Nelson Cruz Could Have Been on Your Team

Nelson Cruz compiled yet another solid campaign for a corner outfielder, hitting .263/.312/.509 with 29 home runs in 124 games. The 31-year-old Dominican has always been known for his behemoth-like raw power and featured that brute strength on Monday afternoon in a three home-run game against the Detroit Tigers, including a walk-off grand slam — the first ever in postseason play.

(Robin Ventura hit a walk-off grand slam in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS for the New York Mets — but his teammates mobbed him after rounding first base, so he was technically only awarded a single.)

Cruz came up through the Brewers’ organization and was rated the #8 prospect in the system by Baseball America in 2005. In three separate cups of coffee in the big leagues, though, he was clearly overmatched and acquired the dreaded “Quad-A” label that plagues so many power-hitting prospects from the Pacific Coast League.

That derogatory label has since been demolished, much like Cruz does with a belt-high, 90 MPH fastball down the center of the plate.

Amidst his ascension from Quad-A player to an All-Star type player with 84 home runs over the past three seasons, it’s easy to forget that Nelson Cruz could be playing for your favorite team right now.

That’s right. Every single team in Major League Baseball had a chance to claim Cruz off waivers for a mere $20,000 in April of 2008, when Texas opted to keep outfielder Jason Botts on the 25-man roster and designate Cruz for minor league assignment.

No general manager made the call.

Everyone saw the player that hit just .223/.261/.385 in 41 games in 2006 and .235/.287/.384 in 96 games in 2007. Everyone saw the player that flailed at the outside breaking ball and could not barrel anything consistently without his arms fully extended. Opposing pitchers simply busted him inside and finished him off with a slider or curveball low-and-away.

So what changed in 2008 — the season in which he hit 44 home runs between Triple-A and the majors?

The majority of people assume Cruz’s improvements stemmed from his ability to cut down his strikeout rate from 26.1% in 2007 to 21.1% in 2008. Furthering that line of argument, he also chased more pitches out of the zone in 2007 (relative to league average) than in his breakout 2008 season.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. His SwStr% is back north of 13% in 2011 and he is once again swinging at more pitches outside the zone than the league-average player. Yet Nelson Cruz continues to be productive with a .352 wOBA.

Much like Jose Bautista and his leg kick alteration, the key to Cruz’s transformation at the plate was a mechanical adjustment. After being sent down to the minors once again in 2007, farm director Scott Servais suggested that Cruz open up his stance. Cruz obliged. This immediately allowed him to recognize pitches (particularly breaking balls) better, as well as finally cover the inside portion of the plate.

Cruz fundamentally changed as a baseball player. People inside the baseball community started to notice, including the Hanshin Tigers in Japan. Hanshin reportedly coveted Cruz in 2008 and tried to acquire him from the Rangers (link includes a bonus Lew Ford reference). Obviously, the Rangers wanted to keep the Dominican outfielder for themselves, which turned out to be a quality decision by Jon Daniels.

The simple adjustment of opening his batting stance saved Nelson Cruz’s career as a professional baseball player. Since making that change, he owns a .283/.345/.540 triple-slash line and has belted 89 doubles and 91 home runs. He became a first-time All-Star in 2009. He has even accumulated 11.8 WAR. Not bad for a Quad-A player without a discernible major league career.

So, the next time Nelson Cruz is trotting around the base path after hitting a mammoth home run into the second deck in Arlington, remember … he could be playing for your favorite team right now. For a paltry $20,000.




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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

26 Responses to “Nelson Cruz Could Have Been on Your Team”

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  1. Mike Newman says:

    Excellent summation on Cruz. I just hope readers realize just how rare an occurrence this is in the grand scheme of things. The “Next Jose Bautista” references were crazy last season and sent me running for the closest toilet on many an occasion.

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  2. Mike Newman says:

    To give an example, I had an opposing owners in a dynasty league surmise Edwin Encarnacion, Wilson Betemit and Josh Fields were ALL potential the “Next Jose Bautista”.

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  3. CircleChange11 says:

    Amazing that only after years of not being able to handle inside pitches, someobe advised him to open his stance.

    That’s usuaaly the first move.

    Also, no batter has extended arms at the point of contact (except when reaching), it’s a weak and slow arm position. Extension occurs in the folloq through. At the point of contact, both arms ahould be bent, forming a triandle between them. Just talking because we always hear the “arms extended”. I suppose it’s a false dichotomy where the other option is being jammed.

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    • deadpool says:

      Well, I think its more of a platitude for casual observers. That bent arm position is more powerful when its an intermediate step towards full extension, so seeing a guy fully extended after contact is a good thing. Most people aren’t watching closely enough to tell the difference, but the ‘arms extended’ saying gives them something to look for.

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  4. DD says:

    Sure anyone could have had him – but would anyone else besides Servais changed his swing so effectively?

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  5. Any column with a Lew Ford reference is a-ok by me.

    Great column though. I remember watching Cruz take extra BP in the bowels of the Metrodome in like ’08, and thinking he just didn’t have it. What a transformation.

