Twins Ready for a Re-Up with Nelson Cruz?
Image courtesy of © Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY SportsSigned to a two-year $26 million pact prior to the 2019 season, Cruz was brought in for his age 39 and 40 seasons. Yes, he’s an elder statesman, but he keeps himself in impeccable shape and didn’t make his big-league debut until age 24. Last season he was among the chief reasons Minnesota was dubbed the Bomba Squad as he went on to blast 41 dingers. Posting a career high 1.031 OPS it would be hard to fathom a reason to bet against him in the immediate future.
Looking at Cruz’s slash line provides some beautiful imagery. He finished 9th in the American League MVP voting despite being active solely as a designated hitter. His .311 average was the best in a single season dating back to 2010, and he hit 40 homers for just the 4th time in his career. Virtually anywhere you looked in the counting digit fields, you left impressed.
Statistics aren’t generally indicative of future production however, and a fall off can seem drastic if and when the production disappears. Fortunately for Cruz, who turns 40 on July 1st, the process is what suggests a positive trend of results can continue.
Venturing from his Baseball Reference page, both Baseball Savant and Fangraphs tell an equal exciting story. It was Cruz that topped the 2019 leaderboards across baseball in terms of barrels per plate appearance (12.5%). His average exit velocity trailed only the Yankees Aaron Judge and teammate Miguel Sano. He also sat third in batted balls of 95+ mph exit velocities, producing those instances over 51% of the time. The .351 BABIP doesn’t suggest a great deal of luck was in play, and that’s to be expected when you’ve got a 52% hard hit rate and 31% HR/FB output.
Not only was Cruz absolutely murdering baseballs, but he was staying within himself to do so. His 13.8% whiff rate sat right on his career average, and then 30.5% chase rate mimicked that as well. While his 69.7% contact rate was a career low dating back to 2009, he was successfully contacting 80% of the pitches he offered at within the strike zone.
This isn’t entirely unprecedented ground either. Fellow countryman David Ortiz retired following his age 40 season in 2016. Despite a wildly successful career, his final season was among his best. Posting a 1.021 OPS with 38 dingers, the former Twins slugger went out at what could certainly be considered the peak of his existence. Like Cruz, Ortiz had become a full-time designated hitter, and focusing on the craft of obliterating pitches took significant strain off a much less athletic frame.
This isn’t to say there won’t be a decline in store for Cruz. Father time is undefeated, and some of the percentages Nelson produced a year ago are at a level even he has never before seen. However, what he has going for him is that hitting is a craft he’s mastered and the only one tasked of him. He’s intimately in tune with his body, and although the wrist tendon issue could prove more cumbersome as time goes on, risk for future problems should be relatively mitigated.
What Cruz has brought to the table from a production standpoint makes both years of his deal a steal. What he has contributed in the clubhouse, and most importantly imparted upon Miguel Sano, has taken that value up another level on its own. We’ll see what baseball has in store for us in the coming months but asking Nelson to put on a Twins uniform for a couple of seasons into his 40’s seems like more than a reasonable ask.
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