09 September 2014

Revisiting Nelson Cruz's Red Flags

Back in February when the Orioles signed Nelson Cruz, I wrote about Cruz and some of the red flags that kept him from receiving a three- or four-year deal. By inking Cruz to a one-year contract (for $8 million, plus incentives), the Orioles were able to avoid almost all of the risk that bringing Cruz aboard entailed. One-year deals provide minimal risk for teams; a player either produces that season or he doesn't. It's all about the short term. It's even better when something silly like the qualifying offer is in play.

Still, even without much risk, there were still warning signs for Cruz, some of which were highlighted in this FanGraphs piece last year by Dave Cameron. But overall, Cruz has given the Orioles exactly what they needed: a big bat in the middle of their lineup. He has a .262/.331/.532 batting line (136 wRC+) and has already amassed 39 home runs. His defense in left field has been an adventure at times (as has Delmon Young's), but he was not brought in to be a defensive stalwart. He was signed to hit the ball out of the ballpark, which he has done quite effectively.

Cruz has performed well, and his signing certainly has to be considered one of the best of the year. But there has been some buzz lately about the O's and Cruz having mutual interest in an extension, meaning it may be wise to revisit those previously discussed red flags and see if Cruz has reversed any of the trends. Sure, a single season's worth of data in what could be Cruz's last chance at a big payday isn't a definitive answer of answer, but it's still worth looking at.

Has he stayed healthy?

In previous seasons, Cruz has battled hamstring and quad injuries. But he's been healthy in 2014. He's played in 140 games already and has received nearly 600 plate appearances so far. That's an impressive feat for Cruz, who had played in more than 128 games just once before this year. Considering the season-ending injuries to Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, it's important for the Orioles that Cruz has played in just about every game.

How has he hit at Camden Yards? 

One minor concern about Cruz leaving the Rangers was that he wouldn't be able to hit as well without playing half his games at Globe Life Park in Arlington (formerly The Ballpark in Arlington, Ameriquest Field in Arlington, and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington -- at least it's confirmed that the Rangers' ballpark is, indeed, located in Arlington).

Cruz has spent most of his career with the Rangers, and he's traditionally been a better hitter at home than on the road:

Career Home: 129 wRC+
Career Away: 106 wRC+

This season, though, Cruz has been superior on the road:

2014 Home: 109 wRC+
2014 Away: 162 wRC+

Specifically, he hasn't hit well at home against right-handed pitching (he's better against lefties):

2014 Home vs. LHP: 142 wRC+
2014 Home vs. RHP: 101 wRC+
2014 Away vs. LHP: 179 wRC+
2014 Away vs. RHP: 154 wRC+

Perhaps it's a fluke. Maybe he just didn't perform as well against right-handed pitching at home this season. In his career, he has a .260/.324/.466 batting line at Camden Yards. For what it's worth, he's performed worse when hitting in New York and Tampa Bay, but better in Toronto -- and way, way better in Boston (.406/.459/.723). I think he likes the Green Monster.

Any fly ball issues?

Cruz is not looking to hit singles. He wants to hit home runs, and to do so obviously needs to hit the ball a long way in the air. Going into this season, these were Cruz's ground ball and fly ball percentages:

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

And here are his numbers for 2014:

41.2 GB%; 43.6 FB%

He's cut down on his strikeouts while walking about the same, but he's also hitting fewer line drives. He is hitting the ball in the air more (including an unfortunate increase in infield fly balls), and considering his 21.5% HR/FB rate -- which would be a career high -- that's a good thing.

One interesting nugget, however, is that more than a quarter of Cruz's bombs are labeled as "Just Enough" home runs this season (per ESPN's Home Run Tracker). Five of them have come at home. Also, here are the average true distance measurements on his home runs since 2009:

2009: 417
2010: 405.2
2011: 411.6
2012: 418.6
2013: 408.3
2014: 402.7

Make of that what you will.

Any contact or swing issues?

After a couple years of swinging at fewer pitches in the strikezone (64% in 2013), Cruz has been a bit more aggressive this season (68.6%). He's also been chasing more pitches outside the strikezone, but his contact numbers are improved from last season. He's been 3% better at making contact on pitches outside the zone (54.6%, though still down from his career average of 56%), and he's making a career high 84.8% contact on pitches in the zone (unless you count his 133 plate appearances in 2008 (85.9%)).

The improved contact is important, since pitchers are throwing him a career low 46.7% of pitches inside the zone. Cruz's plate discipline improvements aren't enormous, and he still makes plenty of outs. But he is going after more pitches that he can handle, and he's driving the ball.

How's he doing against breaking and offspeed pitches?

Cruz hammers fastballs more than other pitches, so it wasn't surprising last season when he saw fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches (and about the same number of offspeed pitches). In 2014, he's seeing about the same numbers of fastballs, but fewer breaking pitches and more offspeed ones.

As a reminder, Cruz's career isolated power numbers before this season were:

Hard: .272
Breaking: .189
Offspeed: .196

In the past couple seasons, he's struggled against breaking pitches and was woeful against offspeed pitches last season in particular. So how do his ISO numbers look this season?

Hard: .328
Breaking: .177
Offspeed: .214

So Cruz has responded by continuing to destroy fastballs, do a little better against breaking pitches, and perform better against offspeed pitches. His whiff percentages against both breaking and offspeed pitches are still more than twice as high than against fastballs, but that hasn't mattered so far. I'm still not sure why pitchers throw him fastballs more than 50% of the time.


Cruz's solid season shouldn't cloud the O's judgment on handing him a long-term deal. On the one hand, bringing Cruz back at a reasonable price could make sense. He's a good hitter, and the O's do face uncertainty with guys like Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, and even Matt Wieters and Chris Davis. But on the other hand, Cruz turned 34 in July, and at some point he'll have to exclusively DH (though maybe he should be doing so already). But Cruz has been a superb addition to a playoff bound team, and that's all that really matters at the moment.

Stats (as of September 8) via FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Brooks Baseball. 
Photo via Keith Allison


Pat Holden said...

Just curious, any ballpark figure of a deal you'd be comfortable bringing him back on?

Matt Kremnitzer said...

Maybe three years and between $35-40M? But that's just a guess, and he could be seeking more. I'd be reluctant to go over three years, and that even may be pushing it.

Pat Holden said...

Yeah, that sounds reasonable. So many moving pieces this off-season...