Nelson Cruz Still Raking in His 40's
After homering on Monday, the 40-year-old is tied for second place with 11 homers.
Twins DH Nelson Cruz went yard in yesterday’s 3-2 win over the Indians, blasting a game-tying opposite field solo home run off of Aaron Civale in the fourth inning. It wasn’t a cheap one, either: Statcast measured it 396 feet, coming 105 MPH off the bat.
Cruz now has 11 home runs on the season, tied with Mookie Betts (27 years old) and José Abreu (33) for second in the majors, trailing only Fernando Tatis Jr. (21). The old guy is more than holding his own with MLB’s young guns.
Cruz is 40 years old. It is rare for hitters to maintain such a powerful bat into their mid- and late-30’s, let alone their 40’s. There have been only 59 seasons in baseball history in which a player hit at least 11 home runs at the age of 40 or older. As the Twins are at the exact halfway point of the season, Cruz is on pace for 22 dingers, and only 12 players have reached that total in their 40’s. And those were in 154- and 162-game seasons, not 60, which makes Cruz’s 2020 campaign all the more impressive.
Along with the prodigious home run total, Cruz is also sixth in the majors in batting average (.340), 12th in on-base percentage (.429), and second in slugging percentage (.699). He’s first in OPS (1.128), tied for first in weighted on-base average (.461), and tied for first in wRC+ (197).
Among hitters in the Live Ball Era to accrue enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title, David Ortiz in 2016 was the only one, at the age of 40 or older, to complete a season with an OPS of 1.000 or better (1.021). Three others have had an OPS in the .900’s: Stan Musial in 1962 (.924), Ty Cobb in 1927 (.921), and Willie Mays in 1971 (.907). Albeit in a much shorter season, Cruz is on target to obliterate those marks. Even if we use OPS+, which adjusts OPS for league and park effects and sets 100 as the average, it’s not a terribly deep list. Ortiz is first at 164, Mays is second at 158, and Edgar Martinez (2003) is third at 141. Cruz is currently at 205.
Cruz is in the final year of his contract, as the Twins picked up his 2020 option for $12 million last November. If he wants to continue playing beyond this season, he should have no trouble finding a home, even with the free agent market having stagnated in recent years and projecting to continue being stagnant due to the pandemic. Cruz very clearly has plenty left in the tank and someone will want that bat in their lineup.
While Cruz has spent a majority of his career as an outfielder, racking up 7,330 2/3 defensive innings in right field and 886 1/3 in left, he is primarily known as a designated hitter. Cruz has had an outstanding career and has a legitimate Hall of Fame case, but DH’s have historically been shut out of Cooperstown. Martinez, Frank Thomas, and Harold Baines broke through in recent years and Ortiz will likely make it in when he appears on the ballot for the first time in 2022, which could make Cruz’s path easier.
Cruz is currently sitting on 412 career homers, tied with Alfonso Soriano for 54th on baseball’s all-time home run leaderboard. Assuming future seasons will not be shortened by a pandemic, it may take him another two or three seasons to get to the 500 mark, which is much more appealing to voters than 400. Cruz is also tied with Mark Grace for 187th on baseball’s all-time RBI leaderboard at 1,146. Playing long enough to accrue another 90 homers would also likely net him another 200 or so RBI, which would make him one of 117 players with 1,300+ RBI.
Hall of Fame voters, especially in the age of analytics, devalue DH’s because they don’t play defense. Thus, Cruz’s 152 OPS+ since becoming a full-time DH in 2016 isn’t as impressive as, say, a 152 OPS+ from a second baseman or shortstop. It’s easier to find that kind of production from a player whose sole job is to hit well as opposed to someone who has to also work on his defense. Cruz has also been hurt by his defense which predicated his move to DH in the first place.
Nevertheless, Cruz is having an historic season amid a terrific career. He is already a fringe Hall of Fame candidate, but he can boost his candidacy depending on how much longer he wants to keep playing. It would be nice to see him get to 500 home runs, putting the veritable cherry on top.
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