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Nelson Cruz: Vintage Wine at DH? Or Just Too Old?

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At 38 Cruz still slugs. Should he be slugging for the Crawford Boxes? Have we read this script before and does it have a happy ending?

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Here at Crawfish Boxes, since the end of the season, we have been exploring the possible changes that will occur on the Astros roster in 2019. Though a stellar core will remain, the Astros will also face major turnover at three, four, maybe even five positions.

Two of last year’s five starting pitchers, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel, are free agents. Another, Lance McCullers, is injured for next season. The starting catcher from last year, Brian McCann, is a free agent and likely gone. Jack of all trades utility man Marwin Gonzalez is a free agent and also likely a goner. Also, the Astros were under performing last year at first base and left field and might seek help in those positions. And a position that has vexed the team for years, DH, is likely going to be vacant with the free agency of Evan Gattis.

Luckily, the Astros core is still young, the team has some money to spend, and they still have one of the better farm systems in baseball, especially among contending teams. The options on the market for trades or free agent acquisitions are almost endless, and with all the jockeying and maneuvering going on between the various teams for these players, nobody at this point can safely predict what kind of moves the Astros will make, including the Astros front office. (For a comprehensive look at the Astros’ trade and free agent wish list click here.)

Today we will analyze one player on that list, Seattle Mariners DH Nelson Cruz, widely considered one possible target for the Astros. In a sense, getting an upgrade at DH could be a twofer for the Stros, as it frees up Tyler White for first base, which frees up Yuli Gurriel as a partial utility man replacing the departing Marwin Gonzalez. And since Tyler White has yet to show consistency at the major league level for a prolonged period of time, another bat like Cruz’ offers insurance in case White and/or Gurriel at age 35 have sub par seasons in 2019.

Nelson Cruz: Have Bat, Will Travel

So if the Astros can pry Cruz away from Seattle, who have shown every interest in retaining his services, what will they be getting? The following is a chart of his production since 2015.

Nelson Cruz since 2015 and career stats

Year PA wRC+ Home runs PA's/HR ISO BABIP
Year PA wRC+ Home runs PA's/HR ISO BABIP
2015 655 158 44 15 .264 .350
2016 667 148 43 15.5 .268 .320
2017 645 147 39 16.5 .261 .315
2018 591 134 37 16 .252 .264
career 6418 129 360 18 .244 .305

So what does this tell us? In 2018 Cruz was 10th in the AL in wRC+, and if he had been an Astro he would have been third, just one point behind Jose Altuve. He was eighth in the league in home runs and would have led the Astros, and he was ninth in RBI, which would have been second on the Astros.

Is He Beltran?

However, there is one lingering doubt as to what Cruz might bring to the Astros. Particularly for the Astros. For if the Astros can sign Cruz, he will turn 39 during the season next year. The Astros have experience with 39 year old DH’s. Carlos Beltran, who supposedly had one season left in the tank, in his one year with the Astros simply fell apart, hitting 77 wRC+ one year after he hit 122. Would the Astros be making the same mistake with the 39 year old Cruz that they made with Beltran?

On the most surface level the numbers above show some reason for concern. There’s a slow but steady decline in wRC+ and home run production each year. Probably Cruz wants at least a two year contract. If he doesn’t fall off the cliff Beltran-like next year, can the Astros really expect that he won’t the following year?

Cruz b Cruzin

Of course there are no guarantees, but a deeper look tells a story of rock solid stability since Cruz hit his peak at the remarkably old age of 35. The chart above gives us a piece of the story. Though Cruz’ production was slightly down in 2018, his BABIP was a very low .264, compared to a career .305. In his peak year it was almost .100 points higher, so some of the variation from 2015 to 2018 was simply a matter of luck.

Let’s look at Cruz’ contact in the last four years for any signs of decline.

According to Fangraphs Cruz had the highest percentage of hard hits in his career in 2018, 42.3%, up from his second highest rate in 2017, 40.7%. That’s good. There has been no major variation in the pattern of where he hits the ball.

His HR/ FB rate of 24% is consistent with recent years as is his contact rate at 71.1%. His K% at 20.6% was the lowest of his career.

