- James Coller/Daily
By Nathaniel Clark, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 26, 2015
Jacob Cronenworth stars as both a first baseman and closer for the Michigan baseball team. But there was a time when that was far from a certainty.
When Cronenworth first arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 2012, he was six feet tall and 150 pounds, a far cry from the prototypical baseball prospect.
“We weren’t sure about (Cronenworth),” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “We weren’t sure if he was just a pitcher or just an infielder, so we let him do both.”
But Bakich saw that Cronenworth played hockey at St. Clair High School (Michigan) as well as for Team USA in the 2009 National Team Identification Series. The rough physical nature of hockey requires players to be fearless, and Cronenworth fit the bill.
“Normally where I’ve recruited before, when you found a kid who played high-school football, you found a type of toughness,” Bakich said. “In the Upper Midwest, that’s the hockey mindset. I like recruiting guys that play multiple sports.”
Cronenworth’s toughness ensured that Bakich’s concerns faded quickly. In the offseason, he added an extra 20 pounds of muscle to his frame.
The growth paid dividends right away. At the plate in 2013, he hit .320 with 41 RBI — good for 10th in the Big Ten. In the process, he reached base in 21 consecutive games and posted a 16-game hit streak. The strong play was enough to earn him a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and All-Big Ten second team honors. He was even named a Lousiville Slugger Freshman All-American.
His fearlessness paid off on the mound, too. Cronenworth finished 2013 with 23.1 innings pitched, seven saves and a 1.93 ERA. He surrendered a scant five walks during the season.
Yet while he is certainly pleased that he exceeded Bakich’s early expectations, Cronenworth insists that he does not take too much pride in that fact. Which may come from his family including two hockey players — one of whom was a U.S. Marine.
“I like to stay humble about everything,” Cronenworth said. “(The coaching staff) has treated me very well, and I’ve put in the time to be in the position that I am. I thank them for that.”
Friday, Cronenworth — the man who was once unsure that he would even have a position to play for the Wolverines — will make his first pitching start for Michigan against No. 20 Maryland. In the wake of last weekend’s humiliating three-game sweep at the hands of Nebraska, Bakich felt the team needed a spark, and that Cronenworth is just the man to deliver it.
“I just told (Cronenworth) to close every inning,” Bakich said. “He’ll blow it out for as many innings as he can go.”
Cronenworth is approaching the challenge just as he has every other in his life: with the confidence and toughness he gained from hockey.
It would be a misnomer, though, to say that Cronenworth came out of nowhere when he joined the Wolverines. His characteristic fearlessness propelled him to become a four-time varsity letterwinner as a two-way player for St. Clair. He also made the All-State first team twice, in 2011 and 2012.
But it was Cronenworth’s junior season that sticks out from his high-school career. At the plate he hit .564 with 18 doubles and 46 RBI, and on the mound he posted a 10-0 record and a 1.82 ERA. In the Saints’ 4-1 victory in the Division 2 state championship game, Cronenworth pitched a complete-game three-hitter.
“That whole season was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Cronenworth said. “Nearly everyone on that team was a junior or a senior, and we grew up playing little-league baseball together. We always stay in touch since most of us play college sports.”
At Michigan, Cronenworth proved his freshman year was no fluke. Last year, he pitched 25.2 innings over 18 contests, notched 12 saves — a single-season record for a Michigan pitcher — and put up a 1.79 ERA in the process.
“I just try to have a good routine every time I come to the park,” Cronenworth said. “I try to stay consistent.”
As for his time at the plate, while his 2014 batting average was a somewhat disappointing .268, he made up for it by doing the little things. He started all 60 games, drew 41 walks, placed 11 sacrifice bunts, hit four triples and stole 19 bases. His hockey discipline came in handy.
Cronenworth’s relatively low batting average from 2014 didn’t phase him, though. He just went right back to work with the same tenacity he has always had.
As a result, this season so far has been even more successful for Cronenworth. He is currently batting .312 with six doubles — the same number he hit in all of 2014 — a home run and 18 runs batted in.
“(Cronenworth’s) plate discipline and strike-zone knowledge are outstanding,” Bakich said. “He’s really turned into a complete player. It’s rare to come across a two-way player like Cronenworth, because it’s hard to do.”
His fearless didn’t fade with time. It has only grown over the years.
Cronenworth’s dual threat has gained him both recognition for his play and interest from big-league franchises. This year, he was named a Preseason First-Team All American by two different organizations. He also was named the sixth-best MLB draft prospect in the Big Ten by Perfect Game. In short, people are taking notice of this fearless athlete.
“You have to be very gifted to be a great two-way player,” Bakich said. “You can’t focus 100 percent on either hitting or pitching. Jacob is naturally gifted at both.”
And Cronenworth has no shortage of gratitude for the opportunity to play two positions.
“I love playing both positions,” Cronenworth said. “Kudos to the coaching staff for letting me do this. It could go either way in the future.”
Still, he refuses to dwell too much on the future, preferring instead to simply focus on the Wolverines’ season.
“Right now, I’m in my college season,” Cronenworth said. “We’re in the midst of starting Big Ten play which is very important for us. What happens in June will happen.”
Through it all, Cronenworth has always been able to count on the support of his family. He credits his father, Charles E. Cronenworth, for inspiring him to play baseball and for helping to instill the tough, disciplined attitude that he carries to this day.
“My dad had a heavy influence on my athletic career in general,” Cronenworth said. “I model a lot of what I do after what he did.”
Cronenworth’s family is also responsible for his love of hockey. Both his father and grandfather, Charles L. Cronenworth, played hockey at Michigan Tech.
The elder Cronenworth was even offered a tryout with the New York Rangers in 1944, but instead chose to enlist in the United States Marine Corps where he obtained the rank of First Lieutenant.
Toughness runs in the family.
“My biggest hockey influence was my grandpa,” Cronenworth said. “He taught me how to skate.”
But of all of Cronenworth’s fans, none match the dedication of his grandmother, Lorraine. She has been to every one of his games. She isn’t afraid of weather, travel or anything else. She just wants to see Jacob play. In many ways, Lorraine’s fearlessness is just like Jacob’s.
“She’ll be sitting right in the first row,” Cronenworth said. “Rain, snow, wind, sun shining, cold — she’s here every game. I really appreciate her coming out to support me.”
The appreciation extends beyond just Cronenworth himself, though.
“My grandma always brings cookies for the team,” Cronenworth said. “They love it. It’s awesome.”
While Cronenwroth will fill in as Michigan’s starting pitcher Friday, he’ll most likely remain the team’s closer and first baseman.
But with Cronenworth, you never really know. He’s never been afraid of taking on new tasks, whether it’s a new position or a new sport. His attitude toward being the Wolverines’ starting pitcher will be no different.