Upon Closer Review: Nelson Cruz Vs Josh Donaldson

The Fantasy Assembly’s Second Half Hitter Rankings were released on Friday, and as I did last week with pitchers, I will use this space to examine one player who I have ranked far higher and one player who I have ranked far lower than the rest of our staff writers. Those two players are Nelson Cruz and Josh Donaldson.

Cruz came in ranked as our 19th best hitter with Donaldson just trailing him at the number 21 spot, but I didn’t have them so close.  I ranked Cruz 11th, the highest of any of our writers, and I ranked Donaldson 45th, the lowest of any of our writers.  If you eliminated my rankings from the consensus, Donaldson would have actually been ranked higher than Cruz.  Given this disparity in our rankings, it’s worth taking a closer look at these two hitters in an effort to determine who you should value more in the second half.

First Half in Review

If we look at first half production, there’s really not much question which player should be ranked higher:

  G AB HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG ISO wOBA
Donaldson 92 365 20 61 65 3 0.238 0.317 0.449 0.211 0.336
Cruz 93 356 28 56 74 3 0.287 0.353 0.57 0.284 0.393

Cruz has hit significantly more home runs, he hit for better average, he knocked in more runs, and he got on base more often than Donaldson. The only category in which Donaldson out produced Cruz was runs, and he didn’t out produce him by much.  Cruz is currently ranked fourth on Yahoo’s Player Rater, whereas Donaldson comes in at number 40. According to ESPN’s Player Rater, the disparity is even greater, with Cruz ranked ninth and Donaldson ranked 53rd.

Of course, we are ranking players for the second half, not the first, so Cruz’s superiority in the first half only takes us so far.  The real question is what should we expect from them in the second half?

Power Production

If you have Donaldson or Cruz on your team, it’s most likely for their power, and predicting home runs is fairly simple. We simply need to take a look at how many fly balls the player is hitting and how many of their fly balls are leaving the yard. Here are Donaldson’s relevant numbers the past three seasons:

Season G FB% IFFB% HR/FB HR AB/HR
2012 75 37.5 11.3 11.3 9 30.4
2013 158 35.6 11.8 14.2 24 24.1
2014 92 40.3 6.9 17.2 20 18.3

Donaldson is hitting more fly balls and because he’s hitting less infield flies, it’s not a surprise to see an improvement in his HR/FB. Looking at AB/HR, we can see Donaldson has steadily been improving, but if I’m forecasting him for the rest of the season, I’m going to project a slight decline in his power production simply because his current production is as good as it has ever been. Sure, it’s possible that his current production is based on a legitimate improvement at the plate and he will continue to hit a home run every 18 at bats, but it’s also possible that his current production has been influenced by some good fortune. According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, ten of Donaldson’s 20 home runs were classified as “Just Enough,” and this 50% rate is higher than any other player who has hit at least 20 home runs this season. The smart move here is to treat Donaldson as if he’s been a bit lucky with regards to his home run production and to expect regression back towards the 24.1 AB/HR he posted last season. For my second half projection I forecasted Donaldson would hit a home run once every 21 at bats. This should put him at 11-12 home runs in the second half.

Now let’s take a look at Cruz’s relevant power stats:

Season G FB% IFFB% HR/FB HR AB/HR
2011 124 42.8 10.3 18.7 29 16.4
2012 159 40.8 7.1 13.1 24 24.4
2013 109 41.2 10.2 21.3 27 15.3
2014 93 42.1 10.3 23.9 28 12.7

Cruz’s FB% and IFFB% are right where we would expect them to be given his previous history, but his HR/FB is slightly elevated, something no one would have projected coming off of a suspension for PEDs. I would expect this number to drop a bit in the second half, but it’s worth noting that according to ESPN’s Park Factor, Camden Yards was the fourth friendliest park for home runs in 2013 while Globe Life Park was ranked 19th. If we look a bit deeper, only eight of Cruz’s 28 home runs (29%) in the first half were classified as “just enough,” which is less than the 31% average for the 12 players who have hit at least 20 home runs this season. I expect regression, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Cruz was able to maintain his current pace. A cautious projection for the second half would be for Cruz to hit a home run every 16 at bats, which should allow him to hit 15 more home runs and easily exceed 40 home runs on the season.

When comparing Donaldson and Cruz, the advantage with regards to power clearly goes to Cruz.

