For disclaimer purposes, I will admit that I do, in fact, like Nelson Cruz as a baseball player. A lot. I like him for a lot of the same reasons I used to like Chris Davis so much; it’s never been about what he is, but more what he could be and, at times, has been. There are some players you appreciate for what they provide practically, within their means, and then there are others you hold in a more delicate place, for they are the ones who truly have the ability to capture your imagination on a baseball field. Nelson Cruz is one of those guys. His very nature is to tease you with his elite skill set, which also invariably means he is, seemingly more often than not nowadays, a disappointment.
So with that noted, lately I’ve been curious: What exactly does Nelson Cruz contribute to the Rangers in 2013?
Let’s begin with an objective league-wide comparison — Of the 68 outfielders who qualify according to FanGraphs, Nelson Cruz ranks tied for 49th at +0.4 fWAR. Of course, WAR is constructed by numerous components, so the actual figure he’s at right now is less important than the components which make up the figure.
His UZR is only -0.4 (UZR/150 of -3.6), which to me seems far better than how his defense has actually looked in reality, because that’s essentially saying Nelson has been a league-average defender. For what it’s worth, Baseball-Reference’s Defensive Runs Saved measurement has Cruz at -4, or, in other words, he’s cost his team 4 runs relative to other right fielders. Pretty simple to keep track of.
The 2nd component of his total value is his base running. According to FanGraphs Nellie is slightly below average on the base paths (-1.3 BsR), and Baseball Prospectus has him marginally above average (+0.3 BRR). Since each website has a different process to come up with their results, it’s fair to say that Cruz is about average on the bases.
So if he’s a below-average defender, and debatably average on the bases, then it must mean his bat is accumulating the majority of his value, right?
Right. Kind of.
Now in his age-33 season, Nelson Cruz has generated a triple slash line of .257/.314/.487 (106 wRC+) in 207 plate appearances, which is more or less consistent with his .260/.319/.460 (105 wRC+) triple slash of 2012. In other words, a marginally better than league-average hitter who isn’t going to rack up a ton of stolen bases (which contributes to metrics like wRC+).
Your gut-first response might say, “Well, yeah, but he leads the team in home runs right now so why would we want to get rid of him?”
Sure, Nelson Cruz has 12 homers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him hit 30 or 35 before the season is over. That’s awesome. But what else is he doing to help the team win? Even the most explosive power-hitters can produce very empty batting lines, and right now that’s what Cruz appears to be — a hitter who can throw up pretty numbers cosmetically. Because when you dig deeper, you see just how downhill his trajectory is headed.
The most troubling aspect to Nelson Cruz’s offensive package in 2013 has been his plate discipline; it’s deteriorating. This year he owns a walk rate of 7.7% and a strikeout rate of 25.6%, which is up from 21.8% in 2012, and significantly higher than the 18.2% K-rate he posted during his +4.9 fWAR campaign in 2010.
So what’s changed?
The difference in his approach hasn’t come by way of him swinging at more pitches than usual, because his 48.8% Swing% is on par with his lifetime average of 49.4%; the real difference is the quality of the pitches he’s swinging at. In 2013 he’s flailing at more pitches outside the zone (32.9% compared to his lifetime average of 29.1%), and swinging at less pitches in the zone (66.4% compared to a 71.6% career average). Not exactly a forumla to success.
The product of this is generating less contact (obviously), and right now his 69.7% figure would rank as the 2nd-lowest mark of Nelson’s career. When a hitter begins to age these are the small leaks that begin to manifest in the machine, and if history is any kind of indicator, we shouldn’t expect any drastic improvement from here.
As it stands, Nelson Cruz is only under contract through the remainder of this year, so it’s not as if the Rangers are pressed to act. Even if they don’t do anything (which is completely expected), he’ll be a free agent in 5 months, sign with another team, and management can assess its options from there.
The problem, however, is that Texas is in the midst of a pennant race for the 4th year in a row, and every day Jon Daniels & Co. are strategizing to improve the club for the stretch run. So for the sake of What If, what would the theory be behind trading Cruz?
There are two issues:
(1) It assumes there’s a team out there willing to shelf out what remains of Cruz’s 1-year, $10.5 million contract;
(2) It implies that the Rangers have a better option to replace him.
Above anything else, Jon Daniels has no motivation to make the Major League club worse for this 2013 run.
If you ask me, which I’m not entirely sure why you would, I would sacrifice Nelson Cruz’s bat any day of the week for another outfielder who can man the outfield prodigiously. With Texas carrying a weaker overall offense than in the last few years, pitching has become not only a priority, but a necessity.
It cannot be lost that a major catalyst toward this Rangers’ pitching renaissance has been their ability to play defense. Run prevention. An infield featuring Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Ian Kinsler goes a long way to help fortify that. Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin — same thing.
The same can’t be said for Texas’s corner outfielders. David Murphy has never possessed the athleticism where we expect anything special from him, but at worst he’s an un-sexy league-average left fielder who won’t kill you. Most of the time. If the Rangers add a non-platoon outfielder with a plus glove, I imagine Murphy would, theoretically, move to the less-demanding RF spot.
Nelson Cruz is a different bird. He has the flash of a great outfielder. Hell, he has one of the best arms in baseball. But his inconsistency in the field has cost us before, and in a much larger setting than just some random games in the middle of May. You remember.
So although I don’t have a direct resolution as to what needs to be done with Nelson Cruz, I think we have reached the point where the topic is up for discussion. Where this goes … probably nowhere.