Nelson and the Cruzers

Seattle Mariners LogoWhen Nelson Cruz got busted with a 50 game suspension for PED use, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he had passed his peak. He was a great story as a late bloomer with the Rangers, after failing to stick with the Brewers earlier on, but injuries and now drug use seemed like his 40 homer potential would fall down unfulfilled.

Yet not many people saw him blooming even brighter, even older, after taking a flier one year offer from the Orioles. He not only brought his old boomstick from Texas, but stayed healthy enough to finally reach that 40 homer plateau. A nice end to a story, which earned him a $58MM contract with the Mariners that should allow him to fade off into his career twilight in his mid to late 30s.

Except nobody told Nelly that he’s just turned 36 freaking years old (this is my toned down rant). He improved on his campaign with the O’s with a 44 bomb season and a blistering 158 wRC+, solidifying himself as one of the most dangerous hitters in the entire game.

Cruz has ramped up his production, but the question looms if he’s going to be able to sustain it, or if his age is going to start showing at some point. Something very noticeable off the bat is a different discipline approach since he’s moved out West to Seattle, allowing himself to strikeout more as a trade-off for waiting on pitches he can drive better. His strikeout rate jumped from 20.8% to 24.7% over the past two years, but his whiff rates have stayed virtually the same. So he’s simply waiting more for his pitch, allowing himself to actually be more consistent despite what the strikeouts would have you think. His batting average has gone up to hovering around .300 on a two-year average, a nice jump from his .275 career average.

We also are seeing what has been a six-year consecutive improvement in walk rates, a pleasant sign to counter the strikeouts, and something that shows his resurgence could be legit. As hitters get older, they tend to strikeout more (an intuitive conclusion), but the great hitters who age like a fine wine also find themselves increasing their walk rates immensely over the same time period. His more patient approach is one that fits the profile of a great hitter, but also one that is clearly playing to fit his strengths.

Something else that helps Cruz is his ability to hit off-speed pitches well. He, like most power hitters, absolutely crushes fastballs (career 72.3 runs above average on the heater), but something a little more unique is his ability to his the breaking pitch as well. It’s not something he’s always done well, as from 2011-2013 he was a net neutral on the pitch. But we’ve seen what has to be a new approach and improved recognition for the pitch, as he’s been worth over 4.3 runs above average on the ole Uncle Charlie over the past season and a half. This is also applicable to changeups as well, a pitch he’s almost never had a negative season on by pitch weight values (only three times, all with the Rangers). He has once again hit for over four runs above average on the pitch starting in the 2015 season, an extremely impressive feat.

Something also to note is a difference in his swing path since he left Texas. He’s always had an iconic swing, from the exaggerated open stance to the looping uppercut swing that just rips through the zone with immense torque. But, as we earlier mentioned, he’s been more patient on his pitches, and he’s also having more success in the lower and outer parts of the strike zone. Look at his slugging percentage heatmaps, the first being his time with the Rangers, and the second one being with both the Orioles and the Mariners:

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While his overall slugging percentage hasn’t made tremendous gains (it’s still gone up about 20 points which is really nice, but far from the biggest jump), the fact that he’s spread out where his damage comes from only spells good news. Hitters can have their entire careers derailed because of unfixed flaws in their swing, so to see Cruz continue to adjust to whatever is coming at him, and work towards becoming as complete a hitter as he can, definitely quells some concern.

There’s no doubt that Nelson Cruz will simply always have some risk attached to his name because of his age, injury history, and ties to PEDs. But as long as Nelly is staying on the field, he’s going to do damage. And the hitter we see now versus the hitter we saw a few years ago has an approach geared for better contact, better power, and more overall consistency. It’s tough to expect him to continue to be the second best hitter in baseball by wRC+ (yes you read that correctly), but he has an elite boomstick bat that will age gracefully. Don’t be scared by him, and buy him low from owners who are afraid – he’s a monster and will continue to haunt opposing pitchers for the foreseeable future.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.