In 2014 Nelson Cruz put on a hitting display to the delight of fantasy owners. He set career highs for home runs, RBIs, runs scored, walks and at bats. It also marked the second time in his career that he played a full season, the other being in 2012. Coming into the 2014 season, Cruz was ranked just outside the top 40 for outfielders. On average, he was taken in round 13 or the 137th man off the board. Looking at our early 2015 outfield rankings, Cruz comes in at #17 ranking between 15 and 23. Our outfield dynasty rankings have Cruz at #21 ranking anywhere between 8 and 31. Amazing how opinions change in just one year, but are those higher rankings warranted? Are we giving Cruz just a little too much credit? Lets take a look at some numbers, I’ll let you decide for yourself.
We’ll start with power because this is the one category that there is little question about. Over the past 6 seasons, Cruz has hit a total of 172 home runs over the course of 2947 at bats. His FB% over this time has been over 40%. His career HR/FB% is 17.3 but it has been above 20% the past two seasons. His average fly ball distance in 2014 was 296. 97, good enough to finish in the top 30. That is down from previous seasons, from 2009 to 2013 his average flyball distance was over 300 feet in every year except 2012 (289.72). Since 2009 his ISO has been .240 or higher with the exception of 2012 (.200). From a pure power standpoint it appears Cruz has a lot going for him.
RBIs go hand in hand with power hitters, and this is another place Cruz has good numbers. Using the past 6 year window we used for home runs, Cruz has driven in 515 runs. He has 3 seasons with totals in the 70’s, and the others were 87, 90 and 108. Last season there were 19 outfielders who had 80 or more RBIs, down from 22 players in 2013 and 31 in 2012. 41 total players had 80 or more RBIs last season compared to 47 in 2013 and 56 in 2012. If you look at players that drove in 87 or more, that number drops to 12 for outfielders and 27 overall for last season. Considering the reduced number of RBIs per player over the past few seasons, someone like Cruz has an advantage over the rest of the field.
Unfortunately in every life a little rain must fall, and there are light showers forming over the runs category. Over the past 6 years Cruz has scored 421 runs. That’s an average of 70 runs a season, not what you would expect from a power hitter in the middle of the lineup. There were two seasons in which he scored 86 and 87 runs and a third he scored 75, but the other three were 64 or lower. Granted there were other factors contributing to his low run totals those years, but we’ll address these later. 86 runs puts him in the top 16 for outfielders this season, 75 runs drops him out of the top 25 and if you use his six-year average of 70 runs he falls into the 40’s. Looking at all positions, 86 runs just gets him into the top 30, 75 runs puts him outside the top 50 and the six-year average of 70 has him outside the top 75. You can live with the low run totals if the home runs and RBIs are there, but he becomes a below average player without them.
In addition to the potential low run totals, Cruz has batting average issues. In 2010 Cruz finished with a .318 average, but that was the exception to the norm. The other five seasons his average hovered between .260 and .271. Not a great average (it could be worse), but at least it’s consistent so you know exactly what you are going to get. The average is actually somewhat surprising considering his career 22% strikeout rate. His .271 average in 2014 ranks him 29th among qualifying outfielders, and a .260 looking at the low-end would place him 38th (tied with Cespedes). He won’t help you in batting average but he won’t hurt you either. You can find players with a better average, but not all of those players will have the power and RBI potential.
I’m not even going to bring up the speed because at this stage of his career, it’s a non factor. Over 90 outfielders stole 6 or more bases.
So right now Cruz looks pretty good as he has power, very good RBI numbers, an acceptable average and a run total that can leave you wanting. Now before when discussing runs I said there were other factors that tied into his subpar totals, and that brings us to Health. Last year and 2012 were good years for health as Cruz played in 159 games in each of those seasons. He missed time in 2009 (128 games played), 2011 (124 games), 2013 (109 games) and 2010 (108 games). That makes 2 times in the past 6 years, actually 2 times since he’s come into the league, that Cruz has played a full season. He has missed a month or more in every season except 2. Some may say that this makes Cruz a high risk player to own and you should maybe avoid him for this fact. If you are one of those people, consider this.
Every year you hear about how Tulowitzki is too much of a risk because he always gets hurt. You also hear about his teammate Carlos Gonzalez, the time he misses and how there are better options. Same thing goes for Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Evan Longoria and now add Ryan Braun and Joey Votto to this list. Yet Tulowitzki rarely makes it out of the first round and you will be hard press to find any of those players lasting much into the third round if they even make it that far. I looked back at the numbers from 2013 for these players and I was actually surprised at what I saw.
Cruz missed time that year and only played in 109 games. Despite the lost time, Cruz was second among all these players in home runs (27) and third in RBIs (76). In 2012 he was tied for second in home runs (24), was third with 90 RBIs and tied for second in runs (86). Fast forward to 2014 and Cruz was first in home runs and RBIs and second in runs scored. He was at the bottom for batting average the previous 2 years but finished in fourth this season. That’s three years straight of being in the top 3 for home runs and RBIs among this group, and two of the past three years he has been in the top 3 for runs scored. Yet Cruz is discounted and pushed down the rankings while the other players are not.
Just from a numbers standpoint, Cruz is a top 20 outfielder so his 17 ranking is justified. But, looking at the so-called injury prone outfielders from the ones mentioned above along with some of the other names ranked above him, that rank of 17 might just be a little low. You could make a case for Cruz to be one of the finalist for the top 12 in the outfield. If you are a doubter of Cruz, look at where you have him ranked compared to Ryan Braun, Carlos Gonzalez and Evan Longoria and ask yourself “Am I ranking these guys too high?”. If the answer is no, then you would be hypocritical to discount Cruz.
Now before you say it (I’m sure the thought has popped into someone’s head while reading this), I realize that Cruz is 34 and will turn 35 in July. Like many of you I am somewhat skeptical of players once they pass a certain age (for me it is 32), but I have been making more and more exceptions over the past few years. Look at what Victor Martinez did this year at age 35. David Ortiz is like 90 and he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Derek Jeter hit 18 home runs and stole 30 bases at age 35. Raul Ibanez hit 34 home runs and drove in 93 at age 37. Hell, he hit 29 homers at age 41. It’s players like this that have softened my stance when it comes to the age of a player. Some age gracefully and can play past their prime while others show signs of regression or drop off a cliff. Cruz has not shown any signs of slowing down. That’s not to say that he can’t or won’t, but with no visible warning signs you can’t really discount him for his age (except maybe in dynasty leagues).
Cruz is a solid 2 category player and if he stays on the field for five months or longer that bumps up to 3 categories. His batting average will not help you, but it won’t hurt you either. It’s constant even in the injury years so you don’t have to worry about him hitting below the Mendoza line like other players when they slump or suffer an injury. His numbers suggest he could be a late third to fourth round pick, but bias will have him slip further. If that happens, if Cruz falls into the sixth round, you would be silly to not consider taking him. Many players come with a risk, some more than others so you have to weigh the risk vs the reward. People who draft Tulowitzki say that four months of Tulo are better than six months of anyone else. Cruz to a similar extent is in the same situation.
When draft time rolls around, do not overlook or dismiss Nelson Cruz. Hopefully he doesn’t sign someplace like Seattle and negate all of the praises.