Nelson Cruz Is Not An Outfielder


It’s no secret that Nelson Cruz‘s Seattle Mariners tenure is off to a great start. Nine home runs! .693 slugging percentage! Go to the Fangraphs leaderboards and sort by wRC+. That’s a park-adjusted hitting statistic that measures overall offensive value added, with 100 representing league average. Nellie is fifth in all of baseball. More impressively, he’s doing it with just a .280 BABIP, whereas the lowest number for anyone in front of him is .367. He isn’t relying on luck – just brute force.

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But that’s not the only leaderboard where you’ll find Cruz. Sort by Def, which is a go-to defensive metric. Up at the top you’ll see Jon Jay and A.J. Pollock, among others. Now click the word Def again to get the anti-leaderboard, if you will. Who’s that up there at the top? Why, that’s Nelson Cruz!

Cruz is indeed tied with Prince Fielder for the least defensive value added in all of Major League Baseball thus far. He’s been a top five hitter in all of MLB, but due to his misadventures in the outfield he’s only been worth 0.6 WAR – the same as the afformentioned Jay, who’s got a wRC+ of 68. Baseball’s best defender and baseball’s worst defender have been equally valuable, despite one player having been nearly three times as valuable at the plate.

We knew going in that Cruz was a nightmarishly bad outfielder, but the team alleviated those fears in part by announcing his signing as the signing of a DH. No big deal, we sighed – he’ll have limited chances to tank his own value by playing the field. So far, he’s played 130 innings in the outfield – more than any Mariner aside from Austin Jackson.

A big part of the plan for this team appeared to be Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith platooning in right, but so far that hasn’t happened. Sure, there was Smith’s opening day injury, which gave Cruz an opportunity to grab some starts. But it’s now been several weeks of this, and he’s been every bit the butcher he was supposed to be defensively. Ruggiano and Smith have played a combined 77.1 innings of defense – and each of them have contributed positive value out there.

It makes no sense, on the surface. The team has two decent defenders in Smith and Ruggiano, and both have been getting it done at the plate, too. The Mariners would rather obviously be a better team if they would just stop playing their worst defender every day and sitting superior options. The Mariners are four games back of the Astros for the AL West lead. Seems like they should be trying to make that gap up any way they can, right?

Except there’s the comfort angle. There’s always the comfort angle. Every player says they hit better when they get the chance to also play the field, and Cruz is no exception. There’s some truth in this assertion, as the DH penalty has been found to be a very real thing. Cruz thinks that if he doesn’t play defense he’ll hit worse, and the M’s aren’t willing to risk finding out if that’s true by taking him out of right.

First off, it’s important that we acknowledge that Cruz is going to hit worse no matter what. He’s not going to keep this up, if only because he’s slugging .693. Nobody’s slugged that high since 2004 Barry Bonds. Nelson Cruz is not Barry Bonds. This much should be obvious.

It’s equally important that we recognize that the Mariners are actively making themselves worse by choosing to go this route. Cruz-on-defense provides less value than Smith-or-Ruggiano-on-defense, even given his advantage at the plate. DHing him might make him worse, but it won’t turn him into Willie Bloomquist. Meanwhile, he’s literally the least valuable defender in the game of baseball. That’s what they’re choosing, on purpose, because they’re superstitious that if they stop letting him suck in right that he’ll turn into a plate pumpkin.

Nonsense. Nelson Cruz, full-time outfielder is nonsense. He was an excellent hitter last year with Baltimore despite starting half his games as DH. He’s on pace to play way more defense this year, and he’s clearly not any better than he used to be. Which is to say, he sucks on defense. The Mariners need to win as many games as possible. Their best bet of doing that is to keep Nelson Cruz off the field as much as possible.

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