Going Deep: Cruz’n USA

Yesterday I perused some too early 2020 fantasy baseball rankings. After angrily noting the author ranked Blake Snell ahead of Justin Verlander among other missteps, I realized someone else had been left out altogether—Minnesota Twins DH Nelson Cruz.

Though likely inadvertent, this omission felt like the epitome of Cruz’s 2019. He has quietly hit 34 homers in only 429 PAs, yet to little fanfare.

Name HR/PA%
Nelson Cruz 7.93
Fernando Tatis Jr. 5.91
Pete Alonso 7.42
Christian Yelich 7.50
Ronald Acuña Jr. 5.69
Cody Bellinger 7.54
Mike Trout 7.35

While the baseball community has fawned over young stars Fernando Tatís Jr., Pete Alonso, Christian Yelich, Ronald Acuña Jr.Cody Bellinger and Mike Trout, the 39-year-old Cruz has outpaced them all by home runs per plate appearance. That’s an impressive group of players to best, and Cruz has done it with a .309 batting average to boot. He’d have more home runs than the lot of them if it weren’t for two wrist injuries sidelining him this season.

It’s no wonder, then, that Cruz has amassed more WAR this season than Bryce Harper and Manny Machado despite having played 32 fewer games than Harper and 33 fewer than Machado. Impressively, he’s accomplished this feat despite not playing a single game in the field and accruing no defensive metrics to boost his WAR.

So, what do we make of Cruz? Entering his age-40 season, do we treat him like a top 50 pick? Or should we leave someone else holding the bag?

 

Old Dog, New Tricks

 

I’ve already touched on Cruz’s excellent season, but let’s zoom out for a moment.

PA R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG
429 65 34 91 .309 .390 .643

Those are some elite numbers. In a traditional categories league, Cruz has been a fantastic asset when healthy, contributing in a big way across four categories.

But he’s an excellent real-life player too. Cruz’s slugging percentage ranks sixth in all of baseball, and his .429 xwOBA is third in the league behind only Trout and Bellinger. Similarly, his 163 wRC+ is tied for fourth-best in the league.

This is unlike prior years, in which Cruz hovered around 40 home runs with a career-high of 44. Over the last five seasons, he has been remarkably durable in spite of his age, averaging 153 games played. Prorating his current stats to 153 games yields: 100.45 runs, 52.54 HR, 140.64 RBI, and a .309 AVG. This season is different in kind. But why?

My first guess is usually that the hitter has joined the fly ball revolution, but Cruz’s average launch angle is actually down this season.

The next thing I do when a player experiences a power surge is check if he’s doing anything differently in the batter’s box. I usually look at three things: (1) whether he changed the position of his feet; (2) whether he changed his posture; and (3) the location of his hands.

 

On the left is Cruz in 2018 and the right is an image from this season. He still stands open with his back straight to generate power. He stands back deep in the box, but he doesn’t crowd the plate. None of this is new.

Nevertheless, his hands are positioned differently this year. He has visibly lowered them. Last year, his left hand was even with his head, but this year it’s level with his front shoulder. That’s why his front elbow is lower and we can see less of his jersey. It’s also why he looks more relaxed in the box.

I’ve noted this change in other players before. It’s one of my favorites because it’s so intuitive. Think about swinging a bat. You have to move your hands up to load for the pitch and start your swing, then bring them down through your swing. If you start with them high, there’s nowhere to go and you have to bring them down just to bring them back up again to start your swing. Lowering the hands eliminates this superfluous movement, thereby increasing bat speed and reaction time. Matt Stairs and others have preached making such an adjustment.

But don’t just take it from me, the proof is in the pudding.

AVG EV Hard Hit% EV on FB AVG FB Distance  xSLG Brls/PA%
Nelson Cruz 94.0 mph 52.5 100.9 mph 366 ft .642 13.1
MLB Rank (min. 50 BBEs) 3rd 4th T-1st T-1st 1st 1st

Cruz was always impressive, but never like this. His average exit velocity ranks third in all of baseball and he’s hitting the ball over 95 mph more than half the time. His exit velocity on fly balls—which is, unsurprisingly, highly correlated with home run hitting—is the best in the league. Accordingly, so too is his average fly ball distance.

Undoubtedly, these impressive power metrics have yielded the best barrel rate in baseball. The next highest barrel rate is Gary Sanchez’s 11.9% mark. Put differently, Cruz is such a prolific slugger that his barrel rate is 10.08% better than the next best in the league. And with 32.20 predicted home runs, my algorithm buys every bit of Cruz’s power surge.

It’s time to have some fun and show off what Cruz can do. Here he is crushing a 466-foot blast off of hapless starter Danny Duffy:

Cruz got all of that pitch, which ultimately landed in the third deck. Here’s another majestic shot off of Jose Ruiz:

That one went a grand total of 469 feet and landed behind the outfield cameras. But Cruz’s most impressive homer this season was a three-run shot off of young ace Lucas Giolito:

That majestic blast went 473 feet. Poor Giolito wound up allowing three home runs to Cruz that day.

Supposedly, a picture says a thousand words, and Giolito’s exasperated face as he watched that home run climb 473 feet says more than I ever could. I can only imagine how he felt after Cruz’s second and third homers.

Whether or not these blasts are the result of Cruz lowering his hands, I can say for certain that he is one of the best—if not the best—power hitters in baseball right now. By leading the league in most power metrics, he’s even better than he used to be.