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  6. Ian says:

    I recall Phil Nevin having similar issues. Specifically, I recall Al Kaline saying that Nevin was easily the strongest player on the Tigers, and one of the strongest in the majors, but he’d never realize his potential until he learned balance, and how to extend his arms on inside pitches. You have to wonder how many players are a good coach away from becoming stars.

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  7. Nik says:

    As a Phils fan hoping that Mayberry Jr can follow in Cruz’s footpaths.

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  8. He is playing for one of my favorite teams: I drafted him back then on my keeper league. :^)

    Sigh, he would have been lovely in the Giants OF, that is for sure…

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  9. jake says:

    I like Nelson Cruz and all, but let’s not just ignore the fact that he threw up a 1.6 WAR season this year (though part of that may be stabilizing UZR).

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  10. joser says:

    Nelson Cruz could be playing for your team… and in June of 2008, in the pages of USSMariner, Dave Cameron suggested the M’s do exactly that. Unfortunately, they picked up the other Nelson a year later (as a free agent on a minor league deal, where he remained until he moved on to the Texas farm system… so now Texas possesses the Full Nelson).

    Aside: I’ve lost track* of how many years some post at USSM in June has begun with something like “Now that the season is officially toast…” At least this year it wasn’t until after the all-star break. Progress!

    * No I haven’t. The last year without that was 2003

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  11. Mitch says:

    Heck he started out in the Mets org!

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  12. King34 says:

    CircleChange – its actually the complete opposite of what you said. Opening his stance was to better identify pitches away…not his problem for the inside FB.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The same action can adress both scenarios.

      It gives the arms a little more room to operate (clear the zone, take your pick on the phrases and jargon) on inside pitches and is reputed to allow one to see breaking pitches better.

      The first I am certain is true, the latter (better to gauge away pitches) I think is more preference than certainty. I don;t have any personal experience with that one but have heard discussed multiple times. I don’t feel confident saying it’s a good idea or not.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Guys with open stances have pretty much relegated themselves to looking inner half and conceding everything else.

        To have an open stance and be able to “dive in” to go the other way while still being able to handle inside pitches is a lot to ask. Most of the players I see/know with open stances are committed to inner half and will just take or foul off anything that’s not (until they have no choice).

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Oops, meant to add that with the open stance poften comes an adjustment with the arms, most often moving them further away from the body.

        Honestly, after talking about this some more, even if just with myself … is that really all that’s taken place? Just opening his stance results in him going from 4A batter to above ML average?

        There’s gotta be more to it than that.

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      • Awesome says:

        Opening the stance can effect everything from bat speed to where the hands are in the zone. It may not even be the change in position as much as it is forcing the batter to mentally focus themselves on something besides killing the baseball, this may allow them to “get out of their own way”. Keeping players from nit picking themselves is an underrated part of coaching.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Not only that, but there’s differences in open stances, ranging from the open stance bat flat (Luis Gonzales, Adam Dunn) to the extreme open stance high hands (Craig Counsell) to slightly open elevated hands (Edgar Martinez).

        Some guys may do this for a better look, other to separate their hands form their body, others to prevent barring their front arm, keeping their front shoulder from flying open, and on and on.

        What we’d need to do is look at video before/after for Cruz and see what the open stance allows him to do that the closed or balanced stance did not.

        Even with all that said, the pitches Cruz blasted in the playoff game are generally not pitches that hitters have trouble with … elevated pitches, middle in. A lot of the “credit” has to be shared in part to the pitcher.

        Scherzer threw an inner pitch that Cruz blasted for a foul HR. Rather than going back outside with a change, which IMO is standard operating procedure for a guy that just demonstrated he’s ahead of a fastball. He came back with a fastball down the middle of the plate, letters high.

        The Grand Slam was set up to be a slider away and was a hanging rusty nail in the heart of the plate belt high. I sympathize with Adams, I’ve been there … and I’ve done that immediate walk off the field thing before. It sucks.

        What most know is that regardless of what a player does before the pitch, as the pitcher’s front foot lands, and the ball is at release point, almost all batters are in a similar position. It could be just a comfort thing for many guys.

        I keep watching the replays at mlb.com and damn those are some elevated pitches by both pitches. For Scherzer, the pitch was exactly where Avila was holding the glove. They wanted it letters high with 2-strikes.

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  13. Theon says:

    When will Michael Saunders turn in to Nelson Cruz??????

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  14. Ben says:

    For a right handed hitter with a dominant right eye, an open stance gives the hitter a split second longer to analyze the pitch with the dominant eye. All open stances have to “dive in” to a certain extent, but it still gives the dominant eye a better look at the pitch. In my opinion, the ideal stance for a right handed hitter with a dominant right eye is to begin open, and dive in to a position where your feet are approximately parallel with the inner edge of home plate. Going past that point makes inside pitches harder and not going that far makes it more difficult to stay on the outside pitches. This is jut my opinion, and I obviously understand that something different tends to work for each individual hitter, but it seems like this is the type of change that allowed Nelson Cruz to improve drastically.

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