Going Deep: Nelson Cruz Has Become More Than Just a Home Run Machine

Ryan Chichester examines a major area that Nelson Cruz has continued to improve over the last four seasons.

The Minnesota Twins, in their concerted effort to acquire more dingers, took another productive step in that direction on Thursday, signing free agent baseball bopper Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $14.3 million deal, with a $12 million team option for the 2020 season.

Cruz is the latest signing for a Twins team that finished 23rd in the league in homers last year while finishing with a team OPS+ of 95. Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron were the other offseason additions to the Twins’ thin offense, but Cruz comes as the main homer attraction, as he enters the season with the most homers in baseball over the last five seasons.

The main concern surrounding Cruz is his age. The 38-year-old will have to see a dropoff in production sometime soon, right? So far, Father Time has yet to arrive, and despite a downtick in the OPS department last year, Cruz was able to continue what has become a positive trend for him over the years.

First, let’s address the dip in OPS, from .924 to .850 from 2017 to 2018. This was the first season Cruz finished with an OPS below .900 since 2014, but he still slugged 37 homers (compared to 39 in 2017). So, if the homers remained the same, what caused the OPS drop? For one, he finished with 18 doubles, compared to 28 the season prior. However, that could have had more to do with bad baseball luck than an actual decline in power. Cruz maintained his usual top-notch exit velocity and hard contact percentages in 2018, and actually slightly improved in those areas, as he once again finished in the top percentile of the league in both categories, per Baseball Savant.

Nelson Cruz, hard contact

Year Avg Exit Velo League Avg Hard Contact Pct. League Avg
2016 94.4 87.7 52.6 34.5
2017 93.2 86.7 48.7 33.3
2018 93.9 87.7 51.3 35.3

For context, the league average in these categories in 2018 was 87.3 and 34.2, respectively. For the second-straight season, Cruz ranked 2nd in baseball in average exit velocity, after finishing first in the league in 2016. So the OPS and doubles were down, but that could have just been a classic case of baseball being mean. Of course, Cruz has enjoyed the other end of that spectrum in years past, like in 2015, when he mashed a career-high 44 homers and finished with a .936 OPS, yet his average exit velo and hard contact percentages were his lowest of the Statcast era, resulting in the only year since that 2015 season when Cruz’s xOBA was lower than his wOBA. His xOBA in 2018? A very respectable .395, good for the top three percentile in all of baseball. Meanwhile, his xSLG was .564 in 2018, good enough to land him in the top-three percentile in the league.

Still, there has to be more behind for the OPS drop. Well, Cruz’s .264 BABIP likely didn’t do him many favors, and xStats had Cruz at seven more doubles in 2018 than he finished with, which would have put him right up there with his 2017 total, despite appearing in 11 fewer games. Cruz’s BABIP was .315 in 2017, which led to more favorable results in the box score. In 2017, Cruz’s xStats batting average was just six points higher than what he actually finished with (.288), while his 2018 xStats line had Cruz batting 24 points higher than his final batting average of .256, suggesting some bad luck after all. The dip in OPS is noticeable, but there’s plenty of underlying stats to justify that this decline could very well wind up being a hiccup for Cruz.

Now, let’s get to that positive trend we mentioned earlier. Not only has Cruz maintained his power (thanks in part to a full-time DH role the past two seasons), he has also developed a better eye at the plate. While strikeouts continue to soar around baseball, Cruz has seen his strikeout numbers drop steadily over the past four years.

Nelson Cruz, strikeout rates

Year K%
2015 25.0
2016 23.8
2017 21.7
2018 20.6

That 25 percent mark in 2015 was among the highest in the league, and Cruz clearly realized it needed to be addressed. His downtick in strikeouts helped him finish with a league average chase percentage for the first time in the StatCast era, while his walk percentage finished well above the league average. His plate discipline has consistently improved over the past four seasons, but there was another drastic improvement in 2018 that should have Twinkies fans excited, and that’s Cruz’s improvement against offspeed pitches.

Nelson Cruz, vs. offspeed

Year Swing & Miss % wOBA
2017 45.6 .331
2018 37.5 .491

Offspeed pitches only accounted for about 10 percent of the pitches Cruz saw in 2018, but there was still a clear, drastic improvement. Cruz mainly sees fastballs (56 percent of pitches against him were heaters last year), and his average exit velo and swing and miss percentages remained status quo to his 2017 numbers. Cruz didn’t appear to slide in any category last year. In fact, he improved in some valuable ones, which should be a good sign moving forward into 2019.

A potential concern for Cruz and the Twins could be Cruz’s new home field, which is eight feet deeper down the left field line than his old home, the formerly named Safeco Field. At Target Field in Minnesota, center field stretches as far as 411 feet, compared to 401 feet in Seattle. Cruz is not a dead pull hitter, and over the course of his career has shown an ability to drive balls over the center field wall. That could prove to be more difficult in the Twin City. However, at least last year, Cruz left little doubt on his moonshots in Safeco, and looking at his home run chart overlayed with Target Field, it looks like he MIGHT have only lost one home run to his 2018 total. Therefore, there’s no reason for concern about home run loss going from Safeco to Target Field.

Courtesy of StatCast

The Twins needed more home runs, and just by adding Cruz and Cron (that should totally be the name of a TV show), they can expect to see another 60 or so homers on their season total, perhaps a little less after subtracting last year’s minimal home run production from first baseman Joe Mauer (6 dingers) and primary DH’s  Robbie Grossman (5) and Tyler Austin (9). With Cleveland as the only likely competition in the AL Central, the Twins wanted to give themselves a better shot at pulling an upset and grabbing a playoff spot for the second time in three years. Their quest to improve after an upstart 2017 campaign failed, but adding Cruz certainly helps their chances of righting the ship in the short term, at least on offense.

Ryan Chichester

Ryan is a baseball writer and blogger who has been a Yankees fan since before Chuck Knoblauch forgot how to throw a baseball. He's watched the 1996 World Series video at least 200 times, and still isn't over losing Robinson Cano. A proud nerd that also writes for SB Nation and Comic Book Resources. Follow him on Twitter @ryanchichester1 to talk baseball like Scott Smalls and Mr. Mertle.

One response to “Going Deep: Nelson Cruz Has Become More Than Just a Home Run Machine”

  1. Thorbs says:

    How much do you think the full-time DHing has helped Cruz maintain his production? As a former Pujols owner/fan, I wondered if they had made him a full-time DH and put Cron at 1B if we would have got a few more years of semi-vintage Albert before his feet gave out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Account / Login