This Is Not the Nelson Cruz Article You Were Expectingon September 10, 2020 at 1:00 pm

This Is Not the Nelson Cruz Article You Were Expecting

Here’s a sentence you can find, on this very website, about Nelson Cruz: “Age and injuries have sapped Cruz’s speed in the outfield… Cruz has always struck out more than the average player, but his walk rate has dropped back below average the last few seasons. Cruz also has a durability problem, only playing in more than 130 games once in his career.” The fact that an outfield position is even in consideration should give you a clue that this isn’t current, but what year would you guess? 2016? 2017?

Here’s a further clue: the next line was “His (last year) was of course shortened by a drug suspension, which adds its own peculiar twist to his projection.” Yes, this was his 2014 writeup, penned just before he signed with the Baltimore Orioles. If that feels forever ago, that’s because it was. It’s two Cruz contracts, and 26.1 WAR, ago. Whoops!

That’s no slight on Matt Klaessen, who wrote that fantasy profile. Predicting Cruz’s age-related decline is a yearly tradition at this point. Here we are, though, in 2020, and the decline is still nowhere to be seen. Cruz is hitting .343/.432/.685, good for a 193 wRC+, the fulcrum of Minnesota’s offense. Naturally, then, I’m going to predict that Cruz is in for a decline… kind of.

At this point in his career, Cruz is strictly a DH. He hasn’t appeared in the field since 2018, when he played four games in right. The rest of his game is a marvel: a stubborn constant as baseball has changed around him. Cruz strikes out more than average, though only slightly. He walks more than average, though only slightly. He also hits the living daylights out of the ball, and there’s nothing slight about it. Here are those numbers since he left Texas:

You can think of other players whose numbers take that shape, probably. They’re disciples of Adam Dunn, three-true-outcome sluggers who launch balls moonward often enough to make the strikeouts fine. Last year, for example, Pete Alonso and Jorge Soler both had Cruz-ian numbers. Batters like that tend to have a uniform approach at the plate: they aren’t blessed with a preternatural batting eye, so they need to do their work by swinging. They tend to swing at roughly league average rates, and the strikeouts are simply the cost of doing business with a big swing. The walks, on the other hand, come from pitchers who rightly fear their power. Take a look at Cruz’s 2019 using Statcast’s Swing/Take visualization:

His swing rates were more or less in line with the league in each attack zone, other than the extra swings in the heart of the plate — he’s a great hitter, after all. On the other hand, pitchers were less likely to goof around and try to paint the corners — he saw fewer than average pitches in the “shadow” zone and more in the “chase” zone. In other words, pitchers were careful with him, which led to the walks.

For most of Cruz’s career, this has been the shape of his production. Compare that to Mike Trout, who has similar power but also a batting eye that would see him burned for sorcery if we were still in the Middle Ages:

Trout is patient and discerning; you can’t throw him a boatload of pitches in the “waste” zone, because he swings at roughly half the average rate. That passivity gives you a chance of stealing a strike, because he’s happy to take pitches down the heart of the plate early if they aren’t what he’s looking for. He sees a league-average distribution of zones, because while pitchers fear his power, he forces them to engage on his turf with his eye.

Why bring this up? It’s not particularly relevant to look at how Trout works when we’re talking about Cruz’s ageless excellence. I mention it because a little bit of Trout is creeping into Cruz’s game, and I’m worried that it augurs some decline, his gangbusters 2020 season notwithstanding:

My job is to look for interesting patterns, so it’s hardly a surprise that I found something when I went to look at Cruz. But this is worrisome. The sample sizes are still small — slicing up sections of the strike zone in an abbreviated season is a recipe for overwhelming noise. But Cruz is showing some early signs of decline, even if his output this year doesn’t yet show it.

To wit: Nelson Cruz has never run a higher groundball rate than he’s posted so far in 2020 (not counting his seven plate appearances in 2005). Now, 47.6% isn’t some wild rate, but grounders for Cruz are an abysmal outcome. This is hardly a surprise, but the hulking power hitter does better when he puts the ball in the air (since the beginning of the Statcast era):

That’s not a shock; the league overall does better when it puts the ball in the air. But for Cruz in particular, it’s an awful tradeoff. That fly ball wOBA is monumental. Here are the top 10 marks on fly balls since 2015, minimum of 300 batted balls:

Chris Davis’s continued spot on this list highlights just how fearsome he was at his peak. But more importantly, this list emphasizes how important it is for Cruz to put the ball in the air, or at least keep it off the ground — line drives are good too, of course. Indeed, he does that best when he swings at pitches over the heart of the plate:

I left out the “waste” zone, because Cruz has only one batted ball from such an absurd pitch location — he’s no Javier Baez. The point is clear: fewer swings in the heart of the plate means fewer balls in the air, and fewer balls in the air means worse production.

Of course, Cruz hasn’t had poor production so far this year. He’s having the best season of his life! Why? Let’s take a look at his output grouped by various batted ball types again, only this time for 2020 only:

“Aha!” you might say. Cruz might be hitting too many grounders, but he’s making up for it by getting more value from the balls he does put in the air. That’s true — and it’s also far too small of a sample size for that to be true. He’s hit 22 fly balls this year, per Statcast’s angle-based definition of a fly ball, and 32 line drives. Take a look at his 22-ball moving average production on fly balls:

He’s been this hot before. He’s been far hotter than this before. It’s far more likely that Cruz is just getting some batted ball variance than that he’s suddenly unlocked a new, mega-Cruz form that pulverizes baseballs at an awesome clip.

If that’s the case, this season tells a far different story. Instead of Cruz’s crowning achievement, a repudiation of aging, this might be the storm before the calm. Substitute Cruz’s 2015-present production on each batted ball type for what he’s achieved this year, and his wOBA would fall 66 points. That wouldn’t make him a horrible hitter, of course, but it would be a far cry from his current status as one of the absolute top hitters in baseball.

That doesn’t mean that Nelson Cruz is done. Better analysts than me have predicted that, and they’ve invariably been wrong. I do think, though, that this year is a mirage. The evidence is there, if you’re willing to look for it. Cruz’s plate discipline, the foundation of his game, is starting to slip. If he can’t right the ship and start bringing his swings back into the heart of the plate, his production on contact might be the next domino to fall.

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