Fernando Cruz’s Splitter Is Unhittable, but Batters Keep Trying

Phil Didion/The Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s not quite right to say that Fernando Cruz was a late-blooming prospect. That would imply that he was a prospect, and he wasn’t, at least not really. He was picked in the sixth round of the 2007 draft as a hitter, but never made it out of A-ball in four years. He tried pitching after that, and it worked, but not enough for the Royals to keep him. He kicked around the minors, indy ball, and the winter league circuit for more than a decade. He played in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. He was living a full baseball life, and almost exclusively outside of affiliated ball. Over the 2021-2022 winter, though, Cruz put on a show, racking up a 2.03 ERA with 81 strikeouts in 61 innings of work across three leagues and the Caribbean Series.

You can have big league potential without pitching in affiliated ball, and the Reds saw it. They signed Cruz to a minor league deal before the 2022 season and sent him straight to Triple-A, where he was one of the best relievers in the minors right away. He earned a promotion to the big leagues that September, and he hasn’t looked back since. Now, at 34, he’s off to one of the best starts of any reliever in baseball when it comes to missing bats. It’s a remarkable story, and he’s a player worth celebrating. How in the world did he sneak past everyone for so long, and how is he thriving now? I hope I’ll be able to tell you.

The first thing that jumps off the page when you look at Cruz’s statistical record is strikeout rate. He has a career 36.5% mark in the majors, the ninth-best mark all time for pitchers with at least 90 innings. Sure, nine of the top 10 are currently active pitchers, and the all-time strikeout rate leaderboard is overwhelmingly tilted toward modern players (shout out to Diamond Pipkins, who struck out 19 batters in 15.2 innings for the 1931 Cleveland Cubs for cracking the top 25). But even if this is just a list of effective modern pitchers, Cruz is on that list!

The next thing that jumps off the page is that he throws a splitter 44% of the time. It’s not really a change of pace; it’s just his pace. There’s a simple and effective plan at work here. Early count? Cruz is going to throw you a fastball or cutter, something that you might take for a strike or foul off. Behind in the count? He’ll stick with it, tilting more heavily toward his fastball as he gets further behind. But when he gets ahead, it’s splittin’ time, and you don’t want to reach splittin’ time if you’re hittin’.

An 0-1 count? Cruz throws his splitter 69% of the time. 0-2? We’re talking 96% of the time; you might as well throw the rest of his arsenal out and only look for that. He throws it 94% of the time in 1-2 counts, 70% of the time in 2-2 counts, even 67% of the time in 3-2 counts. If there’s a strikeout on the line, you’re almost certainly going to see a splitter. Or, well, you’re going to get a splitter. I’m not sure Joc Pederson ever saw this one:

I didn’t pick that pitch by accident. That’s the archetypical Cruz splitter. It’s a strike out of his hands but turns into a ball, and there’s essentially no way to get a bat on it. Opponents have swung at 40 of Cruz’s splitters out of the strike zone. They’ve missed 34 of them. No one in baseball has a nastier offspeed pitch. Honestly, no one has a nastier chase pitch, period, though Nick Lodolo’s curveball at least comes close in the data.

OK, that’s neat, but isn’t it a bit small of a sample for us mathematically inclined types? 40 pitches? That’s how many Lance Lynn throws in a rough inning. We’re gonna need more data. But good news: The extra data pretty much agrees with the 2024-only version. Exactly two pitchers are missing bats more frequently with their out-of-zone offspeed pitches over the past three years: Félix Bautista and Kodai Senga. That’s one of the best closers in baseball and a guy whose splitter is so ridiculous it got its own nickname. Yeah, I think that’ll do.

If I were a hitter, I’d like to think that I could come up with a plan to counter this attack. This isn’t one of those cases where a pitcher throws mostly secondaries, but “mostly” means 60%. Guys like that are prone to sneak a fastball by you if you sit on their bendy stuff. But there’s no real threat with Cruz. In 1-2 counts, he’s thrown 29 splitters and two fastballs. He’s only thrown a single 0-2 fastball. There’s no subtlety here.

If there’s a bind for hitters, it’s figuring out whether the splitter they get will be in the zone or in the dirt. He’s running a 30% zone rate with the pitch so far this year, and that’s consistent regardless of count. The “always take” plan isn’t automatic when Cruz is capable, at least occasionally, of landing one for a strike.

On the other hand, swinging hasn’t been a great counterstrategy. They’re swinging at 77% of Cruz’s in-zone splitters, a respectable rate. In fact, they’re probably swinging too much; that’s roughly league average, and they’re chasing 45% of the time, a scarily high amount.

The worst of it for hitters is that those in-zone swings haven’t done them any good. They’re still swinging and missing quite often, a third of the time this year and 45% of the time throughout his major league career. When they do make contact, it’s been quite poor. Cruz has given up exactly one homer on a splitter in his career, and ironically enough that pitch was outside the strike zone. It’s just a hard one to square up; to wit, hitters have squared up six of their 70 swings at the pitch this year (thanks Statcast!). Even when they do make contact, they’re squaring up less than a quarter of it. For whatever it’s worth, league average against all splitters is 33.3%.

In other words, Cruz’s splitter is one of the pitches in baseball that hitters can do the least with. They rarely ever make contact, and they do little damage even when they do. The combination of high swing rate – batters swing at roughly 50% of Cruz’s splitters – and poor results on swings is extremely rare. The pitch is in elite territory – we’re talking Yu Darvish’s knuckle curve, Edwin Díaz’s slider, Michael King’s changeup, things like that. Pitchers simply don’t garner that combination of frequent and fruitless swings.

