Some things in life defy age and time. A fine wine, Beethoven’s 9th, Mariano Rivera. Although these don’t make intuitive sense, you also have the things that just make none whatsoever; the things that randomly get better after time. Like America’s interest in neon colors. Or Nelson Cruz. And it’s the baseball players who do this that make me really scratch my head.
Let’s focus on three 30-plus outfielders who had elite seasons that were unexpected from everyone except the most hardcore homers; Nelson Cruz, Curtis Granderson and Yoenis Cespedes. Each posted a wRC+ of at least 132 despite being expected to decline, or not showing the skillset to produce as such. Moving forward, let’s see how these seasons came about, if there’s reason to believe in a late breakout, or if father time is ready to catch up.
Whenever a player has an outlier season, the first thing to look at is plate discipline data. These tell deeper stories about how a player approaches an at-bat, and how the swing effort may change as well. Looking at strikeout and walk rates, Cespedes stays virtually the same; so does Granderson – although his swinging strike rates decreased, and Cruuuuuuuz struck out and whiffed more than any season over the past decade. Off the bat what this tells us is Cespedes may be legit, Granderson could be making more improvements, and Cruz is about to fall off hard.
Diggin deeper with Cespedes, it’s easy to write off his awesome 2015 as a contract year type of performance. He actually did change his approach, hitting much more grounders instead of so many fly balls, and oddly this let him choose his pitches to drive and he saw his home run totals skyrocket. His soft/medium/hard contact percentages were about the same, with a slight tilt towards more hard contact. His swing rates didn’t change much, simply his mental and mechanical approach to how he attacked different pitches.
Furthering along with the new approach idea, Cespedes hit to center field 4% more often, spreading out his spray charts better. Let’s compare two charts, from 2014 and then from 2015, courtesy of FanGraphs:
While infield grounders are the same, balls hit up the middle were much more abundant last season. Cespedes has always been a physical freak, and to add a strong approach he may be more than just a flash in the pan.
Curtis Granderson is the kind of guy who just keeps finding the fountain of youth. He did it late in his tenure with Detroit, he did it at 30 in the Bronx, and now he’s doing it again with the Mets. Granderson has shown an amazing ability to rejuvenate himself despite what his age would say about him. What drove his great 2015 was him closing off holes in his strike zone. Compare heatmaps of his contact rates:
His hard contact percentage shot up 5% and, like Cespedes, began using the whole field better with his swing which helped drive up his contact rates. And it isn’t just contact, look at how graphic his batted ball distance has grown:
What is worrisome about Granderson is that his line drive rate jumped to 27%; definitely helping his production, but breakouts supported by increases in liners tend to not stick since liners regress to 20% no matter who you are. And even though he performed well with his torn thumb ligament, surgery on it can create some lasting effects. His recent season will launch his value up quite a bit, but I’m still tentative to buy a soon to be 35-year-old fresh off of hand surgery with a season supported by some lucky numbers.
I think Nelson Cruz missed the memo that former PED users are supposed to be worse when they get off the juice (although this is implying he is actually not using, but that is a completely different article/series of drunk tweets). Since getting busted and serving his suspension, he has improved in every single season with contact, homers and fWAR. He is 35 and coming off of consecutive career best homer numbers, and 2015 was even more surprising since he left the friendly confines of Camden Yards to the pitcher friendly Safeco field. So what gives?
Nothing about Cruz really makes sense. His strikeout rates are high as ever in his career (25%) and his whiff rates are as well, into the “making pitchers salivate” category (13.7%). His hard contact percentages are trending down, and his spray charts are practically unchanged. None of his swing patterns changed, yet he missed more often.
What we have here with Cruz is definitely a legit 30 homer bat, but expecting 40 from him going forward will be a stretch. He does almost all of his damage off of the fastball, and look where he got his fastballs last season:
And now a heatmap of all extra base hits:
It’s no coincidence that he has been hitting so well, pitchers give him his favorite pitches right in his sweet spots. Fortunately for Cruz this has somehow been the approach against him over the past few years, so a decline might not be as inevitable as it appears. With pitchers still serving him meatballs from a silver platter, the Cruz machine is going to keep on being productive.
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