clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Seth Smith vs. Nelson Cruz

New, 94 comments

The most well-known player acquired this winter by the Seattle Mariners? That's easy. Nelson Cruz. The BEST player acquired this winter by the Seattle Mariners? That's a little more complicated...

seth smith has a plus-plus photo game
seth smith has a plus-plus photo game
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the Seattle Mariners' public relations efforts, I'm a man of mixed feelings. On the one hand, organizational higher-ups seem to be playing a bizarre game of Chicken in which whoever can say the most franchise-embarrassing or team-damaging thing without getting fired wins. Jack Zduriencik should probably stick to his long-established interview strategy of whispering sweet nothings, and Howard Lincoln should probably stick to his more recently established interview strategy of letting Kevin Mather do all the work.

On the other hand (as I've discussed before), Kevin Martinez and the rest of the Mariners' marketing department routinely rock my socks. For a recent example, you need look no further than their handling of the Mariners' Nelson Cruz acquisition. This is awesome:

Still, I've gotta say: this past week, I've been a little disappointed in the Mariners' marketers. After weeks of fan speculation about the teams' plans to fill their right field hole, Jack Zduriencik finally struck last Tuesday, flipping Luke Hochevar Brandon Maurer to the Padres for Seth Smith. Smith isn't as sexy of a get as Justin Upton or Matt Kemp (in more ways than one), but in a platoon with earlier acquisition Justin Ruggiano he could be a very nice piece for the M's.

In a lot of ways, actually, he reminds me of Nelson Cruz. Like Cruz, Smith is a "professional hitter" coming off a career season in which he murderized opposite-handed pitching. Also like Cruz, Smith doesn't contribute much of anything in the field, probably won't reach 600 PAs in any given year, and is headed for the downslope of his career. But whereas Cruz got the red carpet rolled out for him - with the Seahawks' Legion of Boom recording a special "Welcome" video, the Mariners holding a press conference dedicated specifically to his arrival, and the marketing department whipping up a bunch of sweet promotional material - Seth Smith has gotten zip. Zilch. Nada.

I mean, I understand why. Ask a random fan on the street who Nelson Cruz is, and she'll say "that guy who hits lots of dingers". Ask another random fan who Seth Smith is, and he'll ask "how do you know about my boss from three jobs ago?" But while I certainly won't argue that Smith is as famous as Cruz... I might suggest that, as a Mariner, he's liable to perform just as well.

Let's have a look.

First off, a couple ground rules. One: no fair bringing up contract value. We're not trying to crown the $/WAR king here; if we were, Smith would be the winner in a landslide. Two: no fair bringing other players into it. This is Seth Smith vs. Nelson Cruz, not Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano vs. Nelson Cruz and Jesus Montero. Three: we're going to do at least a little legwork here. This is not going to be a "cite Steamer" article.

With that said: let's start by citing Steamer!

2015 Steamer Nelson Cruz Seth Smith
wRC+ 118 112
BsR -2 -0.2
Def -15.2 -8.6
WAR 1.4 1.4

Somewhat surprisingly, everyone's favorite this-is-the-only-projection-system-currently-available thinks that the slugger smackdown champion will be Smith. (At least, that's what I assume this result means: they'll perform the same in 2015, and then the older Cruz will decline faster.) On their face, these seem like pretty sound projections to me. Steamer has both men exactly matching their career wRC+ marks next year, which seems sensible. And the baserunning numbers are more or less just two-year averages, though I might suggest that Steamer's being a little bit generous to Cruz's legs.

But the Def row, perhaps not surprisingly, is where the projections start to run into issues. For one thing, Steamer's defensive projection for Smith is way too nice.  -8.6 runs is smack dab in the middle of his last four years' defensive numbers... for left field. Unfortunately for the Mariners, Smith isn't going to be playing left field in 2015. He's going to be playing right field. Between Austin Jackson's quest for redemption and the pool noodle stapled to the right side of Dustin Ackley's torso, the rest of the roster has Smith probably pigeonholed into a position to which he is not well suited. The last time Smith played full-time right field was in 2011, when his crappy arm cost the Rockies 5 runs all on its own. Returns on the Padres' brief right field fling with Smith last year were not much better. If Smith is the Mariners' every day right fielder in 2015, his arm alone projects to knock 4 runs or so off of his value, leaving us with a table that looks a little more like this:

