Jacob Cruz Talks Hitting

Jacob Cruz played with some great hitters from 1996-2005. Teammates bookending his career included Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., and in between he shared the field with stalwarts such as Manny Ramirez and Larry Walker. Ever studious, the Arizona State University learned from them all.

Cruz’s now teaches hitting. He’s done so for the past decade, beginning with a six-season stint in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, followed by two seasons — the second of them as a minor-league hitting coordinator — with the Chicago Cubs. Cruz then spent 2019 as the assistant hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is the role he now has in Milwaukee. This past November, the Brewers brought Cruz on board to work alongside hitting coach Andy Haines.

In the 27th installment of our “Talks Hitting” series, Cruz addresses his philosophies, as well as Bonds and some of the players he’s worked with in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.

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David Laurila: Has hitting changed much since your playing days?

Jacob Cruz: “Hitting has really changed. When I started coaching [in 2011], a lot of the terminology was different. It was Dusty Baker talking about ‘step on ice,’ ‘squish the bug,’ and ‘make sure you hit your back with the bat on your followthrough.’ That’s not the terminology that’s being used today, and a lot of it has to do with the tech side of it. We’ve grown. We now know how to measure things, whereas before hitting was more of a guess.

“The players have changed as well. They don’t expect you to give your opinion; they want facts. It’s now ‘Show me the data on why I need to make this change.’ As a coach, that means making sure you’re an expert on every facet of hitting, which includes the technology and the analytics. Everything you can possibly be asked, you want to be able answer. There is a lot of information out there, from the K-Vest to Ground Force data to the bat sensors. All of those are pieces of the puzzle.”

Laurila: You used the term ‘stepping on ice.’ I’m not familiar with that.

Cruz: “It’s being light on that front side when you land. Think about how if you’re landing on ice: you’re being gentle. Another [term] you’d hear was ‘feel the water’ — basically, touch your toe to feel the temperature of the water. So you’re being light on that front side when you land, as opposed to being heavy and aggressive, and having your weight shift to the front side.

“Hitting is about moving energy through your body efficiently. How can I create energy with my back side, with my back foot, move that into my front side, and then move it up the kinetic chain? That’s how hitting is visualized now. The quicker, and more efficiently I can do that, the more I can have impact the baseball. Better bat speed equals better exit velocity.

“Again, we don’t have to guess anymore. You don’t have to say, ‘You look like Christian Yelich; you should swing like Yelich.’ We have body assessments. We have mobility assessments. We have [tools] that paint the picture of what a hitter can and can’t do. I think that’s where the biggest change has happened in hitting. It’s no longer looking at Barry Bonds and saying, ‘Hey, let’s swing like Barry Bonds.’ Not everybody is equipped to swing like Barry Bonds; they don’t have the mobility and strength he had. Now we can tailor a swing based on what your body can and can’t do.”

Laurila: What made Bonds so unique?

Cruz: “I’ve had the fortune of being around some great players like Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Larry Walker, Ken Griffey Jr. Those guys all had the unique ability to just turn it up; they could flip that switch and rise to the occasion. If you’re Bonds, and playing against a team that’s under .500, you’re kind of going through the motions. I mean, he was still going to do fine — he was going to get his hits — but then the Dodgers would come to town and you’d see this focus. You could see that he was going to be the best version of himself during that series. It was, ‘Watch out.’ Most players are trying to figure out to get into that zone, and he knew how to get to that zone when it was mostly needed.”

Laurila: Is it impossible to always be ‘in zone’?

Cruz: “I think it is. Being able to control your mind and your body — that connection — is incredibly hard. When it happens, you try to harness it… but you don’t want to overthink it. There are two sides to that token. When you’re great you’re not thinking. Then you tell yourself, ‘Great, I’m not thinking.’ But you’re thinking about not thinking. Right?

“Being ‘in the zone’ is an amazing feeling. Everything slows down. You don’t hear anything. Everything lines up and it just seems like you can’t fail. You have this confidence and awareness that you’re going to be successful. At the same time, every time you’re at the plate it’s a fight. You’re fighting this guy on the mound, trying to get the barrel to the ball. Even if you’re feeling good, that’s a tough task.”

Laurila: What did Bonds do physically that separated him from other hitters?

Cruz: “It was God-given. He had size and strength. He was a Goliath who took care of himself. His core was strong. His forearms were strong. Couple that with his incredible hand-eye coordination and bat speed… sometimes when you don’t have bat speed, mass can make up for that. He had both, so when he touched the ball, he could hit it out foul pole to foul pole.

“Hitting is individualized. What Barry Bonds did is unique to him. The way he moved… and whatever he thought was unique to him, as well. There’s a great saying: ‘To every great hitter there’s a unique thought, or movement.’ One of the things we talk about within development is, ‘Find that unique thing that works for you.’ Sometimes it’s a thought. Sometimes it’s a mechanical move, or adjustment, that they have to constantly be aware of.”

Laurila: What does Keston Hiura do that’s unique?

Cruz: “He has all of these things going on pre-pitch. In an era where we’re trying to simplify everything with our movements, here is this 5-foot-10 player who has this toe-tap, this high leg kick, he kind of sways back — none of these are things you’d really want to teach right now. Maybe the leg kick. But he does it so early, and he’s got great awareness of his body, where he wants to be, so it works for him.

“It’s a credit to the Brewers’ minor league coaches, to the player development staff, that they didn’t go in there with their guns blazing and say, ‘Hey, we have to change this kid.’ They gave him every opportunity to be successful with what got him drafted. And he was. Keston, at this point, is making some small adjustments, but he’s pretty much true to the player that was drafted.”

