I remember the very day my disdain for Nelson Cruz began. It was September 10th, 2010. It was a rainy Friday night, that miserable kind we get here in Seattle during the depressing transition from summer to winter. The roof was on, and the Mariners had lost seven in a row to slip to 36 games below .500. Still, Felix Hernandez was on the bump and someone had given me a free Terrace Club ticket.
Felix wasn't as great as I've ever seen him that night, but he was quite good. Damn near good enough. Through seven, he'd struck out eight, walked none and was in the process of doing something very special he had not yet done in his career.
With last call coming, I made sure to order a beer—because I wanted to appropriately celebrate when Felix pulled this off. In the Terrace Club, they have these little order slips, you write on them and hand them to a waitress, and they bring the beer—domestic, micro, whatever you want—right to you. I ordered a good IPA, and it arrived just as the eighth inning was starting. I popped off the little plastic lid off the cup—they come with lids—and took the most delightfully hoppy sip in anticipation of what was about to unfold over the next six outs.
And then Nelson Cruz did this.
Hit Tracker Online says the shot reached apex of 57 feet, but had you asked me without checking, I'd have swore it never got more than 15 feet of the ground. It was a cool, damp night, the type of night that normally kills any semblance of power at a ballpark that's already spacious enough, and Cruz obliterated a homer out to dead center off one of the best pitchers in the game.
If you're a Mariners fan, you likely have—or had—your own level of disdain for the righty slugger. Though, for many, I'd venture you didn't have a specific moment when you started hating the idea of Nelson Cruz. Or maybe you're like my girlfriend, and he's your least favorite player in baseball because of this nonsense:
More likely, it's just been a gradual onset, spurred in large part by the continued belief that the Mariners would sign Cruz to an expensive deal he didn't deserve. Heading into last off-season, it was all but assumed the team would be the organization to overpay for his services, with a definitely-false rumor of a five-year $75 million offer having many people fearing the worst. Cruz ended up signing elsewhere, of course, but as this off-season approached there was the belief by some that it'd be "so Mariners" for the team to sign Cruz a year removed from passing on a bargain-bin deal. Now that I think about it, maybe signing the best offensive player available in the first week of December does constitute "so Mariners" now, but I digress.
Signing Nelson Cruz was "so Mariners" because they were bound to overpay for a one-dimensional aging righty slugger. The Mariners are blinded by pure power, and will make that a priority before everything else—especially defense.
There's no bigger example of this than the fabled Michael Morse trade, in which the Mariners gave up a balanced and skilled cost-controlled hitter in John Jaso for one year of the oft-injured masher. If there's one move that most signaled the departure from the days of yore, in which it was believed Tony Blengino, Tom Tango and company were integral parts of what was believed to be one of the most stat-savvy front offices in baseball, that was it.
It was interesting to me then to see Blengino, still with access to the vaunted HIT f/x data independent analysts crave, identified the very player who most signifies the current front office's supposed idiocy as one they should target this winter. This comes from a Fangraphs piece from Blengino that Jake linked to yesterday, but one that I want to offer commentary on a bit here.
There were exactly three 2014 Safeco LCF homers hit under 100 MPH in 2014. There were 21 such homers hit at Citi Field last season. That kind of puts it into perspective. Any righty power hitter the Mariners target needs to hit the ball at 100 MPH to his pull power alley as a matter of course. Hanley Ramirez hit exactly two such fly balls last season. New Met Cuddyer hit one, albeit in limited duty. They might be better served spending less money on the return of Michael Morse to Safeco, provided they take his gloves away at the Oregon border. Morse hits the ball HARD, and uses the opposite field well, a necessity for a righty hitter in Safeco.
I understand a lot of people hate on the initial Morse trade for the acquisition cost, but it's worth understanding that, at least on the receiving end, this did make some semblance of sense—and I don't think it's unreasonable to assume this type of fit played a large role in that much-derided trade. Because the data available to us is limited to samples prone to statistical anomalies, we largely brush off ballpark fit as a factor in decisions, but these things matter—and crying "appeal to authority!" at the first sign of "Hey, maybe they have info we don't have" doesn't mean the latter isn't true.
So what does this have to do with Nelson Cruz? A hell of a lot, actually.
The Mariners needed a right-handed hitter, preferably one that could hit for power. The team got that, but the biggest concern is with the cost. They paid too much, and he's bound to be awful later. While I can't argue too much with the latter, it's important to note when considering that cost—and with that, the alternatives—that not all right-handed power hitters are created equal.
Up above Blengino references Cuddyer and Hanley Ramirez as two hitters who don't quite fit the Safeco-conquering profile. Melky Cabrera, also, has been raised as an alternative to Cruz. It's worth noting that Cruz, per Hit Tracker Online, hit home runs an average of nine feet farther than Cabrera in 2014. HTO's data, as I've recently and embarrassingly learned, are but a well-estimated calculation, but there's a reason this statistic exists:
Nelson Cruz's 4.4 HR% (9 HR in 204 PA) at Safeco Field is the 2nd best All-Time (Vlad Guerrero, 5.2%) for visiting RH hitters. #Mariners— Rick Randall (@randallball) December 1, 2014
Echoing what Blengino laid out as the recipe for success at Safeco, Cruz hits the ball hard and can also go the other way. On the latter, Cruz had six home runs right of dead center that cleared 390 feet last year. Righties on the 2014 Mariners managed two—from Corey Hart and John Buck, destined to join "Woah, totally forgot they played for us" pile of former M's.
Now, on the former, on hitting the ball "HARD," as Blengino puts that, Cruz certainly does that. Jake, again, laid out some of the data yesterday—but here's a little eye candy for you, starting with a video you've surely seen by now. If not, oh is this a treat:
As Jeff Sullivan noted on USSM last night, that was the lowest home run of 2014. It's surprising no one was killed.
If buzzing the tower isn't your thing, there are certainly alternatives.
I will be listening to Gary Thorne's calls all winter, and I couldn't be happier
But for a look—eh, more-so just an unrealistic show—of what Cruz's peak power looks like at Safeco, here it is:
Hit Tracker Online has been cataloguing home runs since the 2006 season. Since then, there have been 1,273 home runs hit at Safeco Field. No righty has ever hit one farther than that. Now, it must be noted that this came during the 2009 season, when Cruz may or may not have been getting a little extra help. The following year he'd post a career-high 147 wRC+.
Now, I only want to make this a quick aside because it makes me cringe even noting it, but on that "extra help" it's interesting enough to relay: research suggests that PEDs may benefit athletes long after they stop using. It's one study, and it examines PEDs the Biogensis gang likely wasn't using, but it's hard not to wonder about the extended careers of guys like Marlon Byrd, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
Still, even without the "god, I hope that's not the reason" evidence linked to there, it's fine to think there might be some level of reason behind this signing. Among the supporters of this deal—some, but not all—there's a bit of a theme developing that's centered around "screw the sabermetric guys, Nelson Cruz is exciting." And while I certainly do understand where that comes from, let's not discount the fact that a signifcant amount of data analysis likely went into this acquisition.
After all, the Mariners' baseball guys liked him last year, and they liked them enough this year to convince their bosses to swallow their pride and pay $58 million for a guy they could've had for more than $40 million less. There's reason behind these things, much more than a never-ending thirst for dingers.
There's still work to be done, and plenty of it. There's no denying that. But as this organization sets out to round into shape a roster that will be among a handful tabbed as a legitimate World Series contenders heading into 2015, remember this: that doesn't happen by accident.