Nelson Cruz: All aboard the regression train?

May 2015 did not look all that different from May 2014 for Nelson Cruz. In his first season with the Seattle Mariners, Cruz hit eight home runs and drove in 16 while slashing .346/.407/.607. Last May, with the Baltimore Orioles, Cruz hit 13 home runs to go along with 27 RBIs and a .339/.388/.748 line. He followed up May last year with a June that saw him bat only .215 with five home runs and 14 RBIs. July and August were not much better, as Cruz batted .211 and .216 in those months with only 10 more home runs.

Of the 40 home runs Cruz hit for the Orioles last season, 20 were hit in the first two months of the season before he entered a massive summer swoon. He’s already got 18 through the first two months of the season this year, but is a massive regression due just like last year? It’s certainly quite possible, as Cruz has slashed only .237/.308/.373 in his last 15 games with two home runs.

Cruz’s batting average peaked at .361 on May 14. Over his past 19 games, that average has plummeted rapidly, down to .319. While that is still a great average, the drop of over 40 points is significant when considering whether or not Cruz, a career .271 hitter, can keep up the high average when he has batted over .270 in a full season only once.

To determine whether Cruz was due for a big regression, you need to turn your attention to his fly balls this season. Cruz has seen 23.7% of his fly balls go for home runs this season. After batting .184 on fly balls last season, he is batting .255 on fly balls this season. Neither of those numbers is sustainable. Cruz is continuing to rake on line drives, perhaps better than any hitter in the game of baseball. Over the past two seasons, Cruz has hit 22 home runs on line drives and batted .736 when making line drive contact. That does say something about his ability to hit the ball on the nose with power.

Most of the noise surrounding Cruz’s eventual downfall this offseason centered around his age. Cruz is nearly 35-years-old, and is nearing the age when high-strikeout rate type power hitters like himself begin to slow down. If you want to try and look for this type of decline, check a hitter’s pull rate. If a hitter’s bat is slowing down, he will not be pulling the ball as much. With the Orioles last season, Cruz pulled the ball or hit it up the middle 65% of the time. In 2015, he has done that only 54% of the time. To me, that is a significant decline, and a big red flag for the future. Cruz has good opposite field power, but as he ages and his bat slows, that will be the first thing to go.

The other big concern with Cruz was how he would handle spacious Safeco Field. Cruz had spent the majority of his career playing in hitter friendly ballparks. Already, it is quite evident that the cavernous home of the Mariners will indeed steal some of his production. For his career, Cruz has homered roughly every 17 at-bats in his home stadium. In Safeco, that has climbed all the way to one home run every 31 at-bats. As he begins pulling the ball less frequently, and more of his line drives and fly balls head towards the right side of the diamond, he will not be able to reverse that trend.

In short, the Nelson Cruz of April and May was a good story, but not a sustainable one. He was not exactly feasting on the toughest of pitchers, or pitchers who were familiar with him, as evidenced by his four home runs in three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Some of the illustrious names he has taken deep this year include Ross Detwiler, Wandy Rodriguez, David Huff, and Frank Garces. Clearly good hitters do damage against bad pitchers, but Cruz has done his damage almost exclusively against below average pitching. Besides the crazy rate at which his fly balls are turning into home runs, Cruz is doing everything at exactly the same rate he did it the rest of his career. He may continue to beat his career HR/FB ratio of 15.1% the rest of the season, but only by a few points, and definitely not nearly nine. As fewer of his fly balls leave the park, that average will continue to be dragged down closer to his career levels, exactly like it was last year for the Orioles, thanks to his high strikeout rate.

I sincerely hope that everyone in Seattle has enjoyed the first two months of superhuman Nelson Cruz. He may very well give you a few more months like this over the course of his contract, but for now, hop aboard the regression train, because it has officially left the station.

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