Cruz having one of best 'old guy' seasons ever

Twins DH has most homers in MLB since 2009

August 6th, 2019

Baseball is trending younger, and that's not exactly a newsworthy statement. It's been talked about at length here and elsewhere for years, as young stars like Juan Soto and Ronald Acuña Jr. arrive in the big leagues prepared to succeed immediately, and as teams become more aware of the aging curve and the larger contracts that declining veterans command. We know that speed peaks young, and fastball velocity might, too.

Youth is the name of the game, is the point, and "Father Time remains undefeated" is a favorite saying in baseball just because it remains so true. Time comes for everyone. ("You're older than you've ever been and now you're even older," as one particularly sobering song reminds you.)

Everyone, it seems, feels the effects. Everyone, that is, except for Minnesota's Nelson Cruz, who is merely having one of the greatest "old" seasons in the history of the game -- and one of the greatest second-act careers ever -- at just about the most important time. He's been worth 3.1 Wins Above Replacement, and his record-setting Twins entered play Monday leading the AL Central over Cleveland by ... three games (and increased that lead to four games by the end of the night).

But before we get to age -- and we will get back to his age -- let's set it aside for a minute. Let's ignore the number on his birth certificate, and look just at his standing among all other qualified Major League hitters this year. This isn't just about being older. Around the Statcast lab, we favor two different metrics to evaluate hitter skill. The first, expected wOBA, looks at quality of contact (based on exit velocity and launch angle), as well as amount of contact. The second, FanGraphs' wRC+, is park-adjusted, based on outcomes, and sets "100" as league average.

Cruz entered Monday as the third-best hitter in baseball by expected wOBA, in the middle of a top five that likely includes both future Most Valuable Players.

.459 -- Mike Trout
.451 -- Cody Bellinger
.435 -- Cruz
.431 -- Anthony Rendon
.427 -- Christian Yelich

Cruz is the fourth-best hitter in baseball by wRC+, in the middle of a top five that includes largely the same super-studs in a different order.

183 -- Trout
178 -- Bellinger
175 -- Yelich
163 -- Cruz
156 -- George Springer

Cruz's .385 OBP is 16th best, just ahead of DJ LeMahieu and George Springer. His .646 slugging percentage is fourth best. His 54% hard-hit rate is third-best behind only Aaron Judge and Miguel Sano; no one in the game has had a higher percentage of their plate appearances end with a barrel, the Statcast term for a perfectly struck batted ball.

He's got 11 homers in his last 10 starts -- "What we’re watching right now ... I haven’t seen anything like it before," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said after Cruz's second three-homer game in 10 days on Saturday -- and if you were to look at his Statcast player page, you'll see not only that it's littered with red shading, meaning that his metrics are in the top 1% to 5% of MLB, depending on the color, but that he's increased his launch angle steadily each season.

(He's also got a career-high 26.9% strikeout rate, proving that more strikeouts don't always mean less production.)

He is, regardless of age, mashing. Last year's Twins designated hitters combined to hit .252/.333/.388, a mark four percent below league average. This year, Cruz is hitting .292/.385/.646, which again is 63 percent above league average. There may not have been a single more impactful free-agent signing last winter.

Cruz is mashing, because he always mashes. No one has more home runs since his 2009 breakout than his 368. No one has more home runs since he departed Texas following the 2013 season than his 233. Very soon, he'll become the 57th player in history to launch 400 home runs, and he's just posted his sixth straight 30-homer season (and seventh overall).

But you know he crushes, because he's a six-time All-Star and a two-time Silver Slugger. What's interesting is that he still crushes, in a way we've rarely seen before. Cruz turned 39 years old on July 1, making him the second-oldest regular position player in baseball, six months younger than Albert Pujols and nine months older than Curtis Granderson (who have combined to hit just .216/.286/.403).

This is still considered Cruz's "age-38 season" for record-keeping purposes, and in modern baseball history, only five players -- four clearly among the greatest players who ever lived -- have had a better batting season at 38 or older.

Best batting seasons, age 38 or older (wRC+, where 100 is league average)

233 -- Barry Bonds, 2004
223 -- Ted Williams, 1957
212 -- Bonds, 2003
179 -- Williams, 1958
169 -- Bob Johnson, 1944
168 -- Babe Ruth, 1933
166 -- Ty Cobb, 1925
163 -- Cruz, 2019

With one more home run, Cruz will break a tie with Mike Schmidt to get into the top 10 for most home runs hit at 30 or older in baseball history. But remember: Schmidt was a Hall of Famer, one who made his first All-Star team at 24 and had 235 homers in his 20s. Most of the other names on the list of "most post-30 homers" ahead of Cruz -- like Bonds, Ruth, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays -- were inner-circle greats who had gotten off to pretty incredible starts well before they turned 30.

That's not true for Cruz, however. He was signed by the Mets as an international free agent in 1998, and bounced around to Oakland (2000, for Jorge Velandia), to Milwaukee (2004, for Keith Ginter) and finally to Texas (2006, with Carlos Lee for three players). Cruz was 25 when he made his Rangers debut, and he impressed them so much in 2006-07 (.231/.279/.384) that he was designated for assignment before the 2008 season and went unclaimed on waivers; he remained in Triple-A for Texas until August. The next year, at 28 in 2009, Cruz hit 33 home runs and made the All-Star team.

What that means is that Cruz has hit an overwhelming majority of his 390 career home runs after leaving his twenties, at a rate -- and counting -- that only a few others in history can match.

(Because Cruz's birthday is on July 1, the traditional cutoff date for tracking a player's seasonal age, he tends to play havoc with defined age on various sites, meaning you might see slightly different numbers depending on where you look. This method is simply showing the current year minus a player's birth year.)

The other names on that list have their own stories, of course. Sauer missed some time in his twenties serving in World War II. Bichette's power surge coincided with a move to pre-humidor ballparks in Colorado. Martinez, Downing and Ibanez -- like Cruz -- not only grew into their power late, but bypassed early-career issues with playing time opportunities by giving up the glove for designated hitter. Bautista's late-career mechanical-fueled breakout has been well documented.

(The elephant in the room, obviously, is the 50-game suspension he accepted late in 2013 season for violating the terms of MLB's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. We can't, and won't, look past that, even though he later attempted to explain what happened, other than to point out the fact that in the six seasons before and including 2013, his line was .274/.336/.515 [122 OPS+], and in the six seasons after, it's been 282/.359/.551 [147 OPS+]. Whatever damage he did to his reputation, it's too simplistic and almost certainly incorrect to simply credit his late-career surge to that.)

Last winter, when Cruz was a free agent looking for a new home, we looked at his recent track record and attempted to find comparables based on age and hitter type, settling on 15 good names ranging from Jason Giambi and Chipper Jones to Gary Sheffield and Jim Thome. We found that 13 of the 15 who played at age 38 posted strong seasons, which gave us hope that someone -- we mentioned the Twins as a possible suitor -- would be optimistic about signing him.

He did eventually sign with Minnesota, and they merely have the highest slugging percentage of any team in history. Cruz is having the seventh-best hitting season by any player who's ever suited up for the Senators or Twins. He is, again, 39 years old, well past the age when most Major League players of recent vintage have shown difficulty in proving their worth.

"Sometimes you can’t really believe what you’re watching," Baldelli said in July. "It’s that impressive.”