Batting Average

Nelson Cruz is a career .270 hitter and Josh Donaldson is a career .260 hitter, but this season their production has not been close — Cruz hit .287 in the first half while Donaldson hit just .239. While some might be quick to chalk this up to some good luck for Cruz and some bad luck for Donaldson, that doesn’t seem to be the case. When considering batting average, here are Donaldson’s most relevant stats since 2012:

Season G K% LD% GB% FB% IFFB% BABIP Average
2012 75 20.7 22.5 39.9 37.6 11.3 0.278 0.241
2013 158 16.5 20.6 43.8 35.6 11.8 0.333 0.301
2014 92 19.3 12.8 46.9 40.3 6.9 0.25 0.238

There are two numbers from Donaldson’s batted ball profile which jump out. The first is his decline in line drive rate which has plummeted to a ridiculously low 12.8% — the worst line drive rate of any hitter in baseball. Donaldson had an absolutely abysmal 6.0% line drive rate in June and his July rate of 10.8% is only slightly better. A rate this low raises the concern that this could be more than just a slump; perhaps Donaldson is dealing with an undisclosed injury. Whether he’s injured or not, his line drive rate is worrisome, and it goes a long way in explaining his drop in BABIP and batting average. There’s at least a chance that this problem persists in the second half, so I think the smart projection has Donaldson hitting below his career average for the rest of the year.

The second number which stands out in Donaldson’s profile is his reduction of infield flies. This is a positive and as I stated previously, hitting less infield flies has helped Donaldson improve his HR/FB rate. It will also help improve his batting average since infield flies don’t become base hits. But with a strikeout rate that is closer to his 2012 rate than his 2013 rate and with a line drive rate that is 1.9% lower than the next worst qualified hitter in baseball, I can’t see how you could project Donaldson to have above a .255 batting average in the second half. I feel as if I’m being rather bullish by projecting his average that high.

Now let’s take a look at Cruz:

Season G K% LD% GB% FB% IFFB% BABIP Avg
2011 124 22.6 15.7 41.4 42.8 10.3 0.288 0.263
2012 159 21.8 18.5 40.8 40.8 7.1 0.301 0.260
2013 109 23.9 16.9 41.9 41.2 10.2 0.295 0.266
2014 93 20.4 17.3 40.6 42.1 10.3 0.296 0.287

The main thing that should jump out here is how consistent Cruz has been. His batted ball profile and BABIP are right in line with what we should expect. One area in which there is a significant change in Cruz’s profile is with regards to his strikeout rate, which is the lowest it has been since 2010. Putting the ball in play more often has helped push Cruz’s average nearly 20 points above his career norm, and though I tend to be cautious with my projections, I think a .280 average in the second half is fair given Cruz’s production so far this season.

Just as with power, the advantage when projecting batting average clearly goes to Cruz.

Run and RBI Production

Run and RBI production is obviously influenced by where a player bats in the lineup as well as the talent surrounding him in the lineup. Both the Athletics and the Orioles have above average offenses, but the Athletics offense is elite. While this should give Donaldson a slight edge, he lost his coveted place as the number three hitter in the A’s lineup. From April 7th to June 14th, Donaldson hit in the three-hole 56 times. He hit clean up just three times during this stretch and he hit second just once. Since June 15th, Donaldson’s hit third only twice and he has spent the majority of his time hitting fifth. If Donaldson continues to struggle, he could drop lower in the lineup.

Cruz meanwhile has hit anywhere from third to fifth in the Orioles lineup, although the majority of his at bats in July have come from the cleanup spot. Hitting fourth is a slightly more productive spot in the order than fifth, which should negate Donaldson’s advantage of hitting on a slightly better lineup. However, since I project Cruz will hit for better average and with more power in the second half than Donaldson, I would also project him to have more runs and RBIs.

Again, the advantage here goes to Cruz.

Stolen Base Production

Donaldson and Cruz both stole three bases in the first half, and while neither is going to make a huge impact in the category, it’s worth taking a peek to see if one has an advantage over the other. Here are Donaldson’s stolen bases and caught stealing numbers since 2012:

Season G SB CS
2012 75 4 1
2013 158 5 2
2014 92 3 0

Donaldson will probably have two to three more attempts in the second half of the season, and he’ll probably steal one or two more bases depending on whether or not he gets caught on any of his attempts.

With Cruz, there is slightly more upside. Here are his stolen base numbers since 2009.

Season G SB CS
2009 128 20 4
2010 108 17 4
2011 124 9 5
2012 159 8 4
2013 109 5 1
2014 93 3 4

Clearly, the days of hoping for double-digit steals from Cruz are behind us, but I wouldn’t be completely shocked if he was able to steal four or five bags in the second half. Cruz has been running slightly more so far this season, and if you’re worried about the four times he’s been caught stealing, three of those attempts came in May. In the past six weeks, Cruz has stolen three bases on four attempts. While I’m only projecting Cruz to have three stolen bases in the second half, he clearly has more stolen base upside than Donaldson.

Again, the advantage here goes to Cruz.

Injury risk

Assuming both players stay healthy, I believe Cruz will out produce Donaldson in all five rotisserie categories. Of course, we can’t just assume both players will be healthy. Donaldson has never been placed on the DL and Cruz made five separate trips to the disabled list during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Crus is also coming off of a suspension for PEDs. I wouldn’t put up a huge argument if someone projected Donaldson for more playing time down the stretch, but Donaldson’s slump that saw him have a 6.0% line drive rate in June raises the possibility that he is dealing with an injury. Cruz, meanwhile, has had a clean bill of health the past two and a half season and I don’t think there’s much reason to expect another drug suspension is about to be handed down. I’m giving both the benefit of the doubt with regards to playing time down the stretch. I have Donaldson playing 65 games and Cruz playing 64.

