Remember when nobody wanted Nelson Cruz? He’d been with the Rangers but his contract had ended and steroids and everyone was like, “Nooooo thanks.” Well, not exactly everybody. After a long time the Mariners called and reportedly had a short deal done with Cruz before the front office nixed it. I picture former team president Chuck Armstrong in a military uniform with puffy pants shouting in a fake English accent, “No, no, not Mariner material!”
Finally, after waiting an entire off-season, Baseball’s Yukon called and Cruz signed a one-year deal with Baltimore and hit about a billion homers. Then he was a free agent again. It was at that point that the Mariners realized the error of their ways.
“But I thought you said…”
“Tut tut, my boy. Cruz!”
Some years to go, but so far the Mariners have nothing to complain about. Cruz leads baseball with 14 homers, three more than the closest imitator, and is currently slugging over .700. He’s done this even though he’s forsaken Texas and Baltimore, two hitter friendly parks, especially for right-handed home run hitters, for Seattle, a park a few nudges on the other side of hitter friendliness. You would think that would curtail his home run activities at least a bit, but so far, no problem for ol’ Nelly. How is Cruz still hitting homers despite his unfriendly surroundings? Let’s see!
It makes sense to write about Baseball’s home run leader in mid-May, but as you might imagine for the league’s home run leader, we here at FanGraphs have written about him before. Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece on Cruz on April 20, but it’s been three weeks and Cruz is still crushing it and we’re nothing if not completists here so why not take another crack.
A few things have happened since Mr. Sullivan’s piece ran. For one, Cruz has six more homers. Also, Cruz was previously the leader in homers that traveled “Just Enough,” a category created by ESPN’s Hit Tracker. Since though, Cruz’s four “Just Enough” homers have been one-upped by Evan Gattis and two-upped by Ryan Howard and Justin Upton. But! Cruz is now the leader in the two other home run categories, “Lucky” and “No Doubt.” His two “Lucky” homers are actually tied with Ryan Howard (I’ve been saying for ages that that guy’s performance isn’t sustainable!) and the entirely human Luis Valbuena. On the other hand, Cruz’s six “No Doubt” homers hold a three homer lead over second place. That’s sizable! So far, Cruz’s homers, like my grandma at the wheel, haven’t stopped or really even slowed down.
After hitting 40 homers you would think pitchers would adjust. Is Cruz a good enough hitter to adjust back, to hit different pitches in different locations with the same power? After some investigation, it seems so!
Two years ago, 14 of his 27 homers came from pitches in the middle of the strike zone.
Of those 14 pitches, 10 were fastballs, two were curves, and two were sliders. You can see from the heatmap above that Cruz’s best success on a per-pitch basis came on pitches that were middle and up. That’s where his power came from. Pitchers wanted to stay away from that area of the strike zone.
Last season, his power came from the same three middle zones over the plate, where 20 of the 40 pitches he hit out were located. Of those 20 pitches, 12 were fastballs, five were sliders, two were changeups, and one was a curveball. Not exactly the same makeup, but there is a close complexion between the two groups, primarily that both were quite fastball-heavy. You can see the location of Cruz’s power is similar as well. Lots of power over the middle of the plate and up.
Here’s this year’s map.
You can see things are different. For one thing, his power has moved down and in. Only four of his 14 homers have come from those three zones over the middle of the plate. Of those four homers, none have come on a fastball. So Cruz isn’t crushing belt-high fastballs out and over the plate this year like he has in years past. This year only five of his 14 home runs have come on fastballs. The zone with the most homers in it, four, is the one down and in, not middle and up. It’s not like all his homers are coming there, but of the 14, 11 have come down and in or down and middle or middle and in. There’s a demonstrated preference for pitches inside and down is the point, which is different than in recent years previous.
The pitch mix Cruz is seeing this season is different too, though that difference is in the type of off-speed pitches seen, not the number of fastballs. Cruz is seeing fastballs at about the same percentage as he has in previous seasons, right around 54 percent. We’re still in small sample territory here, or at least mid-May feels like small sample territory, but what we have is Nelson Cruz hitting fewer fastballs for homers than he has in recent seasons, but more than making up for it by hitting more off-speed pitches for homers than he has in previous seasons.
Perhaps it’s still in reaction to the way he has hit in recent seasons but Cruz is seeing a career low percentage of pitches in the strike zone, 42 percent, which is also six percent below league average. Pitches aren’t trying to throw him strikes and they’re also not trying to come inside to him. In fact, 33 percent of the pitches Cruz has seen on the season have been low and away, and much of that outside the strike zone.
It should come as no surprise then that the majority of Cruz’s strikeouts have come on pitches in that area. He’s had some hits come from that location too, but generally those aren’t of the extra base variety. Only one of Cruz’s homers has come a pitch in that area.
Last season and the one before it, Nelson Cruz looked more like a classic power hitter, crushing fastballs out and over the plate. This year though, things are a bit different. He’s still hitting his homers, and yours, and yours, and probably yours too, but he’s done it while being pitched differently. Now he’s going down and lifting inside off-speed pitches out over the wall. It’s an impressive and effective change in approach by a hitter who has known success one particular way.
At least, that’s how it looks now. Check back with us again in three weeks.