Last September, a friend invited me to a football party he was going to. I had never met the host and I don’t follow football, but being around passionate fans of any sport is fun and I like meeting new people. I showed up wearing my bright orange Orioles t-shirt (a Ripken shirsey, to be precise). My friend introduced me to the host and mentioned that I was a baseball fan. Putting two and two together, the host, who follows baseball casually, smiled and spoke these words to me:
“What’s up with this Chris Davis guy? Is he on steroids?"
We as Orioles fans find ourselves in a similar situation with Nelson Cruz, who is lighting the baseball world on fire and is currently ranked third in the entire sport with a wRC+ of 175. Given that he took a 50-game PED suspension last year, and since he is in the discussion to start the All-Star Game at DH, O’s fans everywhere will likely be fielding Cruz-related questions. Specifically, you will be asked repeatedly, and with varying degrees of directness, about whether you think Nelson Cruz is on steroids. (Note: Texas Rangers fans will be particularly aggressive.)
These fans don't mean anything by it. Cruz has a target on his back and that's understandable. But we here at Camden Chat understand this predicament and want to prepare you for these questions so you're not caught flat-footed. Here is our handy-dandy FAQ you can use should you find yourself asked about the legitimacy of Cruz’s performance this year. All stats are through Saturday’s game.
Q: Nelson Cruz isn’t this good, is he?
A: He’s continuing a trend of increased plate discipline and bat control.
One need only look at Cruz’s walk and strikeout rates to see his improved discipline. His walk rate this year is 9.8%, a good improvement over his career rate of 8%. His strikeout rate is 21.6%, below his career rate of 22.3% and in a time when strikeout rates are ever-increasing.
Although he is swinging and missing more often than usual, Cruz is making less contact on pitches out of the strike zone and more contact on pitches in the zone. Compared to his career, his O-Contact% is down 5% and his Z-Contact% is up 4%. Those are pretty big improvements, but then again these rates have been improving steadily since 2010.
Q: Nelson Cruz is doing … how shall I put this … suspiciously well this year, don’t you think?
A: He’s significantly improved versus lefties.
Cruz’s offense has improved more against lefties than it has against righties. Nowhere is this more evident in the fact that he’s nearly tripled his career walk-to-strikeout ratio against left-handers.
His career BB/K ratio versus lefties is 0.57, meaning that for every ten strikeouts he walks about six times. This is above-average for a right-handed hitter but nothing to write home about.
This year his BB/K ratio versus lefties is 1.63. He’s walked 16 times for every ten strikeouts. Given the importance of OBP in the modern game, those ten extra walks make Cruz a terror against left-handed pitching.
Cruz is also covering more of the zone against lefties. From 2007-2013, lefties really had to groove one in order to get hurt:
This heatmap from FanGraphs shows Cruz's Runs Above Average (RAA) per 100 pitches against left-handed pitchers for every location in the strike zone through last year. The red around the edges indicates that damage Cruz did when he walked; the red in the center indicates the damage he did when pitches were in those locations. The white and blue indicate areas where he wasn’t anything special.
That was then; this is now:
Against lefties in 2014, Cruz is destroying anything in the lower half of the zone while also covering the top of the strike zone better. The other thing to account for in this graph is that offense is down league-wide in 2014. Since the heatmaps above are relative to average, Cruz's performance this year stands out more.
Because the season is only two months old, Cruz hasn’t seen that many left-handers this year, and as the year goes on he will see even fewer as managers match up against him more aggressively. As such he’s not likely to maintain this level of production against lefties. But the improved plate discipline against lefties tells us there is some real improvement going on.
Q: Nelson Cruz’s, er, performance seems, ahem, enhanced this year, doesn’t it?
A: He’s pulling more pitches, thus generating more power than before.
Despite being almost 34, Cruz is catching up to balls quicker, enabling him to hit to left (and thus for more power) far more often than he’s ever done.
Notice that his spray angle has been moving steadily from his opposite field to his pull field since 2012. Like the trends in plate discipline, the chart above shows he’s just continuing to do what he’s done for several years now.
Q: So, is Nelson Cruz back on the sauce or what?
A: He’s getting lucky on his home runs.
He’s definitely getting lucky. Cruz has nearly doubled his career HR/FB ratio of 17.5%, which is great, to 28.4%, which is out-of-this-world. But it isn’t all luck: as we’ve seen, he not only has the discipline to wait for better pitches (particularly versus left-handers), he’s getting to more pitches overall, and pulling more of those pitches to boot. These factors combined will increase home run output.
Q: Man, that Cruz … grraaaggghh!!! *head explodes*
A: Cruz’s performance is more noticeable this year than it would be in others.
As I mentioned earlier, Cruz’s numbers stand out so much in 2014 partially because they are much better relative to league average. League wOBA has decreased every year since 2009. This year it’s at .313. When someone like Cruz does well in this environment, it’s going to get more attention than if he was doing this in, say, 2000.
That's all for now. Thank you for reading the Camden Chat Guide to Explaining Nelson Cruz’s Season Without Mentioning PEDs. We hope you found the answers in this guide useful for whatever situation you, as a well-informed Orioles fan having to answer for Nelson Cruz's past, may find yourself in this year.