I see this category as a push.

Position Scarcity

There is one final argument that I can see being made by those who favor Josh Donaldson: he plays a position of scarcity. While third base was deemed by many experts as the thinnest position heading into the season, player rater data suggests the talent at third base is comparable to the talent available at outfield. Consider the following table which charts how many third baseman and how many outfielders are ranked within certain tiers according to ESPN’s and Yahoo’s player raters:

Rank ESPN 3B ESPN OF Yahoo! 3B Yahoo! OF
Top 10 0 3 0 4
Top 25 2 6 4 7
Top 50 4 15 6 16
Top 100 7 25 7 27
Top 150 11 38 13 35
Top 175 14 45 14 45
Top 200 17 51 15 48

Depending upon roster size, somewhere between three to four times as many outfielders as third basemen typically find themselves in a manager’s starting lineup. When you factor this into the equation, third base position scarcity isn’t as big of a problem as we all thought it would be in April. To look at it another way, so far this season the 13th – 15th ranked third basemen according to Yahoo! are Pedro Alvarez, Aramis Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval. Thanks to injuries, Nolen Arenado is the 24th ranked third baseman, Manny Machado is ranked 30th, and Ryan Zimmerman is ranked 43rd. Those are six third basemen outside of the top twelve who I would have no problem relying on as my everyday third baseman in a 12 team league. Finding a quality third baseman this year hasn’t been as difficult as we thought it would be and there are plenty of quality replacement players available either via trade or free agency.

If I was drafting a team and I had to choose between a third baseman and an outfielder with similar projections, I would choose the third baseman. The problem with applying that to this scenario is that I think Cruz will be superior to Donaldson in every fantasy category in the second half.

Final Verdict

After taking a closer look at Donaldson and Cruz, I don’t think there’s really much doubt that Cruz should be the higher rated player for the second half of the season. Cruz has a longer track record of success and there has been no decline in any of his statistics since returning from his PED suspension. I expect his HR/FB to regress a bit, but he should continue to be an elite source of power in the second half. Thanks to his reduction in strikeouts, I also expect him to hit above his .270 career average in the second half. A .280 hitter with 40 home run potential in the middle of the Orioles lineup is obviously going to score and knock in a lot of runs.  Cruz has done enough to be considered a top 15 hitter for the second half of the season.

Donaldson, on the other hand, has been in a terrible slump since June. He has the worst line drive rate of any qualified hitter in baseball and half of his home runs have barely cleared the fence. I expect his batting average to recover a bit from where it stands, but he will need to make significant improvements to his line drive rate if he is going to hit as well as his career mark of .260. I still like Donaldson in the second half, but I feel more inclined to move him down in my rankings than move him up.  If you own Donaldson and someone wanted to trade you Jacoby Ellsbury, Hunter Pence, Justin Upton, or any other similar players we have ranked near Donaldson in our consensus rankings, I would jump at the chance.

My second half projections for Cruz and Donaldson are as follows:

  G AB HR R RBI SB Avg
Cruz 64 245 15.3 35 46 3 0.280
Donaldson 65 244 11.6 31 40 2 0.255

*all statistics are from Fangraphs unless otherwise noted

5 thoughts on “Upon Closer Review: Nelson Cruz Vs Josh Donaldson”

  1. Rob, are you going to continue your stream team article? It’s great insight and I use it every week. Hope to see it for next week’s streamer possibilities!

    1. I’m glad it’s been helpful Jeff. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to be able to continue to run the article. I’m in the process of moving across two states and I start a new job early next week. I had been spending around 20 hours per week breaking down matchups and writing the article, and that simply isn’t going to be possible any longer.

      I am torn between doing a shorter, less detailed streamer article or moving in another direction. If I did the streamer piece, I would need to cut the matchup scores out entirely as the data entry needed to calculate those is very time consuming. If you think you’d still be interested in a shorter streamer breakdown, let me know, as I’ll certainly take it into consideration.

      1. I’ve read a lot of streamer articles over the years and had been using a combination of several up until I started reading yours. I had just been using yours for the better part of this season as I stream just about my entire staff. We do an auction draft and I spent all my $ on offense and had all $1 pitchers with the intent of streaming everyone. So far I’m 1st in ERA, WHIP, and BAA this year thanks largely to your analyses. I would definitely find even a shorter breakdown helpful!

  2. Thanks for the kind words. Due to the amount of time I’ve spent breaking these guys down this year I think I can do a general breakdown in a reasonable amount of time and still provide solid advice. I will give it a shot for my next article, but I’m taking a brief leave of absence in the meantime while I move. If I can balance the article with my job, I will continue it.

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