Nelson Cruz is so old that when Roger Maris first signed with the New York Mets in 1998 he still held the one-season home run record.
Nelson Cruz is so old that his new team-mate Wander Franco wasn’t born when he played his first professional game.
Nelson Cruz is so old …
Okay, you got the idea. Cruz is 41 years old, is still one of the best hitters in the game, and the Tampa Bay Rays hope he’s the missing thug they need to not only hunt the Red Sox in the American League East, but in return the world series and – this time – stay ahead.
The Rays acquired Cruz on Thursday from the Minnesota Twins for pitcher Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman in the minor league to breathe life into an offensive that ranks seventh in runs per game in the majors but only 16 in OPS . You fought particularly against left-handers and only hit .226 / .303 / .380 against southpaws. Cruz hits .362 / .410 / .600 against left-handers and .294 / .370 / .537 overall, with 19 homers in 85 games.
Cruz’s production is no accident. He ranks ninth in the majors in OPS + in 2021, fourth in the last two seasons, and third in the last three seasons. Few players hit the ball consistently harder as it ranks in the 95th percentile of the average exit speed, the 94th percentile of the hard hit rate, the 98th percentile of the maximum exit speed, and the 92nd percentile of the expected slugging percentage.
The Rays are closing a deal to acquire Nelson Cruz, according to @JeffPassan.
Cruz’s 19 home runs are second among the proven hitters this season. While the Rays struggled to get production from this point, which ranks among the top 5 in AL in BA, OPS, and HR
– ESPN stats and info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 22, 2021
It’s just the latest from one of the greatest “old” players in major league history. Cruz has hit 220 home runs since his 35th birthday – only Barry Bonds (340) and Henry Aaron (245) have hit more and Cruz seems like a good bet to overtake Aaron. The notable aspect of this trivia: Cruz hit 216 home runs before he turned 35, so he hit more after he was 35 than before.
Cruz was traded as a minor leaguer twice, from the A’s to the Mets – in 2000 – and then from the A’s to the Brewers. He played eight games for the Brewers in 2005 and was traded to the Rangers in the 2006 season. It would eventually make a name for itself in Texas, but not until the Rangers put it on in 2008. At the time, his strength potential was evident, but he was wild and undisciplined on the plate, hitting .235 with a .287 “on-base percentage for Texas in 2007. When the Rangers waived him after doing it in 2008 hadn’t managed to make the team out of spring training, every team could have claimed him for themselves. Neither team made it. He was 27 years old and back in Triple-A, the label “Quad-A” hung on him.
Little did we know that Cruz’s transformation was just beginning.
“You can watch videos and tee off, stuff like that, but at the same time you’re against the pitcher. All I need is a swing or a pitch to click and you can find your swing, ”said Cruz once. It would be easy to say that Cruz learned just that. It didn’t have to vibrate at every pitch – it just had to vibrate at the right one.
The strange thing is that, if you go through Cruz’s data, many of the various metrics have remained unchanged since he returned to Rangers in 2008, scoring 1,030 OPS in 31 games and then forming his first of seven All-Star teams in 2009 when he hit 33 homers. Things like swing rate, chase rate, where it hits the ball – they’re essentially the same, except for minor changes from year to year.
Quick Verdict of the Nelson Cruz Trade: The Rays are getting the best racket on the market and someone with an A + clubhouse reputation. But the twins also did very well to win Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman, two tough right-handers who are almost ready for the Big League.
– Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) July 22, 2021
At some level, all Cruz ever needed was an opportunity. His breakthrough in the 2009 season came during his 28-year season. Since then, he has hit 414 home runs – the ninth ever in a player’s season at the age of 28. One of the players ahead of him is David Ortiz, who has scored 452 home runs since his season at age 28, and there are some clear similarities between the two as both are big, strong Dominican thugs and are considered great clubhouse leaders too. Ortiz, however, had a clear change in his stroke approach between his 34 and 35 year seasons. In 2010, he cut 145 times in 606 record appearances. In 2011 he struck out only 83 times in 605 record appearances. In fact, while strikeout rates rose dramatically across the league, Ortiz has never dropped 100 more times in its last six seasons.
That wasn’t the case of Cruz. He crossed the season 22.5% of the time at age 34 and 22.6% of the time since. His hearing rate has improved slightly – 8.1% to 10.2%, although his chase rates have not improved. In fact, his chase rate of 30.8% for each of the last two seasons is the highest of his career.
What Cruz seems to be doing so well is hunting down specific pitches. I don’t know if it’s fair to call him a rate hitter, but he can take some ugly swings if his guesswork is wrong. However, if his guesswork is correct, you will say goodbye to baseball. Ortiz had the same ability, looking terrible on one field and then smashing the next.
Ortiz could still score when he retired – he led the AL in slugging, OPS, Doubles and RBIs in his final season, but the pain in his knees forced him to give it up. We don’t know how long he could have continued. That’s what’s fascinating about Cruz – who knows how long he can stay an elite hitter. With 436 home runs, 500 is possible, which would be a ridiculous feat for a player who was only 22 to 27 years old.
As for the Rays, they’re only hoping for a bunch in the next three months – August, September, and October.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.