Nelson Cruz has become one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball by improving one aspect of his hitting this season.
There really isn’t a corollary for what Nelson Cruz is doing this season, or over the last few years of his career. The history of baseball is thin on players who didn’t make an impact until their age-28 season, and even thinner on those who had their best years in their mid-30s. Cruz falls into both buckets. A late bloomer, Cruz didn’t play a full season until 2009, when he turned 29 about halfway through the season. He hit 33 homers and slugged .524 that season, but still it was unlikely that he would remain a feared hitter deep into his 30s.
From 2011 through '13, Cruz seemed to settle into that destiny. He hit between 24 and 29 homers each of those three seasons, and averaged a .263/.319/.489 slash line. Those are the stats of an above-average major league hitter, but they aren’t superstar numbers. Heading into his age-33 season of 2014, no one would have guessed Cruz would come off that path. Then he hit 40 bombs and slugged .525 last season, and broke pretty much every PECOTA projection known to man.
Cruz has continued right along that path this season. Through 43 games and 182 plate appearances, he’s hitting .343/.401/.699 with a league-leading 17 homers. Cruz has essentially defied every single career projection metric with any predictive value. For the purposes of this week’s Hitting Report, we’re not interested in whether or not he can keep doing it. Recent history suggests he will, regardless of what the most sophisticated analysis would tell us. We’re more interested in how he has done it. While there are multiple factors at play, the way Cruz has handled pitches away the last two seasons stands out above the rest.
Heading into the 2014 season, Cruz had a career slugging percentage of .449 on pitches on or just off the outer third of the plate, according to Brooks Baseball. Essentially, Cruz was a dead pull power hitter that pitchers could take advantage of with pitches away. Most hitters don’t change their stripes this late in their careers, but Cruz isn’t most hitters. Last season, he slugged .526 on pitches that were on or beyond the outer third. Somehow, he has been even better in 2015. Below is his slugging percentage by zone this season.
Cruz is slugging .681 on pitches away from him this year. Just two seasons ago, pitchers were able to eliminate Cruz’s power by keeping everything away from him, especially if they fed him a steady diet of breaking balls, but that is no longer the case. Cruz has proved this year that he can handle the pitch away, and that has made him a fundamentally different hitter. It also makes him, at 34 years old, one of the most dangerous hitters in the game.
Hitters of the Week
Mike Napoli, Boston Red Sox: .429 (9-for-21), 5 HR, 6 R, 10 RBI, .500 OBP
Napoli was a popular bounceback candidate this season, but because he was largely terrible for the first six weeks of the year, he’s likely on his second owner at this point. That owner probably scooped him with alacrity after the week just put in the books. Napoli got nine hits in six games, with five of those hits leaving the yard. He was especially dominant in a weekend series with his old team, blasting the Angels for four bombs and eight RBI. Even after the hot streak, he’s hitting just .203/.304/.420 this season, but his value has always been tied up in walks and homers. His walk rate is at a robust 12.7%, and he now has eight roundtrippers on the year. He’s still available in about 50% of leagues, and can be useful, especially in leagues that have a corner infielder starting spot.
A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks: .400 BA (12-for-30), 1 HR, 8 R, 3 RBI, 4 SB, .419 OBP
Pollock’s week got off to an inauspicious start, as he went 0-for-6 in an extra-inning loss to the Marlins. That long, rough night earned him a day off the next game, but he appeared as a pinch-hitter and blasted a game-winning two-run homer in the eighth inning. launching him into a monster week. Over the next five games, Pollock went 11-for-23 and swiped four bags. An injury railroaded what looked like a breakout 2014 campaign, but he has picked up right where he left off. He’s now slashing .313/.355/.444 with four homers, 10 steals and 30 runs scored. He’s the No. 8 outfielder in standard 5x5 head-to-head leagues, trailing Bryce Harper, Nelson Cruz, Justin Upton, Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton and Starling Marte. That’s rather heady company for the 27-year-old.
Prince Fielder, Texas Rangers: .440 BA (11-for-25), 3 HR, 5 R, 9 RBI, .481 OBP
Fielder has been hitting the ball well all season, but his owners have been waiting patiently for the power to come around. They were rewarded last week, as Fielder circled the bases three times, all of which came in the weekend series with the Yankees. Fielder lit up the Yankees to the tune of 8-for-14 with those three homers and nine RBI. All told, he has been one of the comeback players of the 2015 season, hitting .358/.412/.551 with eight homers and 32 RBI through his first 44 games. He’s ranked 21st overall in standard leagues, and trails only Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer among first basemen.
Hitters of the Weak
Adam LaRoche, Chicago White Sox: .091 BA (2-for-22), 0 HR, 2 R, 0 RBI, .259 OBP
LaRoche has not provided the left-handed pop the White Sox were desperately hoping for when they signed him in the offseason. That came to a head last week, when he got just two hits while the team dropped five of seven games to the Indians and Twins. LaRoche is hitting .213/.351/.346 this season, with four homers in 154 plate appearances. The only offensive value he’s providing the team is via his 16.9% walk rate, but that doesn’t do a whole lot to offset a pathetic .134 isolated slugging percentage. At this point, LaRoche should only be owned in deep mixed and AL-only leagues. He simply isn’t producing enough to roster him in standard 12-team mixed leagues.