Laurila: What are those small adjustments?

Cruz: “He’s working on the four-seam up, like everybody else. Being able to get to that ball right at the belly button, being able to cover that zone. He became so great at hitting that low pitch, so now how do you put your body in a position to work from the top of the zone down, instead of from the bottom of the zone to up?”

Laurila: How does a hitter get his body in position to handle elevated fastballs without compromising other parts of the zone?

Cruz: “It can be unique to different hitters. If a guy is facing a pitcher with a good four-seam, he might ask himself, ‘Do I want to get into a more upright, erect position?’ Or if he’s facing a pitcher who has a good two-seamer that will be sinking away, does he want to get into more of a crouch position? You have to know what you do best. If I’m a guy who gets under the ball, and I don’t make an adjustment to a four-seam fastball up in the zone, I’m an out. But we have the data now. We have data that says, ‘That type of pitch profile doesn’t typically to work with this swing profile.’ We have information that can almost predict who is going to be successful against which pitcher.”

Laurila: You need a different swing to handle different pitches, yet consistency is every hitter’s goal. How does one reconcile that?

Cruz: “You do want consistency, but the adjustments are slight. We talk about that unique thought, that unique movement, and recognizing that attacking a two-seamer is different than attacking a two-seamer is part of winning the battle. It’s being on the right side of the thought process. Most guys are going to tell you they have a two-seam stroke and a four-seam stroke.”

David Laurila: Josh Bell broke out in Pittsburgh last year.

Cruz: “We really enjoyed working with him. Talk about a guy who has the tools, but hadn’t yet put it all together. He was getting to know two new hitting coaches — myself and Rick Eckstein — and he wanted to make an impact. That’s exactly the player you want to work with.

“We really preached rhythm and timing with Josh. We didn’t try to make any physical changes, whereas I think some of the coaches before had said, ‘We want you do these things.’ That wasn’t what hit home with him. Getting on time and realizing where he needs to be at the point of release was crucial. That, and being aware of what pitchers are doing to try to get him out.

“You don’t want to overwhelm a player. There’s so much information out there, but the reality is, when you get to the big leagues it’s about competition. It’s ‘Here’s what you’ve got today; go get ‘em.’ As a coach, you want to figure out a way to give a guy confidence. That’s kind of how Rick and I sold it.”

Laurila: What about Bryan Reynolds?

Cruz: “I have high expectations for Bryan Reynolds. He had a breakout year, and when he came up, the thought was basically, ‘How long is he going to be here? Is he going to fill in for Starling Marte for a few weeks?’ The next thing you know, the kid never went back to the minor leagues. And he earned everything. He just never stopped hitting. You knew it was in there when you saw the kid in spring training — you loved the stroke — but you also thought he was about a year away. Instead, he came on the scene and matured in the big leagues.”

Laurila: Why was he so successful?

Cruz: “For one, he’s thoughtful in the way he prepares. He’s really smart. He understands the feel part of it; he understands the mechanics part of it; he has good body awareness; he knows what he needs to do, and why he failed the night before. Those are traits that young players develop over time, and Reynolds already knew these things. He knew about his swing. There weren’t a lot of adjustments with him, it was just maintaining everything so he could just go out there and compete.”

Laurila: What are your initial impressions of Christian Yelich?

Cruz: “It’s one of those things where you start by getting to know someone’s personality, what his work ethic is, and what he wants to focus on. I’m fortunate in that Andy Haines and I have a great relationship, and he’s helped shorten the curve of learning our players, including Yelich.

“This spring training was unique for him. My hat’s off to Yeli, because he was going through this contract negotiation — $200 million-plus — and he was as cool as a cucumber. He was getting his work in, and I wasn’t really even aware of the contract negotiations. Then, once he signed his deal, you could see the joy from the player. You’re happy for him, because he definitely deserves it.”

Laurila: Any final thoughts to close with?

Cruz: “This is a question I get all the time: ‘As someone who played in the minor leagues and in the big leagues, and coached in the minor leagues and in the big leagues — and has experienced both the old-school and the new-school — what’s the difference? How do we separate the minor leaguers from the big leaguers, and what’s my advice?’

“To that, I would say that I see a lot of minor-leaguers focusing on hitting the ball on the outside part of the plate, hitting it to [the opposite field gap], and getting the right trajectory. Then they get in the game and there’s a hole on the inside part of the plate. So the next day they go work on the tee, concentrating on the inside part of the plate. Then there’s a hole on the outside part of the plate.

“A great thing about big leaguers, in my opinion, is that they work from the middle of the zone out. They’re really good at the area where they’re going to do damage. If a pitcher misses his spot, a big-leaguer is not going to miss that pitch. I think that’s the difference. Sometimes minor leaguers get this notion that they have to work on this corner, that they have to hit this ball over there. But a lot of times you’re going to see a player pull a ball that’s on the outside part of the plate. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re there early, and your swing is on time… you’ll see guys pulling that pitch. And it might go out of the ballpark. It’s not that uncommon in the big leagues.”

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Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Greg Allen, Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Cavan Biggio, Jay Bruce, Matt Chapman, Michael Chavis, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Tim Hyers, Trevor Larnach, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Gavin Lux, Trey Mancini, Daniel Murphy, Drew Saylor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Luke Voit, Jesse Winker.

We hoped you liked reading Jacob Cruz Talks Hitting by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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