Nelson Cruz Talks Hitting

Nelson Cruz was 25 years old when he made his major league debut in 2005. At the conclusion of the 2008 season, he was 28 years old and had a .743 OPS in 611 career plate appearances. By and large, he was little more than a fringe player with an uncertain future in the game, his third decade on planet earth looming on the horizon.

Since that time he’s been one of the game’s most prolific hitters. From 2009 through this past season, Cruz has slashed .280/.349/.537, with 379 home runs. No player in either league has gone deep more often over that stretch. And he’s showing no signs of slowing down. At age 39, the Fountain of Youth firmly within his grasp, Cruz just banged out 41 home runs, and logged a career-high 1.031 OPS, in his first season with the Minnesota Twins.

Cruz sat down to talk about his career path, and his overall approach to hitting, when the playoffs-bound Twins visited Fenway Park in early September.


David Laurila: Is hitting simple, or is it complicated?

Nelson Cruz: “When you do it good, it’s really simple. When you’re struggling, it’s really difficult. In my case, it’s about how my body feels. If I wake up and feel energized and fresh, I know I’m going to have a good day because my swing is going to be fluid. On days where my body isn’t rested enough, I feel like I have to force my swing to go through the zone.

“That said, you do the repetition every day, so even without thinking your swing goes through the same path — it does what you practice over and over. So it’s easy, but at the same time, it can get complicated on you.”

Laurila: Your career didn’t take off until you were in your late 20s. Was the impetus for that breakthrough more mental or physical in nature?

Cruz: “I think everything, but the mental part is the one… just to be able to have an approach every day, to have a routine to follow. You wake up and you know what you’re going to do to prepare for that game. You know what you’re going to be thinking at the plate — you’re going to have an idea of what to expect from the pitchers, and the situations, you’re going to face that day.”

Laurila: Were you an immature hitter early in your career?

Cruz: “Definitely, yeah. I didn’t play much baseball growing up. For me, the process to develop took longer than normal, because I started playing really late.”

Laurila: When did you start playing?

Cruz: “I played in the street, like many kids in the Dominican, but I never played organized [baseball] in the Dominican. So I started when I was 16, then signed eight months later. That’s when I began going through the process. The fundamentals are what get you better, and it’s best to set them up early. It’s like going to school. You learn the fundamentals in the first grade, and go from there.”

Laurila: What are you looking for at the plate?

Cruz: “When you know a pitcher, it’s easier to look for pitches in situations; you have a better idea of where they’re prone to throw that pitch. It changes at-bat to at-bat, too. If there are runners in scoring position, you’re going to get pitched differently than if you have a runner on first. Especially if a guy has a good sinker — you’re more likely to see that pitch, maybe down and in, with a runner on first because he’s looking for a double play. Stuff like that you learn over the years. If you watch the approach of pitchers, you’re more likely to be successful.”

Laurila: Are there specific pitches you try to lay off of?

Cruz: “Yeah, but… not every time. And I find the more that I see that pitch, the easier it is to recognize it.”

Laurila: What about locations? With all the data available, anyone can access your hot and cold zones.

Cruz: “If you go through every hitter, it will tell you that fastballs middle-in, and middle, are the ones everyone will crush. But you also have to adjust to pitchers, you know? Like when we face the Red Sox, we’re going to see a lot of high heat. Some of them are balls, and others are strikes, so you need an approach to that pitch. You have to change a little bit, your swing, because they could be called strikes.”

Laurila: Most teams feature the high fastball these days.

Cruz: “Yeah, but the Red Sox do it more than any other team.

Laurila: Generally speaking, do most teams pitch you much the same way?

Cruz: “They attack different. They have scouting, so they’ll go to a series and see you hitting a type of pitch; their reports will tell them what you’ve been hitting. Individual pitchers also have their own reports — the way they pitch you. If they’ve been successful with a pitch, they don’t want to change.”

Laurila: Do you study hitting, or have you reached the point where you’re mostly just trusting your experience?

Cruz: “I study hitting a lot. I always have.”

Laurila: Has technology impacted the way you go about it?

