It wasn't long ago that we thought we had a good idea who Nelson Cruz was: an unlikely candidate to be a huge success story in 2014.
Nah. With Cruz entering his age-33 season, departing from the hitter-friendly Globe Life Park in Arlington and coming off a 50-game PED suspension, what seemed more likely was us inevitably saying it was fortunate that the Baltimore Orioles only wasted $8 million on him.
But here we are two months into 2014, and Cruz isn't looking like a washed-up slugger. He's looked, instead, like baseball's best power hitter, as he's leading MLB in home runs (21), runs batted in (55) and in slugging percentage (.678).
Part of me is annoyed at this. That's the part of me that was pretty sure Cruz wouldn't be worth much more than his new $8 million salary. He has been and then some, so I was wrong. Fiddlesticks.
But another part of me is intrigued by Cruz's power outburst. That's the geeky part of me, and that part of me always craves answers whenever a player is doing something unexpected.
It turns out there are several things going on with Cruz. Rather than the same old Nelson Cruz lucking into some big power numbers, what we're seeing is a new Nelson Cruz earning his big power numbers.
A good way for a power hitter to increase his power production is to not waste his at-bats. Or, in other words: Don't strike out so much, dummy.
I bring this idea up, naturally, because Cruz is practicing it in 2014. Per FanGraphs, his 21.1 strikeout percentage is his lowest since 2010 and just about league average. A welcome change of pace indeed.
Better yet is how Cruz isn't wasting his balls in play either. Rather, he's doing what good power hitters should be doing: hitting the ball in the air—and hitting it hard in the air.
This is where we use FanGraphs and BaseballHeatMaps.com to look at Cruz's fly balls and the average distance of said fly balls. What we see is that his fly ball rate (FB%) is up, and both his pop-up rate (IFFB%) and his average fly-ball distance have never been better:
|Nelson Cruz's Fly Balls|
|Split||FB%||IFFB%||Fly Ball Distance (FT)|
Note: The batted ball distance data only goes as far back as 2007.
How has Cruz done it?
Well, Brooks Baseball can vouch that Cruz has been pretty consistent as far as his ability to hit hard pitches—four-seam fastballs, sinkers and cutters—in the air throughout his career. Further, the Physics 101 lesson of "speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out" tells us that hard pitches are easier to put a charge into.
That's a solid invitation for Cruz to be more aggressive in swinging at those pitches. And in 2014, he's accepted that invitation.
After swinging at 44.57 percent of the hard pitches he saw in 2012 and 45.93 percent in 2013, Brooks Baseball has Cruz swinging at 49.81 percent of the hard pitches he's seen this year.
These extra swings have been worth Cruz's while:
|Nelson Cruz vs. Hard Stuff|
So, to recap, here's what we have so far: Cruz's power outburst can be traced to how he's striking out less and driving the ball in the air more often, the latter of which can mainly be traced to him being more aggressive in swinging at hard stuff.
But things get a little more complicated upon closer inspection. It's not just that Cruz is swinging at more hard pitches but where he's swinging at more hard pitches.
Take a look at the following chart from Brooks Baseball, which shows Cruz's swing tendencies against hard pitches from 2007 to 2013 (since this is from the catcher's perspective, note that the righty-hitting Cruz's swings are coming from the left side):
What you should notice is how Cruz's swings against hard stuff tended to be concentrated on pitches up in the zone. He tended to swing much less often on low hard pitches, choosing instead to let those go by.
Keep that in mind while you look at his swing habits against hard stuff this season:
Here, you should notice fewer swings up top and more swings down low. Rather than giving pitchers easy strikes on hard pitches at the bottom of the zone, Cruz has been covering that portion of the zone.
This effort hasn't been for naught. Brooks Baseball can show how Cruz has picked up his share of hits on hard pitches at the bottom of the zone, and he's also hit for more power than usual on these pitches.
I used BaseballSavant.com to run some searches for what Cruz has done with hard stuff at the bottom of the strike zone in his career and found the following:
|Nelson Cruz vs. Hard Stuff at the Bottom of the Zone|
Note that these percentages are out of all pitches seen, not just the hard ones.
Before 2014, Cruz hitting low hard ones in the air was rare. Him hitting them out of the park was even rarer.
But not so much in 2014. He's hitting low hard ones in the air about twice as often. And if percentages aren't your thing, just know that he's already hit four homers on low hard ones after hitting a total of 10 between 2008 and 2013. Quite the spike, that.
All told, the message of the data is that Cruz has a different approach in 2014. That's something that can be chalked up to a mental change, but more often there's a physical change to be pointed to as well.
And while I'm not a swing doctor, that would seem to be the case with Cruz.
We're going to look at a couple of images pulled from videos of a home run Cruz hit at Minute Maid Park in 2013 and a home run Cruz hit at Minute Maid Park in 2014. The first is of his setup in the box as the pitcher is just about to deliver the ball.
One thing in particular that should stand out is how Cruz has gone from resting his bat on his shoulder in the 2013 image to holding it over his shoulder in the 2014 image.
And in this next one, we can see that the bat in the 2013 image hasn't moved all that much as the pitch is being delivered:
I watched maybe a half-dozen other videos from 2013 just to make sure I didn't just pick out an abnormal swing. What I noticed was that Cruz having the bat on his shoulder during the pitcher's wind-up was normal but that he was inconsistent at getting it off his shoulder as the pitch was being delivered.
Best I can tell, Cruz's decision to simply start his swing with the bat off his shoulder has eliminated the possibility of any such inconsistency. Whereas his timing method had consisted of his front leg moving forward and the bat coming off his shoulder, now it's just his front leg moving forward.
In theory, this is for the best. Less focus put into timing should mean more focus put into actually reading pitches.
And going off what his manager had to say recently, it sounds like this is what's happening with Cruz in 2014.
"Nelson is letting the ball travel, letting it get deep," O's skipper Buck Showalter recently told MLB.com. "He's got the reputation as streaky; I don't think I've ever seen him this locked in for this period of time."
Cruz is still an imperfect hitter, truth be told. Despite his big numbers, it's not such a great look that he's actually expanding the zone more than ever and also working on his highest swinging-strike rate since 2011. And with 24 of his 49 strikeouts coming on breaking balls, he still has some Pedro Cerrano in him.
But make no mistake about it: We are witnessing a different Nelson Cruz in 2014. He's a man with both a different swing and a different approach.
And as you can tell, he's dangerous.
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