Note: All stats in this article do not include any games played past Thursday 6/3
It’s crazy to say this about a player with a 133 wRC+, but Nelson Cruz is having a down year. At least relative to his standards. Cruz has posted a wRC+ of at least 160 in each of the last two seasons and at least 140 in five of the last six. Amazingly, he did all of this in his late 30s, showing age is just a number to him. It’s hard to complain about a hitter who is performing 33 percent above average, especially at 40 years old, but we all know Cruz can be better. He’s one of the greatest hitters of this generation.
The Twins are having a very disappointing year so far. Coming into the year, they were projected to be among the best teams in the American League and expected to battle with the White Sox for the AL Central title. However, the Twins currently sit 11 games under .500, in last place in the division, and way out of the playoff race. There’s still time for them to rebound, but Twins fans are understandably frustrated at this point. Thus far, the biggest issues for the Twins have been pitching and injuries, so Cruz is far from the problem. However, a return to normalcy for him may help the Twins get back on track.
Still Thriving on Power
Cruz has 10 home runs in 194 PA so far this season, a rate that is slightly lower than his recent past but still among the best in the league. But let’s take a look at some of the underlying metrics. For the sixth year in a row, every year of the Statcast era, Cruz’s barrel rate ranks in the top 10th percentile in the league. This isn’t news to us. His 15.5% barrel rate is exactly what his Statcast era average is. His hard-hit rate hasn’t dropped either, and that’s a metric that generally stabilizes quickly. His insane 53.5% rate actually ties a career-high. Cruz is consistently right up there with players like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. atop just about any Statcast leaderboard involving batted balls. And that hasn’t changed.
What about Non-Batted Balls?
Can Cruz’s “problem” be driven by what happens when he doesn’t make contact? We know Cruz has one of the best power traits we have ever seen, but there’s obviously a lot more to the game. He has always been a high strikeout guy. That hasn’t seemed to affect him in the past. Strikeouts are worth the same as any other out in most situations. Cruz doesn’t make a lot of outs on batted balls compared to most other players, so we don’t need to worry about his consistently high strikeout rate. In fact, Cruz’s strikeout rate in 2021 is actually down a few percentage points at 20.6%. The same can be said about his whiff rate, which sits at 32.0%.
Although his walk rate (9.3%) has slightly dropped, his chase rate is just in line with the rest of his career. Cruz has swung at 30.7% of pitches he’s seen that were out of the zone this season, which is slightly more than league average. The only real change about Cruz’s plate discipline profile has been the frequency of contact on those pitches he does chase. His chase contact rate has actually gone up to 50.4% from 43.8%. This is not surprising considering his aforementioned whiff rate has gone down.
Chase contact% is not nearly as stable year-over-year as chase% or contact%, which makes intuitive sense. Thus, Cruz’s new development of chase contact rate is more likely useless noise than a legitimate trend we need to pay attention to.
So What’s Different?
If Cruz’s underlying metrics have mostly stayed the same, why has his production dropped? You guessed it: luck and noise. His xwOBA *dropped* to 0.374 which is the lowest it has been in his entire career within the Statcast era. This leads me to my favorite gripe about xwOBA. If you’ve read some of my previous articles, you probably know what I am about to say. When it comes to batted ball types, fly balls and ground ball rates stabilize fairly quickly. Line drive rates do not. On the other hand, because line drives have a high hit probability, they can heavily influence our common expected statistics. Thus, xwOBA does not carry as much predictive value in small samples, given the flukiness of line drives.
Cruz currently holds the lowest line drive rate among all qualified hitters in baseball. We know that isn’t going to last. He’s hitting the ball hard and in the air the same way he always has. That’s all he can control. As his line drive rate stabilizes, his xwOBA will too and his performance should return to his career norms. Similarly, Cruz’s sweet spot % is down. This is another noisy stat that should normalize as time goes on, signifying positive regression is on its way.
What to Expect Going Forward
Cruz has dealt with a lot of bad variance this season, yet he is still performing 33 percent above average. He just needs to consider doing what he’s doing — and there’s nothing to suggest he will not — and the results will come. Soon enough, inhuman Nelson Cruz will be back.
If someone in your league is looking to sell on Cruz, now is a perfect opportunity to buy low. I understand his lack of position value is annoying, but there are few better ways to use a utility spot than on a hitter like Nelson Cruz. This “slow start” is not a sign of him aging. He should get back to where we expected him to be and where you drafted him. He is one of the best hitters of this generation for a reason and will continue his success, even at age 40. The fact that I was prompted to write this article about a guy with a 133 wRC+ should tell you all you need to know about Cruz.
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