Nelson Cruz leads both leagues in home runs, and he ranks second behind Bryce Harper in SLG. Neither is a surprise. The Seattle slugger left the yard 40 times with Baltimore last season, and moving to Safeco Field wasn’t going to squelch his production. Per ESPN Home Run Tracker, 22 of the 34 bombs he’s hit this year have traveled more than 400 feet. Nine of them have gone at least 440 feet.
One thing has come as a surprise: Going into last night, the career .274 hitter had a .324 batting average, and he was tied with Prince Fielder for the most base hits (140) in either league. Once one-dimensional, the former Texas Ranger has morphed into more than just a basher.
It’s been a long process. In many respects, Cruz has been a late bloomer.
The 35-year-old outfielder has 231 home runs on his big-league resume – plus 16 in 41 post-season games – and the vast majority have come in the past seven seasons. Cruz actually had more minor-league home runs (172) than MLB home runs (157) going into last year. Some of that was opportunity, but much of it was developmental in nature. Initially given shots in 2006 and 2007, he failed to stick due to a lot of swing-and-miss.
Cruz credits a pair of former mentors in the Rangers organization for a key mechanical adjustment he made in 2007. The tweak helped springboard him to a monster 2008 season that was split between Triple-A (37 home runs) and Texas (seven home runs in 115 at bats).
“My stance had been more straight in line, and we made it kind of open,” Cruz said. “Scott Servais (the Rangers farm director at the time) told me to change it. (Triple-A hitting coach) Paul Boulanger said the same thing. They sent me back to the minors and showed me some film. We looked at Carlos Lee, Derek Lee, Andres Galarraga – guys who had similarities to me. They’re bigger guys, taller guys, and they were kind of open.”
Cruz says opening up his stance helped his pitch recognition, which in turn helped his plate coverage. There’s still swing-and-miss to his game – he’s a classic power hitter in that sense – but he’s become proficient at punishing misplaced pitches.
“Because I’m open, I can see the ball with both eyes, instead of just the left one,” Cruz said. “That gives me a better chance to see the spin of the ball. I had success before I changed my stance, but that was in the minors. I realized once I got to the big leagues that I needed to do something in order to cover more pitches.”
(Cruz has seen an optometrist and knows he’s more dominant in one eye, but he couldn’t remember which one it is.)
He doesn’t watch much video of himself. Cruz told me he’ll look at it when he’s scuffling. “Maybe if I’m getting under the ball a lot” – but not when he’s hot. “You don’t want to mess things up,” he said. “All you want is to focus and to see the ball and hit the ball.”
As simple as that sounds, his approach isn’t rudimentary. You don’t put up a 324/.389/.609 slash line without a mature thought process.
“You need to have a plan every time you go up to bat,” Cruz said. “Know the situations and have an idea of what the pitcher wants to do against you. That’s the most important thing for me. Each at bat is different. You don’t change the way you hit, but you can change the way you approach an at bat. That’s another thing I’ve learned over the years.”
Cruz told me he hasn’t changed anything of late. He suggested that maybe his hands are a little higher, but then again, maybe they’re a little lower. He’s not really sure. Any difference would be minimal and “kind of depending on how I feel at the time.”
He’s certainly feeling it in his first season in Seattle. Despite moving from a hitter-friendly ballpark to one that’s known for suppressing home runs, he’s having a career year. Older and wiser, he’s letting his power play out naturally.
“If I hit it good, it’s going to go out anywhere,” Cruz said. “I don’t see any reason to change.”
That’s the last thing Mariners fans want to see. Their team has been a huge disappointment, but the player general manager Jack Zduriencik inked to a $57 million contract has been anything but. Many thought Cruz couldn’t replicate what he did last year – yes, there are three more years left on the deal — but to this point he’s exceeded expectations. Cruz has been a beast with the bat.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.