Avisail Garcia, Chicago White Sox: .125 BA (2-for-16), 0 HR, 0 R, 1 RBI, .222 OBP
Clearly LaRoche wasn’t the only anemic bat in the White Sox’s lineup last week. Garcia, who had previously been one of the hottest hitters in the majors, missed two games because of a knee injury, and that likely curbed his production before Robin Ventura gave him a few days off to rest. He went 1-for-14 in the four-game series with the Indians after getting seven hits, including a homer, in a three-game series in Oakland to end the prior week. He went 1-for-2 on Sunday before being lifted for a pinch hitter after the Twins jumped out to a big lead. Hopefully for the White Sox, as well as Garcia’s fantasy owners, that was a sign that he just needed to get off the knee for a couple of days. He’s still enjoying a fine age-23 season, slashing .322/.361/.452 with four homers in 38 games.
Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds: .063 BA (1-for-16), 0 HR, 1 R, 1 RBI, .059 OBP
Cozart spent a good chunk of the last three weeks hitting way over his head, and that had him heading into action last week sporting a .300/.358/.525 slash line with six homers on the season. All that came crashing down during a more Cozartian performance last week. He played just four games, getting one hit—a single—while posting an OBP that was worse than his batting average. The week sent his season slash line tumbling to .272/.325/.471. Even that is likely to be better than where he finishes the season. Cozart does have modest power, so he can be an asset in deeper mixed leagues, but no one should have been bluffed by a few hot weeks from the known commodity. He didn’t suddenly turn into a top-five shortstop.
Buy, sell or hold
Buy: Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies
Tulowitzki is hitting .274/.289/.418 with just two homers in 152 plate appearances this season. We’ve never seen this poor a stretch from Tulowitzki for this long. That alone makes him a worthy player to try to buy. On top of that, Tulo has a 44.4% hard-hit rate, which is the fourth highest in the majors. Now, that on its own is not a guarantee of future success. However, some other members of the top 10 in hard-hit rate include Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, Matt Carpenter and Mike Trout. Tulowitzki has earned plenty of his uncharacteristically poor slash line, but he’s also been a touch on the unlucky side. It’s not often that you can even think about buying Tulowitzki from his owner. Now is one of those times. You have to do your due diligence and check in on him to see if he can be had.
Sell: Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants
There’s one caveat here, and it’s related to the shortstop position. There’s a strong chance that you’re relying on Crawford as your starting shortstop right now, and that any potential replacements that would come via trade or the waiver wire aren’t very attractive. If that’s the case, you’d have to think twice about selling Crawford, who has largely earned his stats to this point of the season. If you have or can get a capable replacement, however, Crawford could return a haul in the open market, and part of that owes to the alluded-to shallowness of the shortstop pool.
Crawford is the top-ranked shortstop in standard leagues, and just seven players who qualify at the position are ranked inside the top 150. Chances are that at least half of your league would be happy to upgrade at shortstop. This has little to do with Crawford’s performance. He’s hitting .301/.382/.514 with six homers, and those numbers are supported by a 38.8% hard-hit rate that ranks 20th in the majors. This is more about an allocation of resources. An owner desperate for a shortstop may be willing to give you more than Crawford is worth, simply because they can’t keep running Alexei Ramirez or Elvis Andrus or Alcides Escobar out there day after day. If you can afford to lose Crawford, now’s the time to make him available.
Hold: Stephen Vogt, Oakland Athletics
What more can you say about Vogt, other than that if Moneyball were written today, he’d relegate Scott Hatteberg to a supporting role, at best. Vogt is slashing .306/.408/.605 with 10 homers and 33 RBI in 42 games this season, and has provided the greatest return on investment of any player in the league. Any time a player comes out of nowhere and hits like Babe Ruth across a two-month sample at 30 years old, as Vogt has this season, there’s an obvious temptation to sell high. Vogt, however, is earning his success. It starts with a 15.1% walk rate, which suggests that he’s forcing pitchers to come after him to get him out. Secondly, his .298 BABIP is completely sustainable and right in line with his batted-ball rates. Vogt is the No. 23-ranked player in standard fantasy leagues, and there’s reason to believe that he can remain a top-30 player for the rest of the season. If you trade him, do not assume you are selling high.
Jon Singleton, 1B, Houston Astros
The fantasy community has seen a big Triple-A season from Singleton before, only for it to fizzle out once he got to the majors. Last year, Singleton slashed .267/.397/.544 with 14 homers in 54 games at the Triple-A level, but struggled once the Astros promoted him. He hit just .168/.285/.335 with Houston and struck out in 37% of his plate appearances. That’s not to say that Singleton will repeat that performance this year. It’s only to point that Triple-A success is no guarantee of a future in the majors.
Having said that, Singleton has been one of the best hitters in all of the minors this season. He’s slashing .291/.399/.646 with 14 homers in 42 games with Triple-A Fresno this season. There’s little doubt he’ll be with the big league club soon again. Chris Carter has struggled mightily this year, hitting just .170/.281/.327 with a laughable 36.3% strikeout rate. Sooner or later, the Astros are going to give the 23-year-old Singleton another chance. When they do, fantasy owners are going to want to be ready to pounce. He has cut his Triple-A strikeout rate to 18.6% from 21.8% last year. Once he gets to Houston, he can have an immediate fantasy impact in the power categories. Even if he results in a loss in rates, there’s enough power potential to make him an intriguing prospect in fantasy leagues of all formats.
GIF of the Week
Behind-the-back passes are usually reserved for the likes of Stephen Curry and LeBron James this time of year. Alcides Escobar wants to show those guys that he can ball a little bit, too.