Cruz in the outfield

 Nelson Cruz was signed to be a