Cruz: “The technology can definitely help you. I always like to have that view from behind home plate, so I can see my swing either go around or inside the ball. I also like to see the side view, so I can see if my hands are down, or on top of the ball. I want to know if I’m in sync with my swing. Again, it’s hard to always have the same swing, because you don’t always feel the same. In order to stay with your approach, you have to see what you might be doing wrong.”

Laurila: Are you primarily looking to catch the ball out in front, as opposed to letting it get deep?

Cruz: “In my case… I don’t think like that. If I can let the ball travel, I can hit it the other way. It depends on the type of hitter you are. If you think you can hit it the other way, there’s no reason you have to hit everything in front. If you do try to hit everything in front, you’ll never hit the ball oppo. Especially breaking pitches.”

Laurila: Are you always trying to hit the ball in the air?

Cruz: “The pitch will tell you what you’re going to do with that pitch. If they throw you up, you don’t have to do much to hit it high. If they throw you down… it’s kind of hard, down and away, to lift a pitch. You go where the pitch is.”

Laurila: If I compared video of you as a young player to now, would I see the same hitter?

Cruz: “The set up would be different. The swing would probably be different, too. My swing was a little bit around the ball, and I’ve learned to be more inside the ball. And I was set up wider — I was spread out without any move —- and now I’m up, … and close it up.

In 2007 [the Rangers] sent me down to the minors. Scott Servais was the minor league coordinator and he showed me a few videos of Derreck Lee, Carlos Lee, and guys like that. We changed from that point.”

Laurila: What about more recently? You’re 39 years old. Has age necessitated adjustments?

Cruz: “You have to keep… because we’re seeing so much high velocity now, the mental… you have to be on top and quick to the ball. That’s where I try to come from. I try to have my hands inside the ball, so that I don’t foul off the pitches I should hit. You can’t cheat on the fastball. If you do that you’re going to be way in front on a breaking pitch. You need to have the mentality of a short swing, a compact swing. You have to apply that in this generation because of the high velocity.”

Laurila: When you said “on top,” were you referring to your swing?

Cruz: “Yes, you have to try to not let the head of the bat drop. You have to stay more on top, more level. An example would be Miguel Sano, the first game here. He was swinging at those fastballs and striking out. We went inside and I told him, ‘Make sure you’re going down, and staying on top of the ball.’ Then he came back and crushed the ball. Not because I told him that, but because he made the adjustment right away. He did the right process.”

Laurila: You mentioned the importance of having a routine. What is yours?

Cruz: “I go to the high tee, then middle tee, then I go really low. If I feel my like hands are going around, I like the soft toss with the short bats. Then I do soft toss, front-side stuff. I do that every day. But it’s not always the same [reps]. If I take a few swings and it feels right, it can go from 10 to seven on high tee, low tee. But I’ll take 10 here, 10 here, 10 here, then go 20 with one hand, 20 with the other hand.

“The routine is what gets you ready. It’s what keeps you consistent, and it has to be something where you don’t get tired doing it. It’s a long season, so you need something short but will help you bring the good swing every at bat.

Laurila: Do find batting practice valuable?

Cruz: “Definitely it’s valuable. Especially in places you haven’t played much. Like this stadium [Fenway Park] is totally different than any other stadium, because of the way center field is set up. You see center field and it looks like it’s in right center instead of being right in the middle like any other ballpark. The angle changes.

“If you go to Detroit, you’ll see the high wall so the pitcher looks like he’s… I guess farther than normal; the mound looks farther away. If you go to places where the wall is shorter, and it looks right on center field, it feels like the pitcher is on top of you. So the way you see… if you go to Oakland it feels different than any other place for timing. That’s the same way it feels here — to time pitchers, especially the first time you come here, it’s kind of difficult. It happened to me the first few years I came here. The first game it was tough for me to figure it out, but then you get used to it.”

Laurila: Circling back to your breakthrough, you were in your late 20s the first time you got as many as 400 plate appearances in a big league season. Were you ready to produce at the highest level before then?

Cruz: “That was 2009, so maybe in 2008? I think I was mature enough by then. It just wasn’t the moment. But they did give me a chance to play every day at the end of that year. That was the difference, to be able to play every day. Since then it’s been pretty good.”


Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Luke Voit, Jesse Winker.

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.

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4 years ago

what a great interview!