Nelson Cruz Has Been a Model of Consistency
As you may have heard, the Seattle Mariners are doing everything they can to break MLB's longest postseason drought. Why else would general manager Jerry Dipoto spin 60 (!) trades in just over two years with the organization, including three already this offseason?
Corner infielder Ryon Healy -- one of Dipoto's most recent acquisitions -- has seemingly been brought on to bring some more depth and stability to Seattle's vacancy at first base. But with Healy's defensive issues, there may have been some kind of chatter regarding making room for him at designated hitter by trying to find a taker for veteran slugger Nelson Cruz. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported that this isn't part of the plan for the Mariners, and frankly, it would be foolish if it was for a team in their current position.
Sure, it seems like a trap to have a hitter on your roster fresh off a 39-homer, 119-RBI campaign that's about to enter his age-37 season (with a hefty salary to boot), but Cruz's 2017 performance is far from an outlier in recent years. And if the Mariners want to have a decent shot at reaching the postseason, their right-handed slugger will likely be a huge reason why.
Not Many Better at the Plate
After having to settle for a one-year, $8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles in 2014, Cruz's next trip into free agency seemed like a trap. He put together one of his best years as a big leaguer, highlighted by a 137 wRC+, a .370 wOBA, 40 home runs, 108 RBI, and a 3.7 fWAR in 678 plate appearances. There's no denying the production (and the fact that 25 of his 40 homers happened away from the hitter-friendly Camden Yards), but it wasn't hard to see the trap: he was a slugger with a past in performance-enhancing drugs entering his age-34 season that wanted a lucrative, multi-year commitment.
The Mariners gave him just that, committing four years and $58 million to Cruz. It seemed like a deal that could've crashed and burned when looking at all the variables in play, but he's done nothing but make those critics eat some humble pie.
If we take a look at cumulative statistics between 2014 and 2017, we see a lot of familiar names in all the key categories, like Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, and Nolan Arenado, among others. But the one guy who is consistently with this group is Cruz. His 147 wRC+ and .262 ISO are among the top 10, while he leads the pack with 166 homers and is third with 425 RBI.
Cruz's 16.5 fWAR during this four-season span lags quite a bit behind, but it's still among the top 25. Plus, it's not like the Mariners were hoping to get above-average defense from him throughout the life of this contract. They signed him to mash some baseballs, and that's exactly what he's done. After enjoying just one 30-homer campaign and one 90-RBI performance between 2005 and 2013 (coming in separate years), he's hit both those benchmarks in each of the last four years.
During this time, he's enjoyed three different 40-homer seasons (he hit 39 in 2017) and three 100-RBI performances (he drove in 93 back in 2015).
When we're talking about sluggers that are still finding success into their late-30s, it's important to look under the hood in order to see if there are any concerning trends for us to keep an eye on. And what's impressive about Cruz is there don't seem to be many negatives, and if anything, he went in a positive direction this past year.
If we take a peek at plate discipline, his 29.6% chase rate was the lowest it's been since 2012, while his 13.7% swinging-strike rate is in line with what he's done in recent years. He combined that with his lowest strikeout rate since joining Seattle (21.7%), along with a career-high 10.9% walk rate. Sure, a dip in overall contact rate (70.6%) isn't optimal, but Cruz's contact rate inside the strike zone settled in at 81.4%, which is slightly above his career mark (80.9%).
What goes hand-in-hand with those numbers, though, is what he's doing once that contact is made. If we take a look at his batted-ball profile on a yearly basis since this power surge began, he's headed in the right direction. The below table displays his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), fly-ball rate (FB%), pull rate (Pull%), soft-hit rate (Soft%), and hard-hit rate (Hard%) since 2014.
While they were still healthy rates, the one potential concern here would've been that Cruz's fly-ball rate dipped in 2015 and 2016 -- especially since the last time he posted a number lower than 40.0% in this department came in 2008. It was already on the upswing after that career-low mark, but it's great to both his fly-ball rate and ground-ball rate return to more normal numbers. Posting a career-high hard-hit rate and the second-highest average exit velocity in baseball doesn't hurt, either.
Cruz's peripherals have mostly been in the same ballpark each year, but we can see that overall, his 2017 performance has mostly improved compared to years prior.
One Thing to Watch in 2018
Through all these positive statistics, one shockingly not up to par like it had been in the past was his performance against left-handed pitching.
Cruz posted a wRC+ of at least 150 in six of his last seven seasons heading into 2017 (including a wRC+ of at least 169 since 2014), but settled in at 127 once the dust settled on this past year. Obviously, that's still above average, but it's a far cry from what we've come to expect the righty slugger. It was more apparent in his power, too -- he posted an ISO of .315 and .351 in 2015 and 2016, respectively, before mustering just a .198 mark in 2017. Again, these are good numbers, but they're uncharacteristic when we look at how Cruz has punished southpaws for most of his career.
The positives we can take from this performance, though, is that his 20.3% walk rate in this situation was a single-season career high, and it was also the first time he's ever posted a fly-ball rate and hard-hit rate (both 42.3%) above 40.0% in the same season. All of this was accompanied by a .247 BABIP against lefties, so it's not unreasonable to expect that number to creep closer towards his .322 career mark next season if his other peripherals hold true.
We never know when Father Time will finally hit, but with regard to Nelson Cruz, he appears primed to keep fighting it off and has already performed much better during the life of his contract that many probably anticipated. Now, Dipoto and the Mariners need just one more year of this elite production while hoping that everything else can come together for a playoff berth.