Age is just a Number with Nelson Cruz

The year 2020 will be Nelson Cruz’s 16th MLB season, and much like a fine wine; he has only improved with age. During the first 9 seasons of Cruz’s career, he averaged 17.44 home runs and 53.33 RBIs. In the last six seasons, Cruz has averaged 40.67 home runs and 105 RBIs a year while posting career highs in these categories during this period. In 2019, Cruz arguably put together the best season of his career at 38 years old, he smashed 41 home runs and 108 RBIs while batting .311. Cruz very easily could’ve smashed his career highs in both home runs and RBIs had he not missed 42 games. The 41 home runs and 1.031 OPS  Cruz posted in 2019 were good enough to rank second and fourth-best all-time for a 38-year-old, trailing only Barry Bonds in home runs, and following Bonds, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb in OPS. That’s elite company to be in, especially at that age.

There is little to no doubt that Nelson Cruz has transformed himself into one of baseball’s most prolific power hitters. When you look at his statcast profile, it becomes easy to see why. 

Since the statcast era began in 2015, Cruz has ranked in the top 10% of baseball every year in xSLG, xwOBA, and xwOBAcon. He also placed in the top 2% of baseball every year in Barrel %, Exit Velocity, and Hard Hit %. In fact, Cruz’s 12.5% Barrels per Plate Appearance in 2019 was the highest of the statcast era.  The ability to square the ball up consistently and hit just about harder than anyone in baseball for half a decade is really a testament to Cruz. It’s one of the main reasons why he is one of only four players to hit at least 20 homeruns across the previous eight seasons.

Cruz was the fourth best hitter in baseball by fangraphs wRC+ in 2019, accompanied by a group of players that frequently find their names in the MVP conversation 

180 – Mike Trout 

174 – Christian Yelich 

168 – Alex Bregman 

163 – Nelson Cruz 

162 – Cody Bellinger 

156 – George Springer  

Cruz mashes baseballs, there’s no denying that. He’s hit more home runs than anyone else since he burst onto the scene in 2009 with 368 total homers. But it’s almost more impressive that he continues to mash baseballs.

Cruz made his Rangers debut at the age of 25, but didn’t perform well at all (.231/.279/.384) and was designated for assignment just before the start of 2008 and went unclaimed on waivers. He remained in AAA for the Rangers until 2009 at age 28, he hit 33 home runs and made the all star team. What I’m getting at is Cruz hit the majority of his 401 career home runs after the age of 30. In fact, he is one of the best home run hitters of all time for an “old guy”.

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While it is fair to suggest that Cruz will start to see some regression as he enters his 40s this July, the numbers don’t necessarily suggest that this will happen so soon. Cruz has been able to maintain at least a .260 average in all but one season since his first full season in the majors in 2009. He’s also maintained an average OPS + of 136 (100 is average) during that span. When compared to other MLB players who played into the latter half of their 30s and early 40s Cruz stacks up pretty well.

I compared Cruz’s age 38 season to 3 Hall of Famers at the same age, Cruz honestly looks like the best player for the given age. The decline in production for Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols was much more apparent than it is for Cruz who has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon. 

Cruz is signed through 2020. I don’t see why the Twins wouldn’t at least attempt to keep Cruz around just a little longer. He had one of the best seasons a Twin has ever had, and did it at the ripe age of 38 years old, an age many major leaguers in the past have found difficulty proving their worth. 

Cruz should be a designated hitter for at least 2-3 more years until he either shows some serious regression or chooses to walk away from the game. He has been so good and so fun to watch and has plenty of pop in that bat. His value could only improve as the move for a universal DH would find more teams interested in finding another quality bat to place in the lineup. Just imagine the sort of numbers he could put up in Coors field. 

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