Flashback to April 10, 2017. Jake Adams was hitting bombs almost every game and freshmen Chris Whelan and Ben Norman were making an immediate impact. Then, there was JUCO transfer Tyler Cropley, who grew up just an hour away from Adams in South Dakota, but was having a completely different season than Iowa's prized power hitter. Through 29 games in 2017, Cropley had a .219 batting average to go along with a .330 on-base percentage and 21 strikeouts. He had four home runs and 16 RBI, while playing solid defense behind the plate, but he didn't look like Iowa's unquestioned starting catcher for the next two seasons.
In exactly one calendar year, everything has changed. Since then, Cropley has hit .332 with a .460 OBP, eight home runs and 45 RBI. In 29 games this season, he has 11 games with multiple hits and six multi-RBI games, compared to last season when he had 15 and nine, respectively, in double the games. In short, he has gone from an average starting catcher to earning All-Big Ten Second Team and Big Ten All-Tournament Team honors by the end of 2017, using it to propel himself into becoming one of the top catchers in the conference this season, too.
The senior from McCook Lake, South Dakota, was named a team captain and to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List before the season. He has lived up to those expectations. Cropley currently leads the team in batting average (.352), on-base percentage (.462), slugging percentage (.533), RBI (25), walks (16), hit by pitches (7), doubles (10) and extra-base hits (13). Not to mention ranking second in hits (37) and total bases (56), while being third on the team in runs (20) and home runs (3).
In fact, Cropley is one of seven Big Ten players to rank top-11 in the conference in each batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, also ranking third in the conference in doubles and 10th in RBI. One of the biggest reasons Cropley has been able to drive in so many runs this season is due to his low strikeout rate. He strikes out just 13 percent of the time, which is only behind Robert Neustrom (12.1 percent) and Chris Whelan (8.3 percent) among players with at least 60 at-bats.
His low strikeout rate has backfired at times, as he's hit into a team-high four double plays. That said, making contact is in no way a bad thing, especially considering he owns a team-best .380 BABIP. A high BABIP paired with 10 doubles shows how Cropley is able to consistently find gaps in the outfield. He's on pace to hit 18 doubles this season (not including the postseason) which would tie for fifth most in program history. Staying on his current pace with another deep postseason run could have him challenging John Knapp's school-record 24 doubles.
While not as obvious as watching Adams launch 29 balls over the outfield fence, Cropley is putting together one of the best hitting seasons in the Rick Heller-era due to his ability to make contact.
Under Heller, only Joel Booker (.370) in 2016 and Jake Yacinich (.365) in 2014 finished with a better batting average than Cropley owns right now. Also, only Adams (.747) last season has had a better slugging percentage, and Cropley's on-base percentage would be the highest since Heller took over. Mike McQuillon (.489) in 2012 was the last player to have a higher on-base percentage. Of course, there is still half a season left, but with the way Cropley has hit as of late -- .438 BA, .550 OBP, 7 2B, 11 RBI in last 13 games -- it seems more likely his numbers will improve rather than decline.
While Cropley is one of two Hawkeyes with double-digit extra-base hits this season, his defense is still the strongest aspect of his game. And unlike last season, Cropley has shown his versatility by playing left field due to Whelan's injury and Norman's struggles. When behind the plate, Cropley is one of the most dangerous catchers to run on, though.
Base runners are just 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) in stolen bases with Cropley behind the plate, which is impressively down from last season's 64.2 percent success rate. It's evident his presence is felt by him being just 11th in stolen base attempts against in the conference. Stolen base attempts against isn't a perfect statistic, but it does show teams aren't as willing to run on him compared to someone like Jeff Korte at Illinois. The numbers back up opponents' thinking, as well. Among Big Ten catchers with at least 15-stolen base attempts against, only Indiana's Ryan Fineman (57.1 percent) and Purdue's Nick Dalesandro (53.6 percent) have lower success rates.
It goes beyond throwing out base runners, though. Fineman (2nd, .991) and Dalesandro (5th, .973) each have more errors and, in turn, a worse fielding percentage than Cropley's one error in 231 chances and near-perfect .996 fielding percentage. However, Cropley does have more passed balls (4), which is on pace with the nine he allowed a season ago. That said, Cropley's 13 passed balls in less than two seasons can be equated to Mason McCoy's team-high nine errors in 2017 -- you'll take a couple of bad plays for more great ones (video is from 2017):
— Jordan Furbee (@JordanFurbeeTV) May 15, 2017
As the regular season finishes over the next few months, will Cropley's play start to be noticed more? Sure, he was named to the Johnny Bench Award Watch List, but so were 97 other catchers, including six other Big Ten catchers. We won't know the answer until the semifinalists are announced on May 16, though D1Baseball's coverage could be telling that some national writers are starting to pay attention to him.
Purdue's Dalesandro was named one of the nation's top-10 catcher prospects in the 2018 MLB Draft before the season, a list Cropley was left off of. It makes sense, though, considering Dalesandro was Detroit's 33rd-round pick in 2015 and has hit .310/.391/.430 with a home run and 17 RBI to go along with his previously mentioned good defense this season. Although, Cropley joined Dalesandro on D1Baseball's top-30 catchers power rankings at the end of March, signaling that his draft stock is likely rising some. Does that mean Cropley has a chance of being the first Big Ten catcher to win the Johnny Bench award? His numbers suggest so:
|2018 - Tyler Cropley||.352/.462/.533||3 (5)||25 (45)||37.5|
|2017 - Matt Whatley||.302/.446/.509||11||49||42.9|
|2016 - Zack Collins||.363/.544/.668||16||59||25.0|
|2015 - Garrett Stubbs||.346/.435/.434||1||25||n/a|
As you can see, Cropley's numbers are comparable to two of the previous three winners, with the exception being Zack Collins. The fact that a Big Ten catcher has never won this award isn't a great sign, but Iowa continuing to win and putting itself in position for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid would only help. Of course, these are only a few statistics voters look at. For example, the above chart doesn't show how Cropley is one of the best late-game hitters in the nation. Here's a quick rundown of some of his big hits as a Hawkeye:
- 2017: 3-run HR @Nebraska in 6th to tie game, 6-6
- 2017: 2 HRs, including GW in 13th-inning vs Minnesota in B1G semifinal
- 2018: Game-winning 2-run HR in 6th vs Oakland
- 2018: RBI-1B in 8th vs Evansville to give Iowa lead, 3-2
- 2018: Walk-off grand slam vs Bradley
The fact of the matter is Cropley most likely won't be named the Johnny Bench Award winner, even if he continues to come up with clutch hits for the Hawkeyes. But he should be at least a semifinalist. Iowa's offense has been inconsistent in 2018, but Cropley has consistently been the best hitter in a lineup with the consensus Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year hitting next to him. A lot has changed in the past year, and it's time to take notice.