Lots of chatter from the Nationals recently about how well Matt Cronin is doing at the alternate training site. The left-hander has been dominant and has had the opportunity to showcase his stuff against experienced Nats hitters.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment at first just facing more seasoned hitters,” Cronin said. “Guys who knew the zone a little better and are used to seeing higher-quality stuff. I was struggling just attacking hitters when I first got here, but after the adjustments were made I’ve been performing well and it’s been a good time.”
Cronin, 22, splashed onto the scene last year at Double-A Harrisburg with an attention-getting 0.82 ERA over 17 appearances. The 2019 fourth-round selection out of Arkansas piled up 41 strikeouts over 22 innings. Opponents hit just .153 against him in 2019.
The two pitches Cronin is best at right now are his fastball and curveball. The southpaw has worked with Nats minor league pitching coordinator Brad Holman on refining the curveball to a point where he can get it to kiss the bottom of the zone.
“My best pitch by far is my fastball,” Cronin said. “It’s just a really high spin rate and the spin is really efficient on it. When it’s playing well it’s very hard to hit and barrel up, so that’s what I really relied on in college. Now with Brad helping me with my curveball, and getting that more consistent and being able to throw it, I’ve been mixing that in. It’s been really effective.”
Holman called Cronin’s curveball “well above average,” and said Cronin is focusing on maneuvering the fastball and curveball so they both can find the outer perimeter of the strike zone.
“Early on he was up above the zone with his fastball, below the zone with his curveball,” Holman said. “Lately he is really attacking the strike zone and trusting his stuff little bit more to make hitters swing before he tries to expand the zone. That is kind of the goal. Get them in swing mode before you start trying to make them to swing and miss. He has been tremendous, probably last five or six outings, well above average.”
Cronin said Holman has looked to change the left-hander’s mindset so that he does not feel like he has to strike every hitter out to be effective. If you can get a guy to roll over on an early pitch, even better.
“The biggest mentality change was, before I was trying to get a swing and miss on every pitch and now it’s more of I’m trying to get the hitter out on every pitch,” Cronin said. “Once I get to that 0-2, 1-2 count I can get a little selfish and I can try to put the hitter away.”
As with most pitchers, Cronin began pitching in high school as a starter. But when he got to Arkansas, he realized that if he was going to get into games, he would have to change his role.
“I started all through high school and thought I was going to college and start, but I got there my freshman year and there were already a few good starters,” Cronin said. “So, I kind of told the coach I wanted to be the closer. I didn’t really close much at all my freshman year, but it was a good stepping stone just getting those relief outings and innings in and that experience. Then my sophomore year took over the close role and never really looked back.”
Cronin learned as a reliever that he needed to be ready to pitch in every game instead of waiting for his turn as a starter would in five or seven days.
“It’s more of a mental game,” Cronin said. “Just having to throw more often and having to bounce back and forth night after night or every couple of days. In high school you’d get that one start and you’d get a whole week to mentally just rest and not really think about pitching. You just got to stay locked and you got to be ready night after night.”
Cronin has only pitched one full season in the minor leagues. With the invitation to be a part of the 60-player pool this season, the southpaw saw the opportunity right in front of him to possibly get a shot in the show right now.
“For me personally, my goal was when I got the invite I knew anything could happen with this crazy year,” Cronin said. “I knew I wanted to make a push and try to debut this year. Just getting here and just working out and trying to continue what I have done in the past and grow up on that.”
The Nats certainly have seen some turnover with their left-handers this season. There have already been season-ending injuries to Sean Doolittle, Sam Freeman, Roenis Elías and Seth Romero. If he doesn’t get the call in the last two weeks of this regular season, Cronin is a very good candidate for a spot in 2021.
“I think it should be a goal for everyone,” Cronin said. “Everyone should want to get there as fast as possible, and especially with the position I am, coming out of college as a reliever and sticking as a reliever in pro ball, I think I have a chance to move quickly, and so that is my goal.”