Nelson Cruz Won’t Stop

The other day I wrote about Shin-Soo Choo and the way he’s hitting the ball really hard despite being a 37-year-old who has never garnered much of a reputation as a power hitter. In that piece, I included a chart that showed Choo was having the second-best season in terms of hard-hit percentage by a player 35 years of age or older since we started gathering such data in 2002. Choo was deserving of the digital ink used on him, but as impressed as I was with his placement on that chart, the most remarkable player listed was the one directly above him. The hard-hit rate that Choo had put together that ranked second on that list was 46.7%. No. 1 on that list was 2019 Nelson Cruz, whose hard contact rate currently rests at a whopping 55%. He’s 39 years old, and he’s hitting the ball hard more often than anyone else in baseball. He also just wrapped up one of the hottest two-week stretches you’ll ever see.

On the morning of July 22nd, Cruz was in the middle of yet another strong season at the plate. His slash line was .270/.364/.543 with 19 homers in 71 games. Even as a designated hitter, that’ll play on just about any team. Then all hell broke loose.

Offensive totals, July 22 — Aug. 6
Nelson Cruz 0.460 0.526 1.300 13 27 0.699 352 1.9
Next-closest player 0.429 0.500 0.816 7 20 0.516 229 1.2

Look, it is usually best not to fuss too much over a hot streak that is over a sample size this small. The baseball season is long, and because of that, there will be many, many players who throw together a torrid two-week stretch or two. In that table, the next-best players in those categories ranged from Anthony Rendon to Andrew Benintendi to Mike Tauchman. Those players should all feel very happy and proud of the way they’ve been playing baseball, but unless your name is Mike Trout, there is a very good chance that an amazing two-week stretch of baseball will not be followed with another two-week stretch that is just as amazing. This is just the way the game works, and there’s no use in getting too excited over what is only around 50 plate appearances, about 1/12th of your season or less.

What Cruz has done in just that amount of time, however, is genuinely astonishing. His game against the Yankees on July 22 was the first of five consecutive in which he homered. In the fourth game of that stretch, Cruz went deep three times — all of which came against Lucas Giolito. Just eight games later, he had another three-dinger game, this time against Kansas City. Three games after that, he homered twice more in a contest against the Braves.

In just a 16-game stretch — 14 of which he started — he has turned already-good numbers into positively elite ones. He’s raised his wRC+ by 34 points. He’s raised his OPS by 145 points. Those jumps are extremely difficult to make, especially when your numbers are already solid so late in the season.

Nelson Cruz MLB ranks
After July 21 72nd 25th 22nd 45th 73rd 25th 25th 74th
After Aug 6 20th 12th 4th 5th 18th 4th 4th 28th

All season long, Trout, Cody Bellinger, and Christian Yelich have separated themselves from the rest of baseball in terms of offensive prowess. On July 21, 31 points separated Bellinger’s third-place wRC+ (183) from Anthony Rendon’s fourth-place wRC+ (152). Just over two weeks later, Cruz has nearly caught the top three, with his wRC+ of 168 now just eight points back of Bellinger.

This may have the looks of a player simply hitting out of his mind for two weeks, and indeed it is. Statcast data, however, suggests that this past week has simply been Cruz quickly catching up to what his batted ball data said his numbers should have looked like all season long. His xSLG of .666 this year is the highest in the majors, and his xwOBA of .440 is third in the majors. He is also second in exit velocity and third in hard-hit percentage.

All of this adds up to what suddenly looks like a career-best season for Cruz at the plate, which is an absurd thing to say about a 39-year-old who’s already put together a long list of impressive seasons, the majority of which have come in the second half of his career. His wRC+ is 10 points better than any other season he’s ever put up, but he’s also tying his career-high in walk rate while blowing past his career-high ISO by nearly 100 points. This kind of thing isn’t totally unheard of — David Ortiz, as a recent example, put together one of his best seasons as a 40-year-old in 2016 — but it does add yet another layer to what has already been an uncommon second half to his career.

Cruz didn’t play 100 big league games in a year until his age-28 season, and he didn’t cross the 130-game mark until his age-32 season. That was the last of his eight years in Texas, which he finished with a combined .268/.327/.495 line. His final season also ended with him serving a 50-game suspension for using PEDs, as one of the players named in the massive Biogenesis scandal. The following season, he signed a deal with the Baltimore Orioles, and he immediately led the American League with 40 homers while serving as the team’s designated hitter.

From there, Cruz hasn’t looked back. Since beginning his age-33 season in Baltimore, he has batted .283/.359/.553 with 235 homers, good for a 147 wRC+ and 182.5 offensive runs above average. Before turning 33, he was worth a total of just 44 offensive runs above average for his career. For context, just 20 players in history have accumulated more offensive runs above average after their age-32 season than Cruz, 15 of which are in the Hall of Fame, with three others being connected to the Steroid Era (Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro). Meanwhile, 829 players compiled more offensive runs above average than Cruz through their age-32 seasons. For nine seasons, he was essentially equal in offensive value to Marcus Giles. Since then, he’s been Manny Ramirez, and it doesn’t appear he’s slowing down soon.

Cruz’s latest tear is yet another asset to a Minnesota Twins team whose offense has driven it to a season-long stay at the helm of the AL Central. The Twins paid just $14.3 million to bring Cruz in on a one-year deal in the winter, and they will only be on the hook for $12 million if they exercise a team option on him in 2020. It isn’t easy for a designated hitter nearing 40 to turn himself into an eight-figure bargain. However, for the foreseeable future, it seems like Cruz is going to be just that.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

What he is doing is astonishing. A career year – by leaps and bounds – at age 39 despite missing time for wrist discomfort. It’s a shame his career got off to such a late start.

3 years ago
Reply to  Moelicious

Career year at age 39? History of steroids?

So the only real question is whether he’s still benefiting from the prior steroid usage or he’s simply back using them actively.

3 years ago
Reply to  piratepete7

Honestly don’t get the downvotes here?

Someone previously suspended for PEDs performing in a way that defies what we would expect from a typical aging curve. I guess the assumption of guilt on piratepete’s part is the problem?

Because whether the performance is chemically aided seems a fair question to ask.

EDIT: I see below that people are asking the question more reasonably and not getting downvoted. I guess question answered.