With the first overall selection in the 2011 Rule 5 Draft, the Houston Astros selected 6’2″, 205 right-hander Rhiner Cruz, 25, out of the New York Mets organization. There was good news and bad news for the Astros regarding Cruz. He was a talented pitcher who had touched 100 MPH at times with two secondary pitches, a slider and a changeup, that have flashed plus. However, his control and command were far from big league ready, and being a Rule 5 draft pick, Cruz would have to stay on the big league roster all season long or be returned to the Mets. For most teams, it would have been extremely hard to keep Cruz because how could you use up a bullpen spot on a pitcher not ready to get major league hitters out? But on an Astros team that’s going to lose well over 100 games, it hasn’t been a problem and that could be for the best.
In 2012, Cruz has really struggled. He has gone 1-1 with a 6.85 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, a 5.6 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 in 43 relief appearances and 44.2 innings pitched. Those are not good or even serviceable numbers by any stretch of the imagination. But by sticking with Cruz, the Astros have a chance to continue developing him into the dominating relief pitcher he has a chance to be. One benefit of Cruz’s time in the big leagues is that we now have some Pitch F/X data on him. Let’s look at that data, which is courtesy of Brooks Baseball, in my original display, and see just how good of pitcher Cruz could be with continued work.
The graph confirms what we already know: Cruz’s pure stuff is great. His fastball hits 98 MPH quite often and it’s not a straight pitch, featuring nice run away from right-handed batters, and at its best, solid sink. His changeup hasn’t been a pitch that Cruz has used very often, but it’s slowly but surely becoming a weapon thanks to great arm action, a 10 MPH difference from his fastball, and nice sink as well. Cruz’s breaking ball is the most enigmatic of his pitches. Clocked in the low-80’s, Cruz’s breaking ball looks like a sharp 11-to-5 curveball at its best but gets slurvy too often. That causes it to lose the sharp action and still not feature sufficient depth to fool hitters who time the downward action. Cruz’s breaking ball has been a solid swing-and-miss pitch this season, but also has been drilled when Cruz has been unable to keep it down in the zone.
Cruz’s struggles right now are mostly because of command. His fastball moves enough that it’s hard to locate to begin with, and Cruz needs continued work staying on top of it to keep it down in the zone. In addition to working on commanding his changeup, Cruz simply needs to trust it more as it’s a pitch that has the ability to blow away hitters sitting dead-red for the fastball. And Cruz has to form an identity with a breaking ball, getting either the curveball action or the slider action and not a disastrous combination of both.
Most pitchers with Cruz’s problems would be working out their difficulties at Triple-A, maybe even Double-A. Cruz has even never pitched at Triple-A other than a pair of rehab appearances after being placed on the DL with a right ankle sprain back in April. But Cruz is getting a chance that few players get, to sort themselves out in the big leagues without the pressure of needing to perform well immediately, and he is beginning to make progress. Cruz has a 3.72 ERA in his last 9 appearances.
Rhiner Cruz is a talented pitcher that has a chance to be a part of the future for the Astros. Their future is quite a while away as they’re undergoing a rebuilding process and they understand that. It is impossible to deny that Rhiner Cruz should not be in the big leagues right now. He simply isn’t ready. But with the future in mind, the Astros have been extremely patient with Cruz as he starts to find himself as a pitcher and that move could pay dividends for them someday.
For more on the Astros, please check out Climbing Tal’s Hill.