Nelson Cruz, despite only being a Mariner for a little over one season, has been in the consciousness of Mariner fans for almost a decade. For me the place I first heard of Nelson Cruz was the same place I discovered most non-household names in the 2000's: USS Mariner. It was there, on June 20, 2008 that Dave Cameron called for the Mariners to acquire him:
He turns 28 in a few weeks, so he's not going to get any better and will likely only have a couple of years to offer a major league club that gives him a real shot, but the M's shouldn't walk away from the chance to pick a legitimate power hitting outfielder for nothing and pay him the league minimum for several years.
As felt so often the case back in those days, Dave was spot on. Cruz broke out in 2009, hitting 33 home runs, slugging, 524 and establishing himself as a legitimate major league power hitter. From there the saga becomes much easier to recollect and follow. We watched Cruz thump for years in Texas, just as we watched the Mariners' offense slip to previously unseen depths of failure. As Jack Zduriencick began to fetishize right-handed power and bash random buttons on his GM Control Panel, Mariner fans winced as the team and Cruz seemed inexorably bound to unite in a mutually unbeneficial relationship.
Fast forward to 2016, a year after Nelson Cruz put up arguably the greatest offensive season by any Mariner in the history of Safeco Field:
A true late bloomer, Cruz's mid 30's back to back career years make for another chapter in a very unusual career arc, and makes setting expectations for his 2016 exceedingly difficult. That's why I wanted to wait a month or so before I checked in with him this year.
So what do we have? Well we have a player battling his very damndest to tell age to go piss off. The idea that Cruz would equal or even approximate 2015's 44 home runs and .566 slugging seemed almost as unlikely as those numbers happening the first place. Sure enough, as he begins to navigate the second month of his age 36 season Cruz's slugging percentage of .473 is well below last year's. Whether this represents a small blip in time or the beginning of a new baseline for Cruz's power is too early. However, as his physical skills are almost certainly deteriorating to at least a minor extent, Cruz is trading off the decline with an increased awareness of the strike zone.
It's not unusual for an aging player to begin walking more than he did in his physical prime. The inability to hit as many pitches as hard requires an increase in discretion for the hitter to stay effective. Swinging a baseball bat with major league velocity exacts a toll. Perhaps not as much as, say, throwing a 100 MPH fastball does, but still. If max effort swings are bullets then to age is to be stuck with a ever-shrinking chamber.
What is encouraging is that, even with the walk/age related trend in mind, currently Nelson Cruz's walk rate is up almost a two hand a half percent from his previous career high, at 11.9%. That's not just a small increase, it is a massive improvement over his previously established range of 6.4-9.5%.
Perhaps even more interestingly, at least to me, is that Cruz is managing to draw more walks than ever, and see more pitches than ever, while simultaneously nearly matching his career low in strike out rate (18.3% vs. 18.2% career low). It's still only a month+ of data but if we remember that strike out and walk rates generally stabilize very quickly these numbers carry perhaps a bit more weight than your typical one month sample.
As it stands Nelson Cruz has used an increased ability to draw walks and make contact to off set what, at least thus far, appears to be a reduction in power. While the process has been different than the one used to generate that amazing 158 wRC+ of a year ago, Cruz's 2016 wRC+ has barely dropped off at 151.
While time is taking its toll on Nelson Cruz, and the latter half of his contract may indeed prove to be as painful as many feared its entirety would, his ability to adapt to his surroundings and compensate for his changing skill set may make for another elite offensive season. While he absolutely should not be allowed to spend one more inning in right field, left field, or any other field for the rest of his career, Nelson Cruz has proven he's more than a slugger. He has become a well rounded, patient, dangerous all around hitter. If 2015's power begins to re-emerge, the Boomstick could provide another thunderous Summer in Seattle.