28 February 2014

Nelson Cruz's Red Flags

On a one-year deal, Nelson Cruz is a useful addition and improves the Orioles' designated hitter situation. In 2013, O's DHs had a dreadful combined slash line of .234/.289/.415. Cruz's slash line in 2013 was .266/.327/.506, which is very close to his career line of .268/.327/.495. He will help by giving the Orioles a boost at DH in nearly every offensive category.

Nelson Cruz (photo: Keith Allison)
Cruz made his major league debut in 2005 with the Brewers, but he did not start playing routinely until 2007, when he appeared in 96 games with the Rangers. He did not hit well in 333 plate appearances (.294 wOBA), and he did not return to the majors until August of 2008. In 133 plate appearances, he raked (.437 wOBA); he's been a regular in the Rangers lineup since.

He put up a .363 wOBA while playing decent defense in 2009, but his best full-time season came in 2010 (.404 wOBA). He even managed to moderately improve his defense and baserunning that season. But his offensive numbers since then have been good, but not close to a .400 wOBA:

2011: .353 wOBA
2012: .335 wOBA
2013: .359 wOBA

After stealing 37 combined bases in 2009 and 2010 (caught eight times), he's swiped only 22 bags the last three years while getting caught 10 times. He would never have been confused with Rickey Henderson and is not that fast anyway, but every little bit helps value wise. Along with his now below average baserunning abilities, Cruz's outfield defense took a sudden plunge in 2011. Take a look:

2009: 8.6 UZR, 0 DRS
2010: 10.1 UZR, +3 DRS
2011: -6.2 UZR, -5 DRS
2012: -3.7 UZR, -13 DRS
2013: -4.3 UZR, -3 DRS

Cruz is not going to be an asset on the basepaths, and he is not a good corner outfielder. Those things all contributed to him not getting the lucrative three- or four-year contract that he was seeking this offseason. Those problem areas (and more) were why Dave Cameron of FanGraphs named Cruz his biggest "land mine" of all the 2014 free agents:
The way that Cruz’s value has been portrayed makes him out to be one of the game’s elite sluggers, when he’s really nothing close to that. While playing half his games in the hitter’s paradise of Arlington, he’s posted OBPs of .312, .319, and .327 over the last three years. Yes, he’s strong, and he hits some impressive home runs, but he also makes a lot of outs in the process.

Toss in poor defense, poor baserunning, always lingering health concerns, a PED suspension, the fact that he’ll be 33 next year, and the draft compensation that is attached because Texas made him a qualifying offer, and Cruz is a DUI away from Red Flag Bingo. It’s one thing to overlook all of these issues because the performance is just so great that the reward is worth the risk, but even a full strength, completely healthy Nelson Cruz is more of an average player than a good one.
Ouch. Granted, Cameron wrote that back in November when many people still figured Cruz would get paid pretty big money on a multiyear deal. Obviously the Orioles did not do that. So Cruz's long-term outlook doesn't necessarily interest the O's much; they are worried about what he'll do in 2014.

The O's would definitely welcome any production from Cruz in the .350 wOBA neighborhood. Adam Jones posted a wOBA of exactly .350 last season, and only three other O's posted wOBAs above .325: Chris Davis (.421), Danny Valencia (.381 wOBA, in 170 PAs), and Steve Pearce (.345 wOBA, in 138 PAs). Valencia's and Pearce's numbers were accumulated in small samples, and while Davis had far and away the best season of his career, there's no guarantee he comes close to replicating his phenomenal numbers. So Cruz's presence should help, since Davis will almost certainly take at least a minor step back.

But even in the short term for Cruz, there are some warning signs to pay attention to. They may not amount to much in 2014, but if he starts to struggle, the following may be some of the reasons why.

Decreasing Fly Balls?

He is not a high OBP guy (career .327), and he relies on power (career .495 SLG). He wants to hit the ball out the ballpark -- something he'll have in common with several of his teammates in Baltimore. He has not had a drastic change in the amount of groundballs and fly balls he's been hitting, but there's been a small one:

Career: 40.1 GB%; 43.0 FB%
2013: 41.9 GB%; 41.2 FB%

(Reminder: Groundballs are more likely to become hits than fly balls, but fly balls have the potential to leave the ballpark.) It's worth noting that his 2012 rates were both around 41%, but in both 2009 and 2010 he was around 45%. So it may not be a major concern yet, but it's worth keeping an eye on -- especially since he'll be playing in another ballpark that welcomes plenty of home runs. Considering Cruz's career 16.6% HR/FB rate, he wants to hit the ball in the air as much as possible. (The 2013 MLB average HR/FB rate was 10.5%.)

