Player Profile: Nelson Cruz

Feb 27, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz (23) poses for a photo during media day at Peoria Sports Complex . Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 27, 2016; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners right fielder Nelson Cruz (23) poses for a photo during media day at Peoria Sports Complex . Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /

Nelson Cruz surprised everyone in the baseball world with an excellent 2015 season. Can he reproduce last season in 2016?

I was one of many who took the under on the Nelson Cruz home run total for 2015. Coming into his first season with the Mariners, Cruz hit 40 home runs in 2014 with Baltimore during his age-33 season. His previous career high in home runs before his first and only year with the Orioles was 33. There were all kinds of reasons I and most baseball fans and writers thought he wouldn’t approach 40 homes runs with the Mariners in 2015.

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Nelson Cruz was headed into his age-34 season, we said. His bat speed has to begin slowing at some point in the near future. He’s coming to a pitcher-friendly park, we said. Certainly 81 games at Safeco Field won’t do well for his power numbers. He’s a free agent signed by the Mariners, so he couldn’t possible perform above expectations, right?

I and every sports writer I read before the season started in 2015 was wrong. Cruz blasted 44 home runs, setting a new career high and hit over .300 for a full season—the first time in his career (he hit .318 for Texas in 2010, but only played 108 games). His OPS was a wonderful .936.

Nelson Cruz
Is Nelson Cruz’s success the result of a new commitment to health or a slightly new approach at the plate? Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports /

Nelson Cruz’s numbers weren’t radically different from his year in Baltimore, but if you take a look at Cruz’s 2013 and his 2014, the change is remarkable. A spike in strikeouts, but also a spike in walks and home runs. Is this emblematic of a different approach at the plate? It’s hard to say without sitting down with a swing doctor and examining the 1789 plate appearances Cruz made from 2013 to 2015.

But he had never hit more than 33 home runs in a season before 2014, never had more than 49 walks in a season before 2014, and struck out 140 times in 2014 and 164 times in 2015 after only striking out 140 times once in his previous nine seasons. Some of this could be due to health. Before the Baltimore year in which he played 159 games, Nelson Cruz averaged only 100 games a season with Texas. Whether he has started taking his health more seriously or he’s swinging harder at pitches, the results have been there and it seems unlikely that he’ll taper off dramatically in 2016.

If Nelson Cruz did indeed make an alteration to his game after his final season with Texas in 2013, the Mariners will reap the rewards. Cruz, despite striking out 164 times last year in leading my fantasy team, Cruzin for a Bruisin, to a league championship, established career highs in hits (178), runs scored (90), and walks (59) He played 152 games, more than he had appeared in for Texas in a season except for 2012, when he appeared in 159 games. Whatever he did to boost his numbers and stay healthy in 2014 and 2015, it’s working. And barring injury, there’s no reason to expect less than 40+ home runs from the Boom Stick in 2016.

It’s difficult to predict 40+ home runs for any player over the age of 30, however. In current state of Major League Baseball, home runs are getting rarer every year. In the post-steroid era, predicting over 30 home runs after a player’s 30th birthday is a tough sell. Nelson Cruz proved he can perform at a high level at age 34 last season. If that performance is the result of a rejuvenated Nelson Cruz with a new approach designed to smash home runs, we can expect more of the same from Cruz in 2016. The question is at what point will Cruz’s age catch up with him.

Next: Player Profile: Robinson Cano

My guess is 2016 will not be the year Nelson Cruz forgets how to hit home runs.