Will the Real Nelson Cruz Please Stand Up?
by Patrick Holden
As July winds down and the Orioles enter the final two months of the regular season, Nelson Cruz has been the Orioles best offensive performer over the first 4 months of the season. While Steve Pearce has had stretches as the most productive Orioles hitter, and other Orioles overall contributions to the team outweigh Cruz’s, Cruz leads the team with 19.8 Offensive runs above average contributed. Not only does this lead the club, but it’s good for 22nd in all of MLB thus far in 2014. Furthermore, of the 8 Orioles with 200+ PA’s, Cruz ranks 1st in home runs and SLG, 2nd in wOBA and 3rd in OBP.
While Cruz was expected to be a key contributor in the heart of the Orioles lineup this season, it’s safe to say that his production thus far has surpassed what just about everyone envisioned when he was signed to a 1-year $8 million deal in February. In fact, Cruz has already surpassed his ZiPS preseason home run projection of 27, as he currently sits at 29 home runs. ZiPS projected Cruz’s wOBA to come in at .340 in 585 PA’s. Currently, Cruz’s wOBA (as mentioned above, currently second on the team) sits at .379 in 434 PA’s. However, a closer look at Cruz’s numbers over the course of the season reveal that, while Cruz was productive at an All-World level in April and May (plus one day of March), his production has been barely average in June and July.
In April, Cruz posted a wOBA of .409 (162 wRC+), a true superstar level of production that was good for 12th in all of baseball. Cruz’s production ramped up even more in May, as he finished 6th in all of MLB with a wOBA of .473 (206 wRC+). Cruz’s 14.2 offensive runs above average contributed in May was 4th in baseball for the month, behind only Yaseil Puig, Edwin Encarnacion, and Giancarlo Stanton. But then June came around and Cruz’s production fell off of a cliff. Cruz’s wOBA in June of .287 (78 wRC+) was 8th among the 9 Orioles with 50+ PA’s during the month, beating out only Jonathon Schoop, and was 88th out of the 116 qualifying MLB players. Cruz wasn’t even average at the plate offensively in June, posting a -3.1 offensive runs above average contributed. When combined with his always subpar defense, Cruz was below replacement level for the month, finishing with a WAR of -0.3. July has been a little kinder to Cruz, posting a wOBA of .327 (wRC+ 105), and he’s even above replacement level this month so far, with a 0.1 WAR. But still, Cruz is a far cry from the MVP-type player he was through the end of May.
So, how exactly can this drastic drop in production be explained? Certainly, regression is a factor here, as Cruz was highly unlikely to perform at an MVP-caliber level at the plate for an entire season. Cruz’s BABIP through May was .319 and his HR/FB rate was 27.9%. In the June and July, Cruz’s BABIP is .246 while his HR/FB has also dropped drastically to 15.3%. For the year, his BABIP is now .284, below his career mark of .300, while his HR/FB rate of 22.5% still sits above his career mark of 17.4. So, Cruz has certainly been less fortunate in the June and July after everything was turning up aces in April and May.
In terms of contact, Cruz’s lowest LD% was actually in April, at 12.1%, while his highest month is July at 20.6%. Cruz has seen his season-high FB% in May of 46.2% fall to a season low of 41.3% in July. Cruz’s plate discipline doesn’t appear to be a factor in the two different levels of production we’ve seen so far this year, as he chased the most pitches outside of the strike zone in May, his most successful month. Cruz’s overall contact rate has been steady as well, remaining between 73% and 76% all season.
What should the Orioles expect from Nelson Cruz over the final two months of the season, given the very uneven (but still above expectations) performance he has given them so far? ZiPS projects Cruz to post a wOBA of .353 (123 wRC+) for the rest of the season. Historically, Cruz is pretty consistent between the first and second half of the season, posting a .357 and .355 wOBA, respectively. All of this would suggest that while April and May might have been impossible for Cruz to sustain, the same could be said for June, at the opposite end of the spectrum. July, while still below Cruz’s standard production, has shown that he is emerging from his June doldrums. Moving forward, I think the ZiPS wOBA projection, which would be a happy medium between the two Cruz’s we’ve seen so far this year, is a safe bet of what to expect for the remainder of the year from the Orioles LF/DH.
All stats pulled from Fangraphs and current as of July 26th