From little league adolescence though high school, baseball players are instructed to play every position on the diamond. Becoming proficient at multiple positions requires both dexterity and grace, while remaining in the every day lineup requires durability. Injuries, declining performance, and superior players ahead of the curve can impede the pursuit of a big league promotion and create a permanent spot on the bench for a young player, derailing their confidence. Versatility prevents that from happening and becomes an oasis for managers to turn to when in need of a spark.
Determined to make an impact on a field through any possible means, Jacob Cronenworth carved out a collegiate career as both a pitcher and a position player at the University of Michigan, before being drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the seventh round this past June.
Under the specter of a competitive setting, toughness is an essential quality. Confidence and fortitude enable individuals to attain their peak efficacy and develop the emotional stability needed to achieve those goals. Growing up in a family, which included two hockey players and a U.S. Marine, Cronenworth developed those characteristics, and after three consecutive Varsity letter winners and a state championship at St. Clair high school, he committed to the University of Michigan, displaying an apt makeup for the spotlight.
“Normally where I’ve recruited before, when you found a kid who played high-school football, you found a type of toughness,” Michigan baseball coach Erik Bakich said. “In the Upper Midwest, that’s the hockey mindset. I like recruiting guys that play multiple sports.” (Michigan Daily).
In addition to playing multiple sports, Cronenworth played several infield positions and severed as the closer of the Wolverines. “We weren’t sure if he was just a pitcher or just an infielder, so we let him do both,” Bakich said. Cronenworth proved proficient on both sides of the diamond, earning All-Big Ten second team honors in his freshman season, batting to a .320/.386/. 429 slash line, along with a 1.93 earned run average on the mound. By his sophomore year, Cronenworth was named to the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year watch list, finishing second in the Big Ten in walks, and saving a personal best twelve games on the mound. Cronenworth’s resourcefulness proved invaluable to a Michigan team featuring future major league draft picks Michael O’Neill and Patrick Biondi.
By 2015, Crownenworth became one of the top players in the Big Ten, culminating with a Most Valuable Player award in the Big Ten tournament, which included him recording the final out on the mound. Vast improvements in average, slugging and power enabled the Tampa Bay Rays to select him as a second baseman in the seventh round of the draft, to the surprise of many. Assigned to the short-season Hudson Valley Renegades, Cronenworth is discovering new life as a position player exclusively and recently spoke with Baseball Essential about the nuances of spending time at each position on the diamond.
BASEBALL ESSENTIAL: Early in your career, winning championships have become second nature, capturing them at both St. Clair high school and Michigan. You closed the victories on both occasions. What did it mean to be able to be on the mound for the final out each time?
JACOB CRONENWORTH: “It is just a special situation. Many guys get the opportunity maybe once in their lifetime to be on the mound during a championship season, but being out there twice is something special and something I will never forget”.
BBE: As a freshman at Michigan, you received All-Big Ten second team honors as a third baseman with your teammate Michael O’Neill making first team. What was it like for you to see your name amongst some of the top players in college baseball and future draft picks?
JC: “It was awesome. All the hard work that was put in earlier that year in the fall and it ended up paying off in the spring. You mentioned Michael O’Neill, he played for the Staten Island Yankees not too long ago and he was kind of a mentor to me my freshman year and taught me how to play the game the right way and how to approach the game every day”.
BBE: In your junior season in Michigan, you saved eight games as a closer and hit .338 with six home runs as a position player. What type of preparation do you do when playing different positions?
JC: “It definitely takes different mindsets. On the mound, you are being the aggressor, going after hitters and attacking the zone. When I am in the field it is just trying to be patient and attack the ground balls. Being a leadoff hitter it’s about being patient and seeing pitches and just having a quality at bat every time out there.”
BBE: Did pitching help you with pitch recognition at the plate?
JC:“Yeah, definitely. I think so. It is something that has definitely helped me with my pitch recognition and plate discipline. Taking that pitcher’s pitch early in the count that maybe some guys swing at or maybe it’s a broken bat ground out or a ground out in general. Having the ability to lay off that pitch and selecting a pitch you want later on in the at bat is huge”.
BBE: You can capable of playing every position on the infield, outfield, and can pitch. How many types of gloves do you carry around with you?
JC: “In college I carried around one for every position, so I carried an outfield glove, first baseman’s mitt, an infield glove, and a pitcher’s glove. Here I just carry my infielder’s glove and my outfielder’s glove. I have not played the outfield yet, but I bring it just in case”.
BBE: The Tampa Bay Rays drafted you in the seventh round as a second baseman rather than a pitcher. How much did that surprise you, given the success you had on the mound in college?
JC:“Just from the stuff I had been hearing before the draft it was a huge surprise. I one hundred percent thought I would be taken as a pitcher and I was ready to be as a pitcher. When my name was called, my entire family was shocked as well and its worked out for the best and to continue to get the opportunity to be a second baseman and if it doesn’t work out I have pitching to fall back on”.
BBE: With the Hudson Valley Renegades you are one of the top hitters in the league, batting .312 and even hit a walk-off home run. What measures have you taken with manager Tim Parenton to be able to adjust so quickly to the pro game?
JC: “The whole coaching staff has helped a tremendous amount. It’s definitely a tough transition from college to pro ball and Tim coached college baseball and now he is managing pro baseball, so he has understood the differences between the two and the stuff I have learned since I have been here is a tremendous help”.
BBE: Aside from baseball, hockey has been a major influence in your life, as two members of your family have taken the ice and you had played the sport at St. Clair High School. Did having a hockey lineage help develop the thick skin needed to compete on the diamond?
JC: “Yeah, definitely. Before I decided to focus on baseball pretty much strictly, I really wanted to play college hockey and it was the path I was going to take. I was convinced by some people to continue playing baseball, so I took that path. Hockey has definitely helped me. Having that hockey mindset on the baseball field has been a tremendous help to me and has put me above certain guys on the field.”
BBE: If you as a pitcher had to face yourself as a hitter, how would you approach the at bat?
JC: “I don’t know. I would have probably struck myself out, but I don’t know why I say that Maybe I would strike myself out and hit a home run, but I don’t know.”
Versatility is an attribute which cannot be measured by advanced statistics. The ability to play virtually every position on the diamond is a manager’s dream. A spot in the starting nine becomes almost guaranteed and the contributions represent the selflessness expected of victory. Jacob Cronenworth provides those qualities in an unorthodox manner, carrying multiple gloves and experience as a pitcher in pressure situations. At the plate, opponents are beginning to take note of his offense and the threats he possesses at the top of the Renegades order. “He is a good little player. I like him”, Staten Island Yankees manager Pat Osborn said. “Looking at the stats, it looks like he also plays shortstop and if a guy can handle the bat the way he does and run, that is a guy with some value. I like what I see from Jake. He is hitting over .500 in his last five games”.
In the minor leagues, where players take twelve-hour road trips at the wage of just $1100 per season, players like Cronenworth, who evoke comparisons to Brock Holt and Willie Bloomquist provide unmeasured value and can sometimes be underestimated. The combination of speed, average, and on-base skills make Cronenworth a potential leadoff hitter at the major league level and adds credence to the Tampa Bay Rays decision to turn him into a full-time position player, with an eye on the coming years in an innovative game.