Will 40-Year-Old Nelson Cruz Continue To Wake And Rake For The Twins?
Image courtesy of Brad Rempel-USA TODAY SportsCruz’s mechanics are impeccably groomed, minimal and sharp, not unlike his well-coiffed facial hair. His simple yet violent swing construction is one of the reasons he has been able to roll out of bed and starts raking.
A wake and rake, if you will.
The old adage is that hitters have the tendency to start slow, struggle to find their timing, and require enough live pitches before getting into midseason form. Cruz rises from his hibernation, steps to the plate and mashes.
From 2015-2019, during the period of the season when the northern part of the country is still defrosting, Cruz has posted a .401 weighted on-base average (wOBA) in games in March and April.
That was the fourth-highest among hitters with 450 or more plate appearances in that time. Only Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Freddie Freeman -- three hitters who were prepubescent when Cruz began his Major League career -- posted better numbers in March/April than him.
Even during his advanced aging years Cruz is consistent, showing no indications of tiring with the long slog of the season. In that same span, 2015 to 2019, his wOBA in August/September dropped all the way down to .397.
With season-prepping routines upended by the global pandemic, Cruz shook off the months-long hiatus and smashed baseballs. In July and August, he maintained a .437 wOBA over his first 141 plate appearances, 7th highest among qualified hitters. Some hitters never had the chance to look comfortable at the plate.
Beyond a granite physique and minimal swing mechanics, Cruz has demonstrated that he is fully engaged with the team. He’s a mentor and coach who also happens to hit home runs in critical spots during the game.
His ability to study opposing pitchers appears unrivaled. You’ll find him cemented at the railing of the dugout, focused on finding bread crumbs a pitcher leaves on the mound that might tip the balance into the hitter’s favor.
He has influenced the team’s pitching staff as well, helping them craft their arsenals and giving them insight in a way that only a veteran with over 7,000 plate appearances can.
During the game, other players might turn inward to focus on their own performance but, again, he’s at the top of the dugout steps yelling words of encouragement to his teammates, even firing up veteran players like Josh Donaldson.
All of this adds up to invaluable intangibles that benefits the team and the organization.
“Nelson is a rarity in a lot of ways, and it’s very significant when you find someone that enhances everything going on around him,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He makes people better. He shows them routines. He points out small things. He talks about big things and having a plan and how to prepare.”
There is value in having that presence in the clubhouse, dugout, and on the field. Asked about his own leadership, Cruz talked about playing with Michael Young in Texas and modeled his career after the former Ranger. If his presence means one young Twins player is able to use Cruz as his model, that’s a worthy investment.
All that feelgoodery aside, it’s hard not to overlook the fact that in 2020 Cruz outperformed a lot of key metrics with some signs of decline in other ones.
According to Baseball Savant’s expected metrics -- projections of what players should post based on what types of batted balls they produce -- Cruz over-performed in 2020. By Savant‘s methods, Cruz’s batting average should have been closer to .269 rather than .303 (his .034 difference was the 26th highest among qualified hitters). His expected weighted on-base average was .363 rather than the actual .405 (27th highest).
How much weight should be put on something like that? If you operate like the New York Yankees, not much. They gave DJ LeMahieu a $90 million contract this offseason after he posted the highest expected-to-actual wOBA difference in baseball last year. If the Yankees and their army of data quants don’t care, maybe the Twins shouldn’t either.
Even if his 2020 numbers were closer to the anticipated ones, Nelson Cruz would still have had a very good season. If his “true performance” happened to be a .363 wOBA season, that would equal what JD Martinez has produced over the last six years. That’s a very good proposition.
While Cruz did carry the offense early in the 2020, that production started to erode later in the summer.
He posted his lowest exit velocity (91.6 mph) of the last six seasons. His strikeout rate, fly ball rate, and overall contact rate were the lowest marks in that time as well.
He also pulled fewer pitches, hit more ground balls, and had the lowest percentage of balls hit 95 mph or higher since before 2015.
Are these early indications of the coming regression or just a giant nothingburger? It is difficult to say how much of that performance was due to things like aging, a shortened season, or not having access to in-game video.
In the case of the two latter issues, he won’t have those issues in 2021. This year MLB expects to be back to the full 162-game slate. Plus, in-game video, with it’s too-hot-for-TV blackened screen box so teams cannot pick up the catcher’s signs, will return as well allowing Cruz to resume his dissection between at bats.
But what’s to say about the aging effect?
While production can decline due to age, it’s other factors like increased injury risk and longer recovery time that older players tend to battle. Cruz incorporates a detailed daily regiment of nutrition, workout, and recovery (sleep) to optimize his performance and curb the effects of aging.
As a prospect, he found in his first full season his numbers in the second-half of the year dropped off considerably. It was then he began to continue his workouts into the season to keep himself ready for the full year. He has since refined that process and credits the transition to full-time DH as another reason he’s able to keep hitting at this level.
“Once I started playing DH, my legs are fresher because I don't have to be running in the outfield. I think that has been key for the last few years in being able to play more games,” Cruz said. “I know my body better, so I know what I need to do to stay on the field on a daily basis.”
There is a new caveat looming for 2021: the deadened baseball.
Following two seasons of juiced baseballs, MLB will begin to manufacture balls with less springiness in hopes of curbing the home run onslaught. But the thought of hitting a ball with flight restrictions doesn’t phase Cruz. As long as everyone else is in the same boat, he has no problem with it.
“That’s for everybody,” Cruz said of the proposed ball changes. “I’ll be good.”
Even if MLB’s changes are successful in reducing the average fly ball by 13-to-16 feet like the KBO did in 2018, that shouldn’t affect Cruz significantly. If the new ball shaved off that amount, he would still average 335 feet on his fly balls -- basically what Khris Davis and JD Martinez averaged this season.
In his “no doubt” home run total was 67%, meaning nearly 70% of his home runs would have been a home run at any stadium, in any condition. This might discount a few of his shorter home runs (he had 2 “doubters” and 6 “mostly gone” shots last year) but the bulk of his power should remain. Again, if the deadened ball knocks off 13-16 feet, most of his home runs would remain.
From all the publicly-facing data available, it’s difficult to reach the conclusion that he would regress all that much.
Cruz should be on the downward slope of his career yet he’s done everything humanly possible to rage against the dying of the light and continued to put up superhuman numbers when most players have long since retired. Could this actually be his last season?
“I guess when you think about retirement, it’s about ending, and I don’t want to put that in my mind going into the season,” Cruz said. “I understand my team, to be able to go where we want to go, I have to do my best. I have to be my best, I have to be on top of my game, so retirement is not on my mind. My body feels great. My mind is still good, too. So there’s no reason. I still love the game.”
At some point, like most mortals, the irreversible effects of aging will finally catch up to Nelson Cruz and retirement will beckon.
But not this year. This year, he’s chasing a ring.
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