Contact and Swing Concerns

Cruz has also been getting worse at making contact on pitches thrown outside the strikezone. His yearly O-Contact percentages since 2009 are 52.5, 61.5, 59.9, 55.1, and 51.6. So he wasn't great at making contact on those pitches in 2009, immediately was better in his career year in 2010, and then has been getting worse each year since. It's an important skill for batters to foul off tough pitches and extend at-bats and eventually get a better pitch to handle.

His overall contact percentages have been a bit above his career mark (72.8%), which is due to Cruz making better contact on pitches inside the strikezone. So that's a positive. But his overall swing percentages have gone from a career high of 50.4% of pitches in 2011 to 47.6% and 46.8% in 2012 and 2013, respectively. That did lead to Cruz not chasing as many pitches outside the strikezone in 2012 (26.6%), but not 2013 (30.5%). (Career O-Swing% of 29.9%.) It also led him to swing at fewer pitches inside the strikezone:

2011: 69.2%
2012: 67.8%
2013: 64%

(Career Z-Swing% of 67%.)

Breaking and Off-Speed Pitch Troubles

This tweet from Buster Olney drew attention to another warning sign:
In 2013, Cruz saw the lowest amount of hard pitches (four-seamers, sinkers, and cutters) and highest amount of breaking pitches (curveballs, sliders, and knuckleballs) since 2009. He's seen mostly the same amount of off-speed pitches (change-ups, splitters, and screwballs). (Note: It's unclear if "off-speed pitches" in Olney's tweet combines Brooks Baseball's breaking and off-speed pitch categories.)

So opposing pitchers have recently started (again) to attack him with more breaking stuff:

Percentage of pitches to Cruz, sorted by year
The 2013 percentages are very close to the pitches thrown to Cruz in 2009. Perhaps Cruz's career isolated power (slugging minus batting average) numbers vs. the three pitch categories has something to do with that:

Hard: .272
Breaking: .189
Off-speed: .196

(Cruz career ISO: .228. 2013 MLB average ISO: .143.)

In 2012, Cruz's ISO was just .116 vs. breaking pitches (though .235 vs. off-speed), and in 2013, Cruz had an ISO of .170 vs. breaking pitches but only .069 vs. off-speed.

Some of those struggles may have to do with the amount of swinging and missing Cruz is doing at non-fastballs. He swung and missed at just 8.5% of hard pitches in 2013, but he whiffed on 18.5% of breaking pitches (about his career average) and 25.2% of off-speed pitches (the most for him since 2007). The steady increase in his whiff percentages on off-speed pitches since 2010 is worrisome. Maybe he's fortunate that opposing pitchers only throw him off-speed pitches 10-11% of the time. Also, for what it's worth, his overall strikeout percentage of 23.9% in 2013 was his highest since 2007.


If the O's had signed Cruz beyond 2014, these issues would be much more worrisome. He could very well have an outstanding season and put himself in position for the payday he thought he'd be getting this offseason (or maybe something close to it). Since he will likely be the O's primary DH, the only thing that matters is if he hits well or not. That's why the O's signed him in the first place.

Stats via Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Brooks Baseball.


Unknown said...

It's my understanding that Cruz turned off some teams by insisting on playing OF primarily. Is it going to be an issue in Baltimore that he's only going to get a few OF appearances per month (resting Markakis or filling in for Lough against LHP if Reimold is awful)? I assume Showalter isn't really going to put up with a player publicly griping about where he plays.

Jon Shepherd said...

I doubt it will matter. I figure by July he is routinely out there in left.

Unknown said...

This is merely a "fun" observation ...

The 2003 Kane County Cougars might be called the "Moneyball" team; many of the players the A's drafted in the Moneyball draft played there. Guys like Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Brant Colamarino, and Brian Stavisky, all highly touted by Billy Beane as bargain draftees. Nelson Cruz was the regular right fielder on that team; he obviously wasn't a Moneyball draftee. Of the three players on that team who have had the best careers, two weren't Moneyball draftees - Cruz and Andre Ethier.