 

Batting Average

 

We know Cruz won’t steal any bases, leaving the only open question as whether he’ll maintain a batting average that moves the needle for your fantasy leagues. Currently, he’s sporting a .309 average with a .355 BABIP. He strikes out at a 25.9% clip with a 32.3% whiff rate. Of course, such a high strikeout rate supported by an equally high whiff rate does not make a .300+ hitter.

Yet, Statcast gives Cruz a .297 expected batting average. Can his BABIP continue to overcompensate for his strikeout rate? The answer is partially, but I do not expect Cruz to maintain a .355 BABIP moving forward, as it’s tied for sixth-highest among all qualified hitters.

GB% FB% LD% PU% Pull%
Nelson Cruz 37.4 26.0 27.5 9.1 39.6
MLB AVG 45.4 22.0 25.5 7.1 36.4

A quick glance at Cruz’s batted ball profile explains why. Ground balls and line drives are more likely to fall in for hits, while fly balls, pop-ups and pulled balls are more likely to produce outs. Cruz is a mixed bag, hitting more line drives than average, but fewer ground balls and more fly balls and pop-ups. He also pulls a greater share of his balls in play than most hitters. Such a high share of pulled balls, fly balls, and pop-ups will make it nearly impossible for Cruz to maintain a .355 BABIP.

Still, there’s a reason why Cruz’s BABIP is so high to date. The contact that he makes is elite.

Quality of Contact Nelson Cruz MLB AVG xBA xwOBA
Weak 1.9% 4.6% .190 .166
Topped 25.7% 34.2% .183 .168
Under 20.8% 24.5% .067 .084
Flare/Burner 22.3% 24.9% .655 .623
Solid 8.3% 5.6% .470 .632
Barrel 21.1% 6.3% .757 1.356

While Cruz’s batted ball profile and strikeout rate are inauspicious, his quality of contact is unparalleled. Baseball Savant has six batted ball classifications: weak, topped, under, flare/burner, solid and barrel.

Of those, Cruz hits an outsized share of barrels and solid balls in play, both of which have extremely high expected batting averages and expected weighted on-base averages. If 21% of your balls in play will almost certainly become hits, you’re off to a good start.

He also hits a smaller share of the other batted ball types, which yield low expected batting averages and weighted on-base averages (with the exception of flare/burner). In other words, Cruz maintains such a high BABIP, batting average and expected batting average because he’s destroying baseballs.

I still expect his batting average to fall because he’s whiffing too much, pulling the ball, and hitting a below-average amount of ground balls while hitting a lot of fly balls and pop-ups. However, it shouldn’t fall precipitously given his line drive rate and excellent quality of contact. Perhaps he regresses next season to the more palatable .315 or .320 BABIPs he ran in 2017 and 2016, with corresponding .288 and .287 batting averages. But that, of course, would be fine with most fantasy owners.

 

2020 and Concluding Thoughts

 

So where does the foregoing leave us? Other than the rankings I alluded to before, I’ve seen two articles predicting the first two rounds of 2020 drafts. Cruz neither appears in Scott White’s 2020 top 24 nor Nando Di Fino’s. Here are some players that do appear on their lists, however, that provide a helpful illustration:

Name PA HR HR/PA% R RBI SB AVG Brls/PA%
Nelson Cruz 429 34 7.93 65 91 0 .309 13.1
Nolan Arenado 575 35 6.09 91 105 2 .311 5.7
Freddie Freeman 611 38 6.22 107 114 6 .301 9.2
Alex Bregman 589 32 5.43 105 94 4 .290 3.7
Aaron Judge 358 19 5.31 57 43 3 .278 10.9
J.D. Martinez 568 34 5.99 89 93 1 .317 8.8
Charlie Blackmon 541 27 4.99 98 74 2 .317 8.8
Josh Bell 574 35 6.10 91 110 0 .280 8.9
Kris Bryant 564 26 4.61 95 64 3 .282 5.9
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 430 15 3.49 47 59 0 .278 6.3
George Springer 479 29 6.05 79 77 5 .294 8.8

I picked these players because, by and large, they do not run. As a result, you’re relying on their ability to hit for average and power to be productive fantasy assets. Cruz has the highest HR/PA% of these guys. He also has the highest barrel rate (the highest in baseball, remember?). He’s fourth in batting average. And yet, he’s nowhere on either of these lists.

Of course, Cruz is a DH, and therefore carries no positional eligibility. The other elephant in the room is his age. I understand being cautious of him going into his age-40 season.

I’m not saying he’s better than those guys, or should necessarily be drafted before all (or any) of them. But when you go into your drafts next year, if you take away anything from this article, let it be this:

  1. In one more plate appearance, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit exactly 19 fewer home runs than Cruz.
  2. While Cruz hit 34 home runs, Nolan Arenado, J.D. Martinez and Josh Bell each hit one more home run with an additional 130 PAs. Likewise, Cruz hit more homers than Charlie BlackmonGeorge SpringerAlex Bregman and Kris Bryant in far fewer PAs.
  3. Even regressing his BABIP and batting average, he’d still hit for a similar average to Bregman, Bell, Springer, Bryant and Guerrero Jr.
  4. Cruz bests them all in Barrels/PA%.

Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire.

Dan Richards

Dan is a lifelong New York Yankees and Giants fan. Though a young lawyer, Dan is better known for aggressively bothering his leaguemates about trades. You can follow him on Twitter @Fantasy_Esquire.

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