Time for a quick aside: I’ve watched a lot of Cruz trying to figure out what makes this pitch so devastating. I didn’t come away with a lot of answers. It looks vaguely like a lot of other splitters that aren’t nearly so good. It’s the slowest splitter in the league by a hair, but it doesn’t dip as much as you might expect because what little spin he puts on the ball imparts some lift. His release point isn’t particularly strange. He gets good extension, but nothing outrageous. I think there’s some deception going on in his delivery, and that hitters aren’t picking it up out of his hand as a result, but I truly cannot figure out why from watching him pitch.

So is Cruz the best reliever in baseball or something? Well, no. He’s absolutely maxing out this pitch, to be clear. It’s one of the best pitches in baseball, and so he just throws it all the time. No one throws splitters more frequently than Cruz does. Few pitchers throw non-fastballs that frequently, and they’re pretty much all sliders that have in-zone utility. But there’s a weakness to his plan: He can’t throw the dang thing for a strike.

That 30% zone rate I was talking about is pretty bad. It’s not last in baseball, but it’s 497th out of 519 secondary pitches that have been thrown at least 40 times. There are some really good pitches in that area – Corbin Burnes’s slider, Zack Wheeler’s curveball, Luis Castillo’s changeup, Framber Valdez’s curveball – but those are pure out pitches and part of larger arsenals, not first-and-only options.

The clear counter to this all-splitters approach is just to swing less. It’s hard to hold back, obviously. But hitters are increasingly managing it. Cruz has an 11.6% walk rate for his major league career, and it’s an unsightly 15.5% this year after an ugly three-walk outing on Monday. Give him a chance, and Cruz will put a runner on.

Outrageously, hitters don’t seem to care. I understand defending the plate with two strikes, of course. But let’s put it this way: Cruz has thrown 63 pitches in 0-1 and 1-1 counts this year; 40 of those pitches have been splitters. Batters are swinging at 52.5% of those splitters and 56.5% of the other stuff. This is just an outrageously bad strategy. The swings have been incredibly unprofitable for batters. The takes have been incredibly profitable. Cruz is only throwing 30% of his pitches in those two counts in the strike zone — four-seamers and cutters also included. My bold strategy proposal: Don’t swing at all in these counts until he adjusts.

The Diamondbacks more or less did this to Cruz on Monday. The three batters who walked only swung when they were ahead in the count or with two strikes. They didn’t let Cruz play his normal game of getting in the driver’s seat and breaking off splitters over and over again. His backup plan of fastballs and cutters isn’t terrible or anything, but they’re average pitches, while his splitter is otherworldly. It’s a clever defense against a pitcher who is absolutely maxing out his ability to get outs.

At some point, there will be an adjustment to the adjustment. If hitters are just going to leave the bat on their shoulders in counts where Cruz wants to throw splitters, he’ll have to start mixing in harder stuff. Honestly, I’m still kind of mystified that he’s been able to throw 70% splitters in 0-1 counts and get away with it; you just don’t see numbers like that. If I were a hitter, I might even keep the bat on my shoulders in two-strike counts. Sure, he might land one for a strike, but it’s not like I would’ve made contact with it anyway. Besides, the most likely scenario is a pitch in the dirt.

For now, that’s theoretical. Hitters are swinging out of their shoes when they shouldn’t be. Cruz is getting away with it. Or, well, he’s kind of getting away with it. He does have a 4.24 ERA on the season, though his FIP (2.07), xFIP (.206), and xERA (3.13) are all far better than that. The Reds seem to think he’s good; he’s pitching in big spots, with the highest entry leverage on the team. And if hitters don’t wise up to his game, I think he’ll continue to succeed in those situations – he already has nine shutdowns on the season, most on the team.

Could it all be an illusion in the end? Could hitters figure him out tomorrow? I guess so, sure. But even if that’s the case — and I don’t think it is — what a marvelous story. Cruz played in more leagues than most baseball fans can name. He kept toiling, waiting for a chance. And when he got that chance, he turned it into gold. Now he’s an excellent major league reliever, and has one of the best pitches in all of baseball. How cool is that?

OK, fine, one last bonus. Pederson struck out again on a Cruz splitter Monday night. His reaction tells you all you need to know about what it’s like to try to hit this stupid pitch.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 month ago

I think part of Cruz’s success is the absolute, unwavering consistency of his release point and arm action. His fastball and splitter release points are virtually identical across the board. The overlap is one of the tightest groupings I’ve ever seen on the Baseball Savant pitcher breakdown. Both pitches come out of his hand looking virtually identical but with a two-foot gap in their expected movement profile at the same horizontal movement, plus a 13 mph velocity gap. The spin-based movement on the two pitches also looks scarily similar.

It’s not necessarily that the splitter itself is some superhuman movement pitch, just that it looks the same as his next-best pitch out of his hand, but with opposite results. Batters can’t tell which one they’re getting until the splitter drops.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Also! I checked the 3D pitch viewer on Baseball Savant, and from what a not-very-scientific view can tell me, his pitches tunnel exceptionally well. The splitter only starts to diverge from the 4-seam fastball approximately 2/3rds of the way to the plate. That is, according to the timing metric included in the viewer, pretty much exactly at the point when the hitter has to commit to their swing, 167 mms before it reaches the plate. The difference between the two commit points is so close, with the fastball’s point being literal milliseconds before the splitter. The gap is two to three feet of travel distance, as best I can tell using the baseball-sized beads indicating the decision point (approximately 3 inches wide). That’s insanely small for such a large velocity gap. That supports what I said above, but viewing it like that makes it so stark.

Last edited 1 month ago by EonADS
Chase Metzgermember
1 month ago
Reply to  EonADS

Fantastic comment, thanks @EonADS !