Can Nelson Cruz Slug His Way to Rare 50 Home Run Plateau in 2015?

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterApril 24, 2015

AP Images

In light of Nelson Cruz not only having led Major League Baseball with 40 home runs in 2014 but also having gotten off to a fast start in which he's already mashed a league-leading eight more this season, could the Seattle Mariners slugger dare to go where so few have gone in recent years?

Could Cruz, who many expected would drop off in the power department now that he has to hit at pitcher friendly Safeco Field half the time, reach 50 homers?

Let's start with this: With eight home runs in the first 15 games entering play Friday, the 34-year-old Cruz is on pace for—get this—86 long ballsObviously, we know that's not happening, but it at least provides some context (albeit of the rather ridiculous variety).

Keeping with the context idea, there's also the simple fact that, as pitching has taken over baseball and power has declined across the game recently, hitting 50 home runs in a season has proved to be both extremely difficult and incredibly rare. How much so?

Well, in MLB history—that is, going back to 1901—there have been 43 50-homer campaigns. Or about one every two-and-a-half years.

Even more context? The big five-oh has been achieved by only 27 different players. So, yes, extremely difficult and incredibly rare.

If we limit the sample to the past decade (2005-14), however, then it's happened seven times with no repeat performers. In other words, about once every one-and-a-half years.

That at least bodes slightly better for Cruz—or any other power hitter—that 2015 could bring another 50, particularly since Chris Davis was the last to get there with 53 in 2013.

50-HR Seasons Since 2005
SEASONPLAYERHRs
2013Chris Davis53
2010Jose Bautista54
2007Alex Rodriguez54
2007Prince Fielder50
2006Ryan Howard58
2006David Ortiz54
2005Andruw Jones51
Baseball-Reference.com

With 53 homers in 2013, Chris Davis is the only player to reach 50 in the past four seasons.
With 53 homers in 2013, Chris Davis is the only player to reach 50 in the past four seasons.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press/Associated Press

Of course, that no hitter broke the barrier last year has exactly zero impact on improving Cruz's chances in 2015. It's not as if the "we're due" argument applies here.

Remember, Cruz's career high came in 2014—and even then, he was 10 homers away. And that was when he brought his boomstick to Camden Yards, a notorious launching pad, as a Baltimore Oriole.

Prior to that, Cruz spent eight seasons enjoying the warm weather and homer-happy park in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers play, and he reached 30 homers but once, with 33 in 2009.

This is the first season of Cruz's decade-long career that he isn't calling a hitter's park home. That's going to make things a lot tougher.

Plus, Safeco Field is not only one of the hardest parks to hit 'em out of, it's particularly deadly for right-handed hitters, like Cruz.

Safeco Field HR Park Factor By Season
SEASONHR PARK FACTORMLB RANK
20141.05312
20130.88521
20120.58329
20111.03713
20100.67929
ESPN Park Factors

According to StatCorner—a site that pulls three-year park factor splits for various outcomes, including home runs—Safeco sports a righty home run park factor of 87 (league average is 100). Translation? It's about 13 percent harder for right-handed swingers to reach the seats at Safeco Field.

That jibes with the revelation that the most balls ever hit over Safeco's walls by a right-hander since the park opened full time in 2000 is...21, by Richie Sexson in 2005.

Safeco Field has been around for 15 years, and Richie Sexson is the only hitter to reach 20 homers there in a season.
Safeco Field has been around for 15 years, and Richie Sexson is the only hitter to reach 20 homers there in a season.KATHY WILLENS/Associated Press

What's more, no other hitter—lefty or righty—has managed even 20 at Safeco in a single season. The most by a righty since '05? Sexson's 17 and Adrian Beltre's 16, both in 2006.

Put a different way, if Cruz is going to have a shot at 50, he's likely going to have to smash at least 30-32 on the road. Again, we remind you: He has hit more than 30 in a season, total, just twice. 

Another pertinent factor here is how Cruz has fared in his career at Safeco, where he played often while with the AL West-rival Rangers.

Here are Cruz's stats at Safeco for his career before this season: .234/.309/.440 with nine home runs in 204 plate appearances across 52 games.

And here are his numbers there so far in 2015: .289/.289/.474 with just two of his eight homers in 38 plate appearances over nine games.

Neither of those stat lines—nor any of the other aspects covered above—inspires much, if any, confidence that Cruz can approach 50 homers this year, much less last season's 40.

Even with an impressive eight-homer head start.

Statistics are accurate through Thursday, April 23, and courtesy of MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11.  

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