2015 Steamer Nelson Cruz Seth Smith (RF)
wRC+ 118 112
BsR -2 -0.2
Def -15.2 -12.6
WAR 1.4 1.0

And heck, we're not even done yet. -15 runs for Cruz seems awfully harsh, don't you think? He's not a good gloveman, but in his worst season (2011) he was at -12.2. I know, almost all of the -15 is the DH positional adjustment (and Lloyd is on the record predicting that Cruz will spend something like 3/4 of his games at designated hitter)... but the DH positional adjustment and I don't quite see eye to eye. For one thing, it strikes me as odd that replacement level DHes have been so hard for teams to find of late. Eno Sarris recently suggested on Twitter that the DH penalty might be a couple runs per year too aggressive; Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections also use a less negative DH adjustment than Fangraphs does to account for the offset. Let's credit Cruz another couple of runs. Now the table looks like this:

2015 Steamer Nelson Cruz (DHish) Seth Smith (RF)
wRC+ 118 112
BsR -2 -0.2
Def -12.2 -12.6
WAR 1.7 1.0

Yeouch. The case for Smith is starting to look well and truly cooked. But hey - wait a minute. Speaking of looking...

There doesn't seem to be any real consensus on the effects of LASIK eye surgery on baseball players. A 2005 study found that the effects were negligible, but this follow-up piece from 2013 suggests that it might have had some methodological flaws. For whatever it's worth, post-surgery 2013 Smith struck out roughly half as much as pre-surgery 2013 Smith, and a career-best K/BB ratio was a big part of his 2014 career year. That might've been due in part to the league switch, or to the park switch, or to some other cause, but it also might've been due to his newfound laser eyes. Steamer, of course, isn't accounting for that possibility, since it has no way of knowing about his operation. We obviously shouldn't throw out all pre-2014 data, but what happens if we give his 2014 career season a little more weight to adjust?

2015 Steamer Nelson Cruz (DHish) Seth Smith (RF)
wRC+ 118 115
BsR -2 -0.2
Def -12.2 -12.6
WAR 1.7 1.4

Using a frontloaded Marcel (7/3/2 instead of 5/4/3 on the year weights) for Smith, then factoring aging in gets us something like the above. Smith's higher likelihood of a legitimate breakout somewhat offsets the negative impact of unfortunate roster configuration, bumping his project WAR right back up to where Steamer has it. And that's not all! There's a little bit of an issue with Cruz's offensive projection, too. Steamer thinks he'll reach 570 PA next year, but since becoming a full-time player in 2009 Cruz has only crossed that threshold twice. His average PA/season is more like 540 in recent years. He's been healthier of late, but age takes its toll. Dropping the PA down to his full-time-player-career seasonal average dings him a bit, leaving us with this final table.

2015 Steamer Nelson Cruz (DHish) Seth Smith (RF)
wRC+ 118 115
BsR -1.9 -0.2
Def -11.5 -12.6
WAR 1.5 1.4

By now, I think you get the point: it's just too close to call. I could play around in the margins some more - I'm not sure if Steamer uses handedness park factors, which would hurt Cruz's case, and I'm not sure how Cruz will react to DHing, and it seems like Smith is the better pinch-hitter - but it'd be adding and subtracting fractions of runs, and that's just not going to change the big picture. WAR's margin of error is such that there's probably no point in continuing this exercise further.

If I had to tiebreak, I'd give it to Smith, mostly because of Cruz's age and past fragility. Seth Smith may not be a "full time player", but at least his managers know when he's not going to be available: against same-handed pitching. This lets them keep a reasonable complementary alternative (like, say, Justin Ruggiano) around on the bench to fill in. Nelson Cruz fills a position all by his lonesome, but when he goes down his replacement has to come from AAA. That's a strike against him. Also, if Dustin Ackley or Austin Jackson turns out to suck, Smith can move to left field and reclaim some defensive value. Cruz has no such luck. Still, if I prefer Smith, it's by the narrowest of margins, and I can see the argument the other way.

So. In the end, it looks like the Mariners made two big acquisitions this winter, not just one. Despite what the media campaigns surrounding them might suggest, Seth Smith is just as important of an addition to this team as Nelson Cruz was. Personally, I think the head-to-head is too close to call. Luckily for me, I am a writer, and thus am afforded the luxury of equivocation. Less luckily for you, I've included below a brief binary poll on the subject. Hit it with your best shot, and we'll check in occasionally to see how you did.

For the moment, though, let's just hope that both new Mariners do well in Seattle. Go M's!