Nelson Cruz is a hacker. Not, like, breaking into computers and whatnot—though, maybe, in the best bad movie ever—but the guy takes cuts at a lot of bad pitches. That's his M.O., and that's what we knew when the Mariners signed him. You take that one good tool, the power, and you learn to live with everything else.
Everything else includes what happened Wednesday night, when, with men on second and third and nobody out, he struck out against Joe Smith without seeing a single pitch in the strike zone. It was his moment to endear himself to Mariners fans, and he did the opposite.
A graphical representation, via Brooks Baseball:
Yeah, that's not a good look, Cruz admitted as much, saying to members of the media after the game, "He threw me pitches that were probably outside the zone and I was swinging. I should be more patient in that situation."
And it's true. Cruz would benefit greatly by swinging at less pitches outside the zone. Not only would he strike out less and not be swinging at pitches for which the likelihood of success is very low, but he could work himself into counts where he sees the type of pitches he can drive.
But that's probably not going to happen. Nelson Cruz, for the entirety of his career, has been the type of who isn't afraid of going outside the strike zone. Out of curiosity, I wanted to check where Cruz ranked last year in doing this, just how much he swung at pitches outside the strike zone. In looking at last year's stats on regulars (at least 450 plate appearances), I was surprised to see that, while he was bad, it wasn't as bad as I expected—actually 60th in baseball.
With Cruz sitting down there there at 60th, there were two members of the 2014 Seattle Mariners ahead of him. One is obvious, in Mike Zunino. The other, not so much: it's Robinson Cano.
Yes, the best hitter on the Mariners, and one of the very best in the game over the past decade, swings at more pitches outside the strike zone than Nelson Cruz. And this isn't a new thing. Here's their respective rates on swinging at pitches outside the zone over the past five years.
While that's actually something of a decent and consistent gap between the pair, it isn't nearly as big as what each player does with those balls they swing at—and this a big part of why Robinson Cano is Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz is Nelson Cruz.
Here's how frequently they make contact at pitches outside the zone over the past five years.
Why write about this now? Because we just saw it.
It's funny, as bad as Cruz's at-bat against Joe Smith looked, him swinging at only balls, the pitches Cano saw and eventually swung at weren't that different.
Here's Cano, again from Brooks:
To help explain this, Cano had the advantage of batting lefty—and, as one of the "ball"s earlier in that at-bat was called a strike, he practically had to swing at one later. But again, this isn't really about swinging at bad pitches, it's what Cano does with them. He not only makes contact, but as you'll recall, he can do this:
Vin Scully once famously said "Statistics are used much like a drunk uses a lamp post: for support, not illumination." We don't need statistics to tell us that Cano is a better hitter than Cruz, and not much evidence is needed to support the claim either. But still, there you have it.
Robinson Cano is a better hitter than Nelson Cruz, and that's what it looks like.