clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nelson Cruz refuses to decline

Or Nelson Cruz should retire as a Mariner.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

If the MLB All-Star Game is supposed to be a showcase for how fun baseball can be, two Seattle Mariners provided all the memorable moments during this year’s edition. Robinson Canó’s 10th inning blast was certainly the highlight, but it overshadowed some of the hijinks of his teammate, Nelson Cruz. Just peruse some of the recent posts on Nelson Cruz’s Instagram account and you’ll see just how important he and Robbie are to the game’s young Latin stars and to the game itself. On a night where baseball’s Latin heritage was celebrated, two of the game’s elder statesmen put on a show to remember.

While Nelson Cruz had the time of his life at the All-Star game, the highlight of his week was probably four days before that, when he launched his 300th home run of his career. Because of the late start to his career, he hasn’t been as prolific as some of his peers, but it’s an impressive milestone nonetheless. And he got there because of a late career surge that’s seen him become one of the best hitters in baseball when others would normally be on the decline.

When the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz to a four-year deal during the 2014-2015 offseason, many glanced at his advancing age and cried foul. He was 34-years-old and coming off what was then a career year where he launched 40 bombs and put up 3.7 fWAR in Baltimore. All he’s done since then is hit 104 home runs, post a 149 wRC+, while accumulating 10.8 fWAR in just two and a half years. Needless to say, he’s been worth every single penny to the Mariners thus far and the $58 million total to his four-year contract seems like a steal right now.

This season, Cruz has continued to evolve as a hitter. A long power drought in the middle of June depressed his home run total a bit. He probably won’t hit 40 home runs for the fourth consecutive year, but 30+ is well within reach—the projections see him ending up with 32-33 on the year. But it’s his plate discipline that’s been the biggest change for him. His walk rate has risen year-over-year since 2011, all the way up to 10.8% this season, the second highest mark of his career. As American League pitchers have realized how dangerous he is at the plate, they’ve avoided pitching in the zone as often as they were earlier in his career. But no matter where they pitch it, Cruz’s contact rate has stayed extremely stable.

In addition to increasing his walk rate, Cruz has also cut his strikeout rate to 18.6% this year, the second best mark of his career. His whiff rate has stayed steady over the last few years—there will always be some swings and misses for someone trying to hit a ball as hard as Cruz does. So what has Nellie done to improve his strikeout rate? It’s his performance in two-strike counts. When he has two strikes on him, his striking out in just 36.4% of those plate appearances. That’s down from last year when he struck out in 43.2% of those plate appearances and it’s also below his career rate of 42.8%. So Cruz is still swinging and missing but those whiffs are occurring more often earlier in the count, but when pitchers are trying their hardest to get that swinging strike, Cruz has become even harder to get out.

Cruz turned 37 on July 1—meaning he’s playing through his age-36 season this year. The number of players since 2000 who posted a wRC+ of 130 or higher in their age-36 season is pretty small. It gets even smaller when you limit the sample to those who followed up that year with another year with a wRC+ over 130. Below is a table listing the fWAR totals of fifteen players who posted a wRC+ over 130 after they turned 37.

Sluggers over age 37

Player Age-37 Age-38 Age-39 Age-40 Age-41 Age-42 Total fWAR Avg fWAR
Player Age-37 Age-38 Age-39 Age-40 Age-41 Age-42 Total fWAR Avg fWAR
Barry Bonds 12.7 10.2 11.9 0.7 3.2 3.2 41.9 7.0
Adrian Beltre 6.1 3.6* 9.7 4.9
David Ortiz 3.3 2.3 2.8 4.4 12.8 3.2
Edgar Martinez 5.3 4.7 2.1 2.7 -0.5 14.3 2.9
Chipper Jones 2.4 2.5 1.9 2.4 9.2 2.3
Matt Holiday 2.1* 2.1 2.1
Jeff Kent 3.6 1.7 2.8 0.3 8.4 2.1
Rafael Palmeiro 4.5 2.7 0.2 -0.2 7.2 1.8
Fred McGriff 3.6 2.4 0.4 -0.7 5.7 1.4
Jim Thome 1.6 0.8 3.0 0.9 0.2 6.5 1.3
Frank Thomas 0.4 2.4 1.8 -0.3 4.3 1.1
Carlos Beltran -0.6 2.0 2.3 -0.6* 3.1 0.8
Alex Rodriguez 0.5 2.7 -1.2 2.0 0.7
Raul Ibanez 3.4 1.2 -1.9 0.9 0.2 -0.9 2.9 0.5
Jason Giambi 2.4 -0.1 -0.1 1.2 -0.4 -0.7 2.3 0.4
Average 3.5 2.7 2.3 0.9 0.5 0.5 8.8 2.2
*Active Player—fWAR total extrapolated for a full season.

The list is populated with aging sluggers, some of whom aged gracefully and some who aged rapidly. This group managed to accumulate 2.2 fWAR per year after turning 37 and accumulated an average of 8.8 fWAR total in their twilight years. Generally, we see these sluggers playing well enough through 39 but then we see a steep drop off at 40.

Originally, I wanted to title this article, “Why Nelson Cruz should retire as a Mariner.” It’s clear that he has a massive impact on the Mariners clubhouse culture, he’s one of the most recognizable and most popular Latin players in the game today, and most importantly, his performance hasn’t dropped off like so many other aging sluggers. There’s no guarantee that he’ll age as gracefully as Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz, but what would it take to keep Nelson Cruz around through his age-40 season?

Ortiz might be the best model for how to pay for a popular, aging designated hitter in today’s market. He signed three free agent contracts with the Red Sox in 2012, 2013, and 2015. Those contracts paid him an average of $14.5 million per year over the last five years of his career. The contract he signed in 2015 included two options, a vesting option in 2016 and a club option in 2017. Obviously, he was able to ensure that his 2016 option vested and then retired after posting 4.4 fWAR in his final season in the majors. Carlos Beltran also provides an example. He signed free agent contracts in 2012, 2014, and 2017, also with an average annual value of $14.5 million.

Cruz’s current four-year deal expires after next season, and the Mariners are certainly not looking to trade him. If you think he’s going to age gracefully, averaging between 2.0 and 3.0 fWAR until he turns 40, why not offer similar contracts to Ortiz’s or Beltran’s? If he continues hitting like he has, his on-field performance would certainly make those contracts worth it, and his off-the-field contributions make him even more valuable to the Mariners. A series of one- or two-year contracts would give the Mariners some flexibility if he doesn’t age as gracefully and including options for a few future seasons could allow him to retire on his own terms like Ortiz. It may seem silly to commit more dollars and resources to an already aging roster, but I would love to see Cruz hit every single home run for the remainder of his career in a Mariners uniform.