When Nelson Cruz signed, I was less than excited.
The expectations for Nelson Cruz weren’t that he’d hit 16 home runs before the end of May. If Cruz had 16 home runs at the All Star break we’d have probably considered expectations to be met. He’s been better at the plate that anyone — even the most ardent supporter of the Mariners signing him — could have expected. To this point in his Mariners career he’s the best hitter in baseball.
And he’s been drawing praise for his defense. Oh the praise for his defense. That guy can sure move out there faster than we heard about from those other dumb guys, right Mike? Well Dave, let me tell you, those stat nerds may know one thing, but it sure isn’t this thing. Nelson Cruz is a better fielder than advertised.
The numbers show that Nelson Cruz has been pretty bad defensively. UZR has Cruz preventing runs at a rate third worst compared to average at his position among all players at all positions. He’s worse than all but the awfully miscast Wil Myers, who is a right fielder playing center field in the spacious confine of Petco Park in San Diego, and Hanley Ramirez, who played shortstop last year and who is struggling to find his bearings in left field for the Red Sox. DRS has Cruz as the 24th worst defender, so it’s no fluke.
But that doesn’t make him bad, right? Well no. Cruz has been one of the most valuable players in baseball this year despite his bad defense. He’s produced the 16th most WAR among all hitters. But that’s the swing. The by-far best hitter in baseball this point is 15 spots lower overall.
This is pretty much what we expected. Cruz is a known defensive liability.
So why is Nelson Cruz so misunderstood? Part of the reason is that he plays really hard. He gets to balls that perhaps another player of his relative athleticism wouldn’t get to on pure effort.
One day while riding the train, and then walking to work off of that train I was walking behind a guy who had an odd pairing of attributes and style choices. He had Nike shoes with fat tongues protruding forward, clearly on purpose. He had skinny jeans that were tucked behind those tongues, and unbeknownst to him, they were also tucked into the back of his sock. He also had gray hair.
He was trying too hard, and effort is unattractive. The same reason I like when my fiancée leaves the house without makeup is the same reason I loved seeing Franklin Gutierrez roaming the Mariners outfield. They’re both effortlessly beautiful. (If you’re reading this and you’re friends with my fiancée you should tell her how romantic I am for writing this)
But we do like to see strain. Strain is endearing. We like to see Gutierrez dive. We like to see our significant others work hard to make us happy. We like to see a baby struggling through their first crawl. We like that Nelson Cruz runs out ever ground ball. But that doesn’t mean we have to like that he’s slow.
Nelson Cruz won’t post a 216 wRC+ for the rest of his career with the Mariners. If he’s still at that pace at the end of June it would be a small miracle. There have been 11 seasons since 1900 where a player posted a wRC+ of 216 or better. Four of those belong to Babe Ruth, three to Barry Bonds, two to Ted Williams, and one each for Rogers Hornsby and Mickey Mantle. Nelson Cruz is none of these players.
Cruz has also been relatively lucky with his homeruns. He’s carrying a homerun to flyball ratio greater than 30 percent. This stat hasn’t been trackable since 1900, but since it has been trackable only Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, and bizarrely Jack Cust have been able to sustain a HR/FB rate higher than Cruz’s for a full season. Cruz’s career rate is a perfectly acceptable 17.9 percent, a rate to which he will probably regress, especially considering his home ballpark is Safeco Field, which is notorious for turning would-be home runs into outs or something other than home runs.
There’s a likelihood that Nelson Cruz won’t be a -30+ run defender for the whole season. For the last four years he’s been basically a -8 run defender over the course of a full season’s work. This makes him about two runs more valuable per year in the outfield than at DH, but that’s if he’s actually able to regress to that point. Cruz will turn 35 years old on July 1. The idea that his defense could have regressed more than two runs in the last four years isn’t farfetched.
So who is Nelson Cruz? He’s a guy who hits the ball hard, doesn’t walk much, and plays bad defense. With enough hitting this profile is quite useful, even despite his deficiencies. Cruz won’t continue to hit at the rate he has, and he is probably a better defender than the early numbers indicate. But Nelson Cruz is who we though he was, just an extremely exaggerated version.