For the second year in a row, the major league leader in home runs played for the Baltimore Orioles. In 2013 it was Chris Davis with a 53-dinger season we’ll never forget. This year it was Nelson Cruz, on whom the Orioles took a one-year flyer after no one else wanted to go near him.
Turns out the joke was on all those other teams. Cruz bashed .271/.333/.525 with 40 HR, good for a .370 wOBA and 137 wRC+. These weighted numbers rank 14th- and 13th-best in the majors, respectively, among qualified hitters. Add in his defense and baserunning and you come to 3.9 fWAR / 4.7 rWAR. It was his most valuable season since 2010 when he put up a wOBA of .404 and a wRC+ of 147. For his troubles, Cruz was named the starting DH for the AL All Star team and was voted as the Most Valuable Oriole of the year. He may also get some BBWAA MVP votes.
Cruz also hit well during the postseason. In seven games he hit .357/.400/.607, a wOBA of .439. Memorably, he put the Orioles on top 2-0 in Game 3 of the ALDS by knocking a "just-enough" home run to right field off David Price. Unfortunately most of that firepower went missing against Kansas City, where he hit just .250/.333/.313. But then again, a lot of the Orioles' bats went silent in Games 3 and 4.
Was he lucky this year? Only a bit. Relative to not only last year but also his career, he showed a better control of the strike zone, striking out less and walking more. He wasn’t getting lucky on contact, either: his BABIP was actually 11 points below his career level. Further, his line-drive rate matched his career level.
About the only indicator of luck is that his HR/FB rate (20.4%) was above his career level (17.3%). But he's had a few seasons like this before, including just last year (HR/FB of 21.3% in 2013). So it’s not like the power came out of nowhere.
But he did pick a good time to launch balls over the wall. One reason Cruz looked so good this year is that everyone else looked so bad. Much was made of the decline in offense and, in particular, the decline in power. The league average this year was .251/.314/.386 with a 9.5% HR/FB rate. 40 home runs had not led a full season of the majors since 1986. That's right folks, who wants to go see Out of Africa?
Cruz also timed his breakout just when the Orioles needed it most. Who knows what the team would have done with Matt Wieters and Manny Machado fully healthy and Chris Davis producing like it was 2013, but thanks to Cruz, fans didn't have to worry too much about those losses. His 40 dingers helped the team win the division and continue its reputation as homer-happy, with a majors-leading 211 home runs this year.
The man was no slouch in the field, either. Cruz not only didn’t embarrass himself, he was better than average according to both DRS (3 runs saved above average) and UZR (1.4 runs saved above average) in 580.2 innings in the field. Shows what we fans know, eh? When he signed in February, most fans assumed he would be the team’s full-time DH. The Orioles got abysmal DH production in 2013 and Cruz was perceived as a statue in the field. Buck Showalter surprised us all (well, me anyway) by playing Cruz in the field for 71 games, and it turned out to be a defensible decision.
Very few people saw a season like this coming. Most fans and writers saw an aging, immobile slugger coming off a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Very few saw a league-leading HR total and non-awful defense. Who knows what Dan Duquette himself saw, but whatever it was, the Cruz signing made him look like a genius.
That Duquette will offer Cruz, soon to be a free agent, at least a qualifying offer is a lock. The question is, will Cruz accept or will he push for a multi-year deal? If he wants one, will the Orioles be willing to accommodate him, or will a team like the Mariners, Royals, or Indians snap him up? All three could justify upgrading their offense, and Cruz has shown that he won't go quietly into that good night. The question for the Orioles and other teams is, how long can he keep it up?