Baseball Prospect Journal

Matt Cronin has become an elite reliever

Matt Cronin Walt Beazley/Arkansas Communications

Matt Cronin was a two-pitch left-handed starting pitcher when he arrived to Arkansas as a freshman in 2016. 

He wasn’t concerned on staying in that role at the collegiate level, though. Then-pitching coach Wes Johnson, who now serves in the same role for the Minnesota Twins, assigned the pitchers a worksheet to complete after practice and return the following day.

The first question on the worksheet asked the players to define the role they wanted to play on the team for the 2017 season. Cronin wrote down “closer” and explained his reasoning. Johnson agreed with Cronin and the two of them started to work on developing Cronin’s two-pitch repertoire for late-inning role.

“I thought I had the right mentality for it,” Cronin said. “I have a special fastball, and usually when guys have an extremely good pitch, they excel in a back-end role.”

Cronin has thrived as a reliever in his three years at Arkansas. His fastball-curveball combination has overwhelmed hitters the last three seasons and allowed him to be one of college baseball’s top relievers during that stretch.

His success on the mound and potential future as a dominate late-inning reliever are reasons why Cronin likely will be the first reliever selected in June’s MLB draft. He’s projected to be a top-five round selection.

“My advisors and my family have been helping through it a lot and have been taking a lot of stress off of that,” said Cronin on the draft attention. “I’ve been able to focus mainly on baseball, which has been nice.”

As a freshman in 2017, Cronin had the lowest ERA among Arkansas relievers. He posted a 2.00 ERA with one save, 31 strikeouts and 12 walks allowed in 18 innings. 

Although Cronin’s ERA rose to 3.54 last season, he was just as dominate, claiming 14 saves as Arkansas’ closer. He struck out 59 batters and allowed 14 walks in 48 1/3 innings.

His final outing last season came against Oregon State in the second game of the best-of-three College World Series. The Razorbacks held a one-run lead and were one out away from clinching the national championship. Cronin induced a foul ball down the right field line, but it dropped between three Arkansas fielders and kept Oregon State’s hopes alive.

The blunder allowed Oregon State to overcome the deficit to take a 5-3 lead in the top of the ninth inning. Oregon State won the game and then went on to earn the title with a victory in Game 3.

That moment stands out to Cronin. It motivated him entering his junior season, and he’s once again been a reliable presence at the backend of Arkansas’ bullpen this spring. He has a 2.25 ERA with 10 saves, 35 strikeouts and 14 walks allowed in 24 innings.

“It was on the tip of our tongue there and for a moment it felt like we had won it,” Cronin said. “You see the ball fall. At the time I’m still thinking, ‘Man, I still got this. I got two strikes on the batter.’ He put the ground ball through the infield and it went downhill from there.

“I think getting back there is a huge motivator and wanting to redeem myself and win a championship for Arkansas.” 

Cronin, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound lefty, relies exclusively on a fastball-curveball combination. He throws from an over-the-top arm slot and has effort and recoil in his delivery. He profiles as a late-inning reliever in the professional ranks.

His pitches are both above-average offerings. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and his 12-to-6 curveball features devastating break and serves as his outpitch.

“My fastball is what I’m living on,” he said. “I just think the strength and conditioning program, which was almost nonexistent when I was in high school, helped excel my game and put on that extra 4, 5, 6 mph of velocity that I needed.”

Cronin said he’s tinkered with a slider in bullpen sessions due to its spin rate but hasn’t “tried it much in games.”

With the regular season winding down and postseason play about to begin, Cronin hopes to show more consistency throughout the rest of his junior season.

“I think one of the big things that gets over looked is the pitch count,” Cronin said. “I know pitch count doesn’t seem like a big deal for a reliever, but going into the ninth, if I can get three outs on 12 pitches rather than 20 pitches, it’s going to make me a lot more effective coming back the next day.”

Video of Matt Cronin

Dan Zielinski III has covered the MLB draft for four years. He’s interviewed 133 of the top draft prospects in that period, including three No. 1 overall picks. Multiple publications, including Baseball America, USA Today and The Arizona Republic, have quoted his work, while he’s appeared on radio stations as a “MLB draft expert.” Follow him on Twitter @DanZielinski3.

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