Now let’s go to Statcast and see if there is any downward trend in quality of contact. The following chart will show Cruz’ xwOBA and average exit velocity for the years 2015-2018,.

Cruz Exit Velocity and xwOBA, 2015-2018

Year avg exit velo MLB rank xwOBA MLB rank wOBA
Year avg exit velo MLB rank xwOBA MLB rank wOBA
2015 92.4 4th .377 20th .396
2016 94.4 1st .397 9th .383
2017 93.2 2nd .408 9th .385
2018 93.9 2nd .395 7th .361

What this table shows is a stunning level of consistency in Cruz’ hitting since his “peak” year of 2015. In the last two years Cruz has been second in the league in average exit velocity, in 2018 second only to Aaron Judge. In 2018 he ranked seventh in xwWOBA, the highest ranking in his career.

The BABIP Dragon

This chart confirms what we noted earlier; that the perceived decline in Cruz’ performance is mostly due to luck. In 2015, when Cruz had his highest wRC+ and wOBA, his xwOBA was actually .19 points lower than his actual wOBA. His xwOBA was only 20th in the league. In 2018, when his wRC+ was “only” 134, his xwOBA exceeded his wOBA by .34, the seventeenth highest negative differential in the league.

Point is, as good as Cruz still was in 2018, regression points towards a better year in 2019.

For what it’s worth, in 2016, the year before the Astros acquired him, Carlos Beltran’s xwOBA was .327, far below Cruz’ in 2018, but his wOBA was .358, .31 points higher than his xwOBA. Negative regression from Beltran was already predictable in 2017, although not the complete collapse that ensued.

The Charts

Here’s another reason why I like Cruz. What follows are his zone profiles, his batting averages for each zone in and out of the strike zone. The first is for his carer, the second for 2018.

This one is from 2018.

What these two graphs show is that there is no place in the strike zone where a pitcher knows he can dominate Cruz, not then, not now. Remember, 2018 was a career low for Cruz in BABIP. There are some changes. Through his career Cruz was better at hitting inside pitches than outside pitches. Now his strength is on the outside part of the zone.

In 2018 Cruz was better at hitting high pitches than he has been throughout his career, which tells me he still has his bat speed.

Cruz is not a strict pull hitter, and with a line drive profile, his average launch angle in 2018 was about 13 degrees, the Crawford Boxes should only help him slightly in my opinion. Here is a picture of his spray chart in 2018.

Looks like there could have been four or five fly outs that might have been home runs in the friendly confines of extreme left field MMP.

And here’s one that made it out.

It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

Coming from a not so expert swing analyst I’d say that is a short, direct, clean, efficient approach with lots of bat speed straight to the ball. That’s what you show your kid when you teach him how to hit. Reminds me of Alex Bregman but with more strength behind it. I don’t see how that swing could fail to bring consistent results for at least another year or two.

Uh Oh

One caution. Although it is said Cruz is fanatical about his conditioning, and it shows, he has had a sharp drop off in his foot speed in the last three years. In 2016 he ran 26.1 feet/second. By 2018 that had dropped to 24.9. This might explain some of his drop in BABIP. And does it mean that in two years Cruz ends up like David Ortiz in his last season, a hitting monster who could barely run to first base?

Well, that wouldn’t be so bad. Another legendary late bloomer, in his age 40 season Ortiz hit wRC+ 169.

Assessment

Needing to replace 500 innings worth of starting pitching, and finding a new catcher, it is hard to say how much of a priority the Astros place on getting a DH. But if Cruz can do for the Astros what he has so consistently done for the Mariners, and why not, then his impact could be almost as great as that of J. D. Martinez on the Red Sox. Imagine a healthy Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa slugging again, Bregman being Bregman, with Springer and Reddick hopefully regressing next year upward to their career averages. And maybe Kyle Tucker finding his stroke in the Bigs, and an occasional Great White Shark attack. What kind of a line up would you have with a boomer like Cruz hitting clean up?

Damn. Think I’ll have a Cheval Blanc, 1947.