Nationals Baseball: Wanted Nelson Cruz - Dead or Alive?

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Wanted Nelson Cruz - Dead or Alive?

The Nats beat up on TY-LORE "Don't spell it McGill" Megill last night. It was a fun game for you guys because after it looked like it would go hard the other way - Mets scoring 3 before the Nats even got up - it swung right back to the Nats with a Soto homer and a lot of other hits. The bottom of the second and a Nelson Cruz homer put the game squarely in the Nats hands and you could go off and do other things or not.  It was fun for me because some joker at WFAN the other day picked Megill over Cortes in a Mets vs Yankees rotation discussion which was nonsense* and I'm glad to see it thrown immediately back in his face. 

The Cruz homer - only his fourth of the year - got me thinking about his season so far. It has been bad. There's no question about that. He is a designated hitter that has not been hitting. His line is .174 / .266 / .284 and unsurprisingly the Nats have the worst DH situation in baseball with those numbers. 

But is this the end of the line for the 41 year old (42 on July 1st!) Cruz, or is it just a slow start? We're not quite at Memorial Day - my official "Ok pay attention to stats now" date but we're getting late early now. 

Does Cruz usually start slow? 

Career wise? No. He's pretty consistent and while he's better in the second half usually, it's not that much better and April is usually a fine month. 

The past few years? Nope. 2021 and 2020 had hot starts and 2019 was very good, in a year that was great. 

Is it maybe bad luck? Bad HR/FB rate or BABIP? 

Could be! a .183 BABIP is super low and a HR/FB rate of 16% is low for Cruz. 

Why "could be"? 

Because he might just be hitting it worse, or it could be a trend at this age

Is he? Is it? 

Let's take the second one first... yeah it's kind of a trend. His BABIP and HR/FB in 2020 were both down from his more recent years.  

On the first one... Yes to that too. He's later to pitches than he has been in years (more oppo hits) and he's hitting fewer balls hard. He's not really a LD hitter but that's down too which agrees with these findings. 

Uh oh. Is he striking out more / walking less? 

Nope - on those he's fine. 

So it's not a recognition problem. 

Well... he's swinging a bit more at pitches outside the zone, just a bit, wouldn't call that an issue. But he's making a lot more contact on pitches outside the zone. That creates more bad hits - which would explain a lot of the bad results. 

Honestly his stats mostly remind me of his days in Texas when he was good, but not Seattle on when he was great. All the stats except...

Except what? 

GB/FB rate.  He's always been a guy that hit at least as many balls in the air than on the ground.  This year... it's 56% GB 29% FB.

That's not good!

No it isn't. Not for a guy that derives so much worth from homers. 

But he hit a homer last night? Is this getting better? 

The Nats have played 32 games so far and Nelson has played in 29 of them. After 5 games in a row he got off Game 6 of the season and he sat out 2 games in Colorado with back stiffness. Let's break that down

First 3 series - Cruz Games 1-10: 61% GB, 24% FBs, 15% LDs

Second 3 series- Games 11-20 : 38%, 42% , 19%

Away trip before Days off  - Games 21-24 : 73%, 13%, 13%

Since Days off - Games 25-29: 58%, 33%, 8%

If we take the last bunch of games together... 

Games 21-29 : 67%, 22%, 11%

Of course when you are dealing with so few games it's kind of silly.  He had a 4GB 0FB game as soon as he came back.  Without that the "Since Days Off" numbers would be like 38% 50% 12%

I'd say there isn't any indication of general improvement, he did show general improvement in this area before only to backslide, but if you want to be positive the most recent stretch of a handful of games looks better. 

Conclusion, please

It's still early so I'll give you two options

Cruz, completely unfamiliar with NL pitching, has been unable to read pitchers as he would forcing him to swing more at pitches outside of the strikezone. That created a slump to start the season that snowballed and he's now also reaching trying hard to make things happen, hitting balls for weak grounders that he'd normally let pass.

Cruz, getting older with slower bat speed, can't square up with pitches the way he used to. He's late which on his uppercut swing means a lower angle of impact (less FBs) and he's hitting with less power.

The former - gives a chance of course correction. He has hit the ball harder very recently (3 of his top 5 exit velocity games came in the last 4 games) and he is getting the ball up again. If he's not getting hits up at his normal level or even at his peak this year, when combined with the hard hitting, it gets a better outcome.

The latter - well everything said above is true, but it's a mirage of small sample size, some more rest, and being at home. The overall problems don't go away and he hits like .200 for the year with 20ish homers before retiring.

Here are the numbers to come back to in... three weeks (well 6/1). 

FB% : 29.1%

Hard Hit% : 31.4%

He won't get them to where he has been the past 5 seasons (near 40%, over 40%) but let's see them get much closer.  Over 35% each. If so, I'll lean toward the former. If not, the latter.

*Megill has been great but only briefly this season.  Cortes has been phenomenal this season - and was good for like 1/3 of last year as a starter. Cortes is also only 7 months older, neither were Top Prospects. It's an easy Cortes pick. 


ocw5000 said...

Going off a sample size of 2 (the most scientific sample size in the known universe), I am worried about Cruz. Last year at this time Josh Bell was hitting about .140 and everyone was afraid he was cooked, but our good friends at Baseball Savant had his HardHit%, ExitVelo, etc all in the 90th percentiles. A regression to the mean seemed sensible; Bell did that and more.

Cruz has been 80th+ percentile (usually 90+) in HardHit, ExitVelo, xwOBA, xSLG for as long as there's been Statcast (since 2015). This year his numbers are in the 50s and 60s. That dovetails with everything you said about chasing and GB%, meaning he might actually be cooked.

kubla said...

Assuming he's toast, what should the Nats do? I know teams like to play the people they're paying the most, but it would make more sense to give some reps to people who may be on the team in the future. I'd like to see whichever catcher isn't behind the plate that day get some PAs as the DH or one of the washed-up fielders move to DH to let a prospect get experience in the field.

Anonymous said...

The problem with moving one of the other veterans to DH is that it will only hurt their trade value. Yadiel playing bad LF is worth more than Yadiel the DH, etc.

I do like the idea of giving some of those DH PAs to the catchers, though. Adams only has value if he can hit better than this. And his xOBA would put him above league average -- which means that more PAs could be a simple solution.

I'm also in the "either Barrera or Adams would make a perfectly good backup C for the next 4-5 years" camp, so I think one of Rizzo's main goals right now should be to boost the trade value for one of them and ship them out.

On the other hand, while I agree that it can be depressing to watch, it's also possible that the best move is to white knuckle it in the hope that Cruz gets hot at the right time and we can steal a couple FV35s from someone.

Anonymous said...

I mean...he's probably toast. At 41, turning 42? He's probably toast. Which in the scheme of things is actually extraordinary given that it wasn't until he was over 40 that he dropped off like this. It is unfortunate for the Nats, but for Cruz, he's had a tremendous career.

I think you do have to keep playing him though in hopes he has one last well-timed hot streak in him and you can flip him for anything at all. Otherwise, you'll just play him to the trade deadline and then DFA him I'm sure. After the trade deadline, there would be absolutely no reason to play him over anyone else on the roster at DH.

I guess now we get to shift to pondering trade fits for Josh Bell for the rest of the season?

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