Nelson Cruz: Meet Safeco Field

On Monday, one of the more anticipated transactions of the past two off-seasons finally came to pass: Nelson Cruz finally signed with the Mariners. Seattle’s interest in him dates back to at least last winter, but for various reasons, he ended up settling for a one year, $8 million deal with the Orioles for 2014 in order to re-establish his value. 40 home runs later, and Cruz is finally cashing in, landing a $58 million deal that will carry him through his age-37 season.

Now, however, his movable force will meet the irresistible object that is Safeco Field, the most pitcher-friendly park — especially for right-handed hitters — in the game. How might his new home treat him over the duration of his contract?

As a caveat, I should note that I spent five years as a member of the Seattle Mariners’ front office, so I have some experience in trying to to build teams to play in this particular environment. An extreme home park — like Safeco, Fenway or Coors Field — not only presents challenges, but it can present opportunities as well. These extreme tendencies can be exploited. the Red Sox, therefore, can get much more mileage out of a fly ball hitter, the Rockies can get more out of a ground ball pitcher, and the Mariners can get more out of an extreme fly ball hurler such as Chris Young.

Prior to the 2013 season, the decision was made to move in the fences at Safeco by varying amounts from the left field line all the way around to right-center field. They were moved in by as much as 17 feet in deepest left-center field. The best case for making this move? To make Safeco more attractive to free agent hitters, particularly righties, who had made their aversion to Safeco well known. Now, the fences have been set at their new dimensions for two full seasons, and guess what? Safeco is still extremely pitcher-friendly, though slightly less than it used to be.

Each year, I calculate my own park factors, based on granular batted-ball data. Basically, I compare the actual results of each batted ball hit in each park to what each batted ball of that approximate speed and angle would have produced in a neutral environment. Give each actual and projected event a run value, and divide the actual average run value per 27 outs to the projected average run value per 27 outs, and voila, you have your park factors, adjusted for batted ball quality.

Below you will see the single-season overall and fly ball park factors for each field sector of Safeco for 2012-14. Also listed are the single, double, triple and homer park factors (to all fields combined) for those three seasons:

2014 92.7 60.7 78.3 93.5 86.0 82.8
2013 87.0 78.8 85.2 104.2 91.5 88.2
2012 76.5 58.9 77.4 69.8 76.4 69.9
—————- ———- ———– ———- ———- ———- ———-
2014 72.7 36.1 72.9 57.4 101.1 66.2
2013 62.9 60.8 49.7 90.2 118.1 71.8
2012 53.3 32.1 35.0 46.8 59.9 41.5
—————- ———- ———– ———- ———- ———- ———-
2014 99 84 56 84
2013 98 104 67 80
2012 98 75 66 61

The table shows that even after the fences were moved in, Safeco remained an extreme pitchers’ park. In 2012, its overall park factor of 69.9 means that Safeco reduced offense by 30.1%, while in 2013 and 2014 (overall park factors of 88.2 and 82.8), it did so by 11.8% and 17.2%, respectively.

Narrowing down the focus to fly balls only, the 2012 park factor of 41.5 – reduction of offense on fly balls by 58.5% – has moderated to 71.8 and 66.2 in 2013 and 2014, for offensive reductions of 28.2% and 33.8% in those seasons. The fence move has changed Safeco from cavernous to slightly less so; it still ranked as the most pitcher-friendly park overall and specifically with respect to fly balls in 2014, narrowly edging out AT&T Park on both counts. You know, that place where three recent vintage World Series flags now fly? An extreme park is not necessarily a bad thing.

Safeco remains a very difficult place in which to hit a home run, though its homer park factor has increased from 61 in 2012 to 80 and 84 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Many parks that yield plenty of homers are stingy with doubles, and vice versa. Yankee Stadium hemorrhages homers (155 homer park factor in 2014), but allows relatively few doubles (85). Miller Park (131, 95), Minute Maid Park (111, 98), and Tropicana Field (109, 94) all fit similar molds.

Fenway Park is the most double-friendly park in the game — 131 overall doubles park factor in 2014 — but its homer park factor was just 91 last season. Target Field (113, 95), Kauffman Stadium (103, 85) and Busch Stadium (107, 78) all followed a similar pattern. Safeco? It’s that outlier, way over there; the only park to have single, double, triple and homer park factors all below 100 last season. Only Safeco and Turner Field had double and homer park factors below 90; Turner’s singles park factor of 108, the highest in the game, was a mitigating factor in Atlanta’s park effects. Unlike every other park in baseball, there is simply no area of vulnerability at Safeco, though RF/RCF seems like one in contrast to the rest of the field.

Enough about Safeco, for now, however. Let’s talk a little bit about Nelson Cruz. He took a fairly unique path to the 2014 AL homer title. He didn’t earn his first major league at bat until more than two months past his 24th birthday; the list of position players earning $50M+ free agent guarantees meeting that criterion must be pretty short. He wasn’t an everyday MLB player until age 28. His pros and cons have been the same since the beginning; he hits the ball really hard, swings and misses quite a bit, doesn’t walk as much as you’d like for a power hitter, and he adds very little complementary value besides his power hitting. As time has gone on, those complementary skills have gone from merely adequate to well below average. Though his arm strength remains decent, he is now a station-to-station baserunner who threatens to offset most or all of his offensive value if allowed to play the field for any length of time.

Let’s focus in on that power bat of his, to see how it might play in his new home. To do so, let’s take a look at his 2014 plate-appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency info:

FREQ – 2014
N.Cruz % REL PCT
K 20.6% 101 58
BB 8.1% 107 56
POP 9.1% 118 67
FLY 28.0% 100 48
LD 20.7% 99 42
GB 42.2% 97 56

First of all, there is some pretty positive stuff here. On one hand, we’re examining what might be described as his career year (though 2010 was pretty good as well, in many fewer plate appearances), so that might be expected. Still, his K rate percentile rank of 58 is the best of his career, nosing out his 2010 62 mark. He had posted K rate percentile ranks of 84 or higher in two of the previous three seasons, so this is a major breakthrough. More contact is always a good thing, especially when it’s of the authoritative variety. His BB rate percentile rank of 56 was his best since 2009 (59), and marks his third consecutive increase since bottoming out at 27 in 2011.

It’s also a positive that there are no extremes in his batted-ball frequency profile. His popup rate is high (67 percentile rank), but is right in line with career norms and is not out of whack for a power hitter. His liner percentile rank (42) is below MLB average, but it’s way above his 2013 mark of 15, and just short of his career best of 45.

The only somewhat concerning aspect of his frequency profile isn’t visible in the above table. While his fly ball percentile rank of 48 is perfectly acceptable standing alone, it is by far a career low. Players decline in different ways – some hit more fly balls as they age, going for more power, while others simply lose the ability to put the ball in the air frequently. It’s still too early to determine what will eventually do Cruz in, but there are presently no glaring red flags in his frequency profile.

One can only learn so much about a player’s true talent level by examining his frequency data; batted-ball authority drives production, especially for power hitters:

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.317 1.111 199 235 197
LD 0.720 1.161 143 124 126
GB 0.300 0.347 157 132 117
ALL BIP 0.349 0.676 148 143 130
ALL PA 0.269 0.329 0.523 138 135 124

Cruz’s actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation. Also for the purposes of this exercise, another column, SEA PRD, is included which estimates his true talent 2014 production if half of his games were played in Safeco Field.

Cruz obviously did substantial damage on fly balls in 2014, batting .317 AVG-1.111 SLG for an actual REL PRD of 199. He actually was a bit unlucky on fly balls, only notching three singles and five doubles, suppressing his average in the air. His neutral park ADJ PRD of 235 undoes that bad luck, and his SEA PRD (197) on fly balls is almost identical to his actual production. Safeco would not have materially sapped his 2014 fly ball production.

Cruz did massive damage on liners in 2014 – he hit an unnaturally high 7 line drive homers – good for 143 REL PRD. That number needs to be deflated somewhat for context, to 124 ADJ PRD and 126 SEA PRD. Similarly, Cruz had some good fortune on grounders, posting a 157 REL PRD, adjusted down to 132 ADJ PRD and 117 SEA PRD for context. Interestingly, he takes a bigger hit on liners and grounders than he does on fly balls when normalizing his 2014 performance. With regard to all BIP, Cruz’ 148 REL PRD is adjusted down to 130 to adjust for the impact of Safeco. Add back the K’s and BB’s, and his 138 REL PRD is adjusted downward to 135 ADJ PRD and 124 SEA PRD for context.

So what does this tell us, on balance? First of all, we must remember that we are looking at Cruz’ career year, at age 33, while performing this analysis. We’re taking those career year parameters, and at the end of the day, adjusting them to something along the lines of a .259-.320-.481 season if half of the games were played at Safeco Field. I would project those numbers as a near best-case scenario for Cruz in 2015; he has about a 5% chance of reaching them. Normal aging trends should negatively affect the vast majority of his rate statistics, and his batted ball authority should also be expected to gradually fade.

Then there’s his increasing pull tendency. Cruz has already mastered the art of selectively pulling the ball in the air. Most thirty-something power hitters who remain highly effective have done so; they are able to increase their pull rate in the air without their grounder pull rate exploding to a level that invites overshifting, thereby depleting their grounder production. Cruz is standing on a precipice in this regard. His fly ball pull rate — flies to (LF + LCF)/(RCF + RF) — of 2.35 is extremely high, as the MLB average is below 1.0.

His grounder pull rate is 4.48, above MLB average, but just a bit short of the automatic over-shifting zone. He currently stands at a very delicate equilibrium here, with a declining fly ball rate, an increasing pull tendency, and really nowhere to go but down production-wise. If and when Cruz becomes an infield over-shift guy, he’s more likely to be a .200 rather a .300 hitter on the ground; now you’re talking a .220-something hitter adjusted for the Safeco effect. That’s a problem.

Interestingly, the massive traditional Safeco effect — the one that reins in fly balls that would be homers almost anywhere else — isn’t going to be the primary factor to drain Cruz’ production from its 2014 level. Most of his fly ball homers, presently, will get out of any yard, including his new one. I wouldn’t be shocked, in fact, to see him post nearly the same AVG-SLG on fly balls in 2015 as he did in 2014.

What Safeco does do is take away the potential for over-performance on any BIP type. Seven line drive homers? Not in 2015. 2014 represented the high water mark for a fairly one-dimensional power hitter who has likely maxed out all of his areas for potential improvement, leaving only downside as we move forward.

Can Cruz provide enough offensive value to justify the first half of his contract? Sure, if he’s not allowed to play the field. The back end of the contract is a no-win situation, however; both the quality and quantity of his production will be under extreme pressure by then. He won’t hit 40 homers again, obviously, and I’ll go out on a limb and say he won’t again reach 30. As a player who derives most of his value from homers, this leaves him with a very narrow band of net positive outcomes moving forward.

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