Mariners' Nelson Cruz off to a historically hot start with home runs

Tuesday May 5th, 2015

At 11–15, the Mariners have gotten off to a slower-than-expected start this season, but don't blame Nelson Cruz. The 34-year-old slugger has hit 14 homers through Seattle's first 26 games, including five in the last six games, with his solo shot on Monday night helping the Mariners snap a four-game losing streak via a 3–2 win over the Angels in Anaheim.

Cruz's seventh-inning homer provided the first run in a pitcher's duel between Felix Hernandez and Matt Shoemaker. The 28-year-old Angels righty left an 86-mile-per-hour changeup over the inside part of the plate, and Cruz showed off his boomstick:

The home run was the first of five—all solo—hit by the two teams over the final three frames. The Mariners' Logan Morrison followed with a homer two batters later, the Angels' Matt Joyce countered in the bottom of the seventh, and then Seattle’s Seth Smith and Anaheim’s David Freese chipped in in the eighth and ninth, respectively.

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Racking up homers is nothing new for Cruz, of course, either in bulk or in bursts. Since the start of the 2009 season, his 189 homers rank fourth in the majors behind Miguel Cabrera (221), Jose Bautista and Albert Pujols (both 205). Last year, while playing for the Orioles in a season that produced the majors' lowest home run rate since 1992 (0.86 per team per game), he was the only major leaguer to reach 40. Thirteen of his homers came in May (amazingly, that was second to Edwin Encarnacion's 16 that same month), and 19 came across a 40-game span from April 20 to June 3.

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Cruz left Baltimore for Seattle in the off-season on a four-year, $57 million deal, and the concern was that Safeco Field would put a dent in his home run totals. After all, Camden Yards has the majors' fourth-highest home run rate for righties at 4.1% of all batted balls, while Safeco is 16th at 3.4%. But in both seasons, Cruz has done the majority of his yardwork on the road: 25 out of 40 last year, and 11 out of 14 this year.

Regardless of where he's been hitting them, Cruz has launched homers at an impressive rate so far. His 14 round-trippers through the Mariners' first 26 games tie him with four other players for the most in major league history—two familiar names from the past decade and one surprise from early in the Live Ball Era:

player

team

year

hr through 26

total

Cy Williams

Phillies

1923

14

41*

Mike Schmidt

Phillies

1976

14

38

Albert Pujols

Cardinals

2006

14

49

Alex Rodriguez Yankees

2007

14

54*

Nelson Cruz

Mariners

2015

14

??

Ken Keltner

Indians

1948

13

31

Eddie Mathews

Braves

1959

13

46*

Willie Mays

Giants

1964

13

47*

Mark McGwire

Athletics

1992

13

42

Ken Griffey Jr.

Mariners

1997

13

56*

Luis Gonzalez

Diamondbacks

2001

13

57

*led league

Additionally, 13 players homered 12 times in their team's first 26 games, ranging from Babe Ruth in 1921 (en route to 59 total) to Justin Upton in 2013 (nearly half of his final total of 27). As far as those who have landed in the upper reaches of the single-season leaderboard, here are the fastest sprints to 14 homers from among the players who finished the season with at least 50:

player

team

year

team games to 14

total

Alex Rodriguez

Yankees

2007

18

54

Luis Gonzalez

Diamondbacks

2001

27

57

Brady Anderson

Orioles

1996

28

50

Ken Griffey Jr.

Mariners

1997

28

56

Barry Bonds

Giants

2001

28

73

Jimmie Foxx

A's

1932

32

58

Willie Mays

Giants

1965

32

52

Babe Ruth

Yankees

1928

34

54

Cecil Fielder

Tigers

1990

34

51

Ken Griffey Jr.

Mariners

1998

34

56

Alas, as so often happens when talking about home run records, both lists prominently feature players who were linked to performance-enhancing drugs, either before or after their heavy-hitting starts. Cruz is among them, having served a 50-game suspension in connection with the Biogenesis clinic in 2013. It’s not unreasonable to be cynical about his accomplishments in the wake of that suspension, though it’s also worth remembering that the drug-testing program continues to grow in sophistication, and that having been suspended before, Cruz is now subject to additional testing.

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In all, Cruz is hitting .340/.382/.796 thus far, leading the AL in slugging percentage, total bases (82), OPS+ (228) and RBIs (26) as well as homers. It’s an encouraging start to his time in Seattle, but thus far, he’s been virtually a one-man band. Even with his outburst helping the team to the league’s second-highest home run total at 34, Morrison (four homers) and Dustin Ackley (three) are the only other Mariners with more than two home runs, and thanks to the team’s league-worst .288 on-base percentage, only three of Cruz’s 14 homers have come with men on base. Among the Mariners’ other regulars, only Smith, a platoon DH, has an OPS+ above 95 or a slugging percentage above .389. That helps to explain why Seattle ranks 13th in the league in scoring at 3.65 runs per game, more than three-quarters of a run below the AL average of 4.43. Couple that with a pitching staff allowing 4.62 runs per game, and it’s a ticket for a sub-.500 record.

Thanks to the Astros’ hot start—including six wins in seven games versus Seattle—the Mariners already find themselves seven games back in the AL West, tied with the Angels and just half a game ahead of the A’s. They still have plenty of time to turn their season around, but there’s no realistic way that Cruz can keep up his torrid pace, or that the team can get anywhere close to the playoffs without Robinson Cano (career-low .645 OPS) and the rest of Cruz’s fellow hitters stepping up to share the load.

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