Cruz has fallen back to Earth after a scorching start. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Should The Baltimore Orioles Worry About Nelson Cruz?

It’s close to playoff time. The Baltimore Orioles know it, and their fans do too. Since I count myself as a member of the latter group, I want the team to go far once it inevitably reaches the postseason; since I am one of the more sabermetrically-inclined members of said group, I like to analyze the statistics of various players, to predict the level of their contribution (or lack thereof) to the club’s hypothetical October success. Last week, I looked at Chris Tillman, whose current hot streak gave me hope for his future; today, I’ll turn in the opposite direction, and examine Nelson Cruz‘s slump.

By now, you’ve obviously heard about Cruz’s outstanding season with the Orioles. Regardless of where he ends up, the one-year, $8 million contract he signed will almost certainly be a significant underpay. Currently, his WAR sits at a healthy 2.5; even if he plays poorly enough in September to bring that down to, say, two wins, the Orioles will have still paid about $4 million per win. Last offseason, depending on which methodology you use, a win cost an average of at least $5 million, and probably something closer to $6 million.

But the bargain of Cruz’s deal won’t offer the Orioles much solace if the Oakland Athletics or Detroit Tigers knock them out in the divisional round. No, the Birds care about what Cruz will do for them going forward, and if that means more of what he’s done lately, they’ll probably be better off without him.

Let’s take a step back. On July 7th, in the first of three games against the Washington Nationals, Cruz had three hits, one of which left the yard, in five trips to the dish. That successful outing pumped his triple-slash up to .294/.359/.591, with a .405 wOBA and a 160 wRC+. Suffice to say, he was hitting well. Since then…not so much. In the past month-and-a-halfish, he has utterly collapsed; his batting line for the games since then is a sickly .160/.241/.319, which translates to a .250 wOBA and a 53 wRC+. Because of this, his seasonal stats (.254/.323/.510, .358 wOBA, 127 wRC+) are much worse than they were when Baltimore began The Battle of the Beltways.

So will Cruz bust out of this funk? And if he does, will he be the dominant Cruz the Orioles had earlier, or the cromulent one he’s been for the season as a whole? Let’s compare his stats from before and after July 8th. We’ll start with the core four: strikeout and walk rates, batting average on balls in play, and isolated power.

3/31-7/7 379 9.0% 19.8% .297 .300
7/9-8/25 162 8.6% 21.6% .160 .162

The first thing I noticed is that, unlike his slump-mate Chris Davis, Cruz hasn’t fanned much more often despite his hitting woes. Furthermore, he hasn’t seen a dropoff in free passes, as the above numbers would have you think; while pitchers intentionally walked him seven times in the first sample, they have done so only once since. This means that his unintentional walk rate has actually increased, from 7.3% to 8.1%. Removing the walks for which he didn’t work also changes his pre- and post-downturn strikeout rates to 20.2% and 21.7%, respectively — even less of a difference. As a whole, though, his plate discipline hasn’t changed.

A quick look at PITCHf/x confirms this stagnation:

Period O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
3/31-7/7 32.6% 69.2% 50.1% 54.7% 84.8% 74.6% 47.8%
7/9-8/25 33.4% 66.8% 47.9% 53.9% 88.3% 74.7% 43.4%

He swings at about the same amount of pitches outside the zone (which explains the mostly equal walk rate), and his sudden ability to make more contact offsets his newfound willingness to take looking strikes (which explains the mostly equal strikeout rate).

The change, then, comes from Cruz’s BABIP and ISO, which have declined precipitously — the former, from elite level to about major-league-average; the latter, from about major-league-average to abysmal. His batted-ball profile helps to confirm this shift:

Period LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB
3/31-7/7 17.20% 40.30% 42.50% 10.50% 24.60%
7/9-8/25 11.70% 38.70% 49.50% 12.70% 10.90%

Since August 9th, Cruz has simply stopped hitting line drives, in favor of fly balls, killing his BABIP in the process. This might pay off as a means of selling out for power, except that his greater quantity of air balls hasn’t brought with it quality.

Before Cruz donned the Baltimore orange, his fly balls went an average of 300.6 feet. From the beginning of the season to July 7th, he did slightly better than that, with 303.2 feet of distance; from July 9th until now, he has done considerably worse than that, with 278.4 feet of distance. To put those numbers in perspective: The former, for the full 2014 campaign, would rank 11th among all hitters, the latter 148th. 281 players have come to bat so far, so he has basically declined from the 96th percentile to the 47th.

Cruz also hasn’t hit the ball harder lately. Prior to his game on July 7th, his well-hit average (the percentage of his at-bats that ended with a hard-hit ball) stood at 20.7%, 30th in baseball. By Monday, it was 19.0%, good for 54th. That’s for 2014 as a whole, not just the span of his slump; this means that he has made even weaker contact as of late. While WHAV isn’t yet a scientific or non-proprietary statistic, his relatively low ranking in it (along with his aforementioned shorter fly balls) would seem to, unfortunately, give credit to his depreciation.

Again, though, we care about what Cruz will do going forward. Do these developments cast doubt on his potential to improve the club in the short- or long-term?

Well, a major-league-average non-pitcher strikes out in 19.8% of his plate appearances. So if Cruz sustains this pace of punchouts, he’ll only be marginally worse than that. We can say the same about his unintentional free pass clip, which — if it hangs around its current area — should compare fairly well to the MLB-wide 7.3% figure.

However, the plate appearances in which he doesn’t strike out or walk don’t inspire confidence. And while poor fortune undoubtedly plays a role in his recent struggles — no hitter has a true-talent .162 BABIP — his peripherals show a changed man, one who doesn’t possess nearly the clout that he did earlier in the year, or even before that. For a player who derives all of his value from his bat, and who derives all of that value from his power, this could be disaster. Hopefully, the Orioles realize this, and act accordingly.

All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

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