Twins 2021 Position Analysis: Designated Hitter
Image courtesy of Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY SportsProjected Starter: Nelson Cruz
Likely Backup: Miguel Sanó
Depth: Luis Arráez, Mitch Garver
Prospects: Aaron Sabato, Brent Rooker
There is no player in baseball better suited for the term "designated hitter" than Nelson Cruz. Hitting is all he does – the Twins wouldn't dream of playing him for an inning in the field at this point – but he does it unbelievably well.
By almost any holistic offensive metric, Cruz has been the second-best hitter in MLB over the past two seasons, trailing only Mike Trout. The peak of Cruz's career has coincided with its twilight, and up to this point he hasn't shown much sign of showing down.
His production in 2020 was basically right on par with the prior season, when he slugged 41 homers with 108 RBIs. Cruz batted third or fourth in every game he started, and lived up to the billing with monster production that was at times simply outrageous. From August 17th through September 8th, for example, he slashed .343/.450/.761 with nine home runs in 20 games.
Even from the most optimistic view, it's probably fair to build some regression into expectations for Cruz. The man turns 41 in July, after all, and outstanding production – much less absolute top-tier production – is rarified air at such an age, to say the least.
The nice thing is that Cruz has been SO GOOD that he can afford to experience a significant drop-off, and still be a high-impact designated hitter. If you took 100 points off his .992 OPS in 2020, it still would've been the best for a DH in the AL by 50 points.
And as far as his anticipated age-related drop-off is concerned ... Cruz made a bit of a statement on that front in his first spring training game earlier his month:
I said earlier of Cruz: "up to this point he hasn't shown much sign of showing down." That's not to say he's shown NO sign of slowing down.
In the second half of September last year, his bat tanked like we've never really seen as a Twin; albeit in a very small sample. His final 11 games, which followed the aforementioned ludicrous 20-game stretch, saw Cruz hit just .154/.267/.256 with one home run and one double, missing a week with knee soreness in the middle.
For the season, Cruz's Statcast measures were great, but they weren't quite on par with years prior. Measures which were previously in the top 1-2% of all hitters were now more in the top 10-15%.
No one's gonna scoff at an Average Exit Velocity, HardHit% or xwOBA in the upper-80th percentiles, but in the previous three years, Cruz was literally 98th-99th percentile in each of those categories, without fail.
As you look at his mid-to-long range xwOBA trends, the downward progression is quite noticeable:
Under normal circumstances, the above trends wouldn't be too noteworthy, especially for a player with Cruz's track record. But again: we're talking about a guy who turns 41 in three months. While it's difficult to envision him dropping off to the point where he's not an asset at DH (if healthy), it would be no real surprise if he morphs into more of a low-average, high-strikeout, all-or-nothing type this year, rather than the totally dominant force we're accustomed to.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Time is undefeated. Then again, from what we've seen during his tenure in Minnesota, the same can basically be said for Nelson Cruz.
I find it hard to bet against the man even if all historical data suggests it's a pretty good bet. The Twins are well protected in the event of injuries or seismic drop-off, since he's on a one-year deal and they have a wealth of bats – majors and minors – capable of rotating through the DH spot to keep it juiced.
Suffice to say this position is the last anyone needs to worry about.
READ OTHER 2021 POSITION ANALYSIS ARTICLES
- Dman, Melissa and Doctor Gast like this