towards the spot, then reach forward with your arm and release as close to home plate as possible. Cruceta can't do that because he's practically letting go of the ball behind his head. Do that as a right-handed pitcher and you're going to miss up and in a ton (think Eddie Guardado, only opposite-handed).
  3. Low perceived velocity. Cruceta's fastball gets clocked in the 92-94mph range, which is above-average for a Major League pitcher, but because he releases so early it looks slower to a batter than a 92-94mph fastball thrown by somebody else with more forward extention. The standard rule of thumb is that, for a pitcher, 1 foot = 3mph (perceived), so you can see why it makes such a difference. This might explain why Cruceta's consistently posted abnormally high hit rates despite missing his share of bats.
  4. Tendency to miss high in the zone. It's simple - if you want to pitch up, you release early, and if you want to pitch down, you release late. So someone that consistently releases early is, therefore, consistently going to throw high pitches. This is the absolute main reason why Cruceta's such an extreme flyball pitcher; his GB% of 40.7% was comfortably below the PCL average of 45.7%. That's not a fluke, and it's going to be a characteristic of Cruceta's for as long as he's throwing with this delivery.
That pretty much touches on everything that's wrong with Cruceta - he has a limited repertoire, poor command, and a tendency to give up a ton of flyballs. And again, barring some sort of mechanical overhaul, these things are going to be incredibly difficult, if not impossible to fix. It's also worth mentioning that Cruceta was one of the PCL's more inconsistent pitchers, seemingly blowing up just as often as he dominated. On a game-by-game basis, he was truly unpredictable.

Working in Cruceta's favor is that, despite these problem areas, he's been able to get by with a decent fastball that he can control and a splitter that scared the bejeezus out of AAA hitters. The problem, though, is that the bats in the Major Leagues are more selective and equipped with better eyes, making them less likely to go after the one pitch Cruceta can use to strike people out. If they aren't biting on his splitter (which is wild), Cruceta really doesn't have much of a fallback plan, which is how he generally finds himself getting into trouble.

Francisco Cruceta is a lesson in why you can't just automatically apply some general ML translation to minor league statistics and come out with a reliable performance projection. He's been able to succeed by taking advantage of the one thing minor league batters do significantly worse than their Major League counterparts, and now that he's in Seattle, he's having a hell of a time trying to adjust. Obviously he's not five-runs-in-one-inning bad, but he's not nine-strikeouts-in-every-game good, either, despite what some people might've been hoping for as they tracked his progress in Tacoma this year.

This is the simplest way of putting things: Francisco Cruceta is not a starting pitcher. At least, not a good one, anyway, not in Seattle, unless he makes an assload of changes. I don't have any problem with him getting a few starts this month as the season winds down, and I thought it was absolutely ridiculous and hypocritical for Hargrove to yank him after one inning last Friday, but that's more out of hope than expectation, a sort of "why not?" trial period before we accept his limitations and permanently move him to the bullpen. In a lost season there's no harm in finding out for sure whether or not Cruceta's capable of going six innings at a time, but the Mariners have viewed him as a long-term reliever since pretty much the moment he joined the system, so his rough start in Kansas City merely served to confirm what Mike Hargrove already thought, and that was that. Cruceta's career as a starter with the Mariners is almost certainly over.

While that seems like discouraging news, though, don't let it be. Other people might have raised your level of expectations for Cruceta by overreacting to his strikeout rate, but just because he doesn't have much potential to help out in the rotation doesn't mean he's worthless. A move to the bullpen could do him a lot of good; he'd probably gain a few miles on his fastball, he wouldn't have to worry about his two-pitch repertoire, and he could be spotted in particular situations where he's most likely to succeed. God knows we've already seen one guy go crazy with just a fastball and a splitter this year, so there's always a chance. Francisco Cruceta the reliever has considerably more upside than Francisco Cruceta the starter.

I'm not really sure what the plan is for Cruceta at this point. With his awful day in Kansas City and Ryan Feierabend's success in a few relief appearances, it's hard to see him getting another start this year. And while the organization would like to see him gain some relief experience, the 2007 bullpen is so thoroughly overstocked with arms that there's really no room for him to break in, making it more likely that he begins next year treading water in the Tacoma rotation trying to give the whole "starting" thing one more go. I can't say anything for certain right now because I'm not sure the team itself knows where it's going to put Cruceta, but his long-term role is becoming clearer by the day, and that's not going to change for as long as he maintains his current delivery.

Late edit: it's been brought to my attention that Cruceta is out of waivers. So, he either sticks next March or he's gone.

Who knows. Maybe he'll go to the bullpen and flounder. Maybe he'll go to the bullpen and take off. Maybe he'll stay in the rotation, have an epiphany, and become the quality starter so many people hoped he'd be this summer. Maybe he'll get traded and become some other organization's confusing AAA power arm. I can't tell you what the immediate future holds in store for Francisco Cruceta because his skillset isn't really complementary to the team's present needs, and that can paint a foggy picture. Just don't look at his first two appearances and write him off, because as much as he's still a work in progress, he has enough tools to become an effective pitcher, even if it's in a diminished role. Temper your expectations, but don't lose hope. There's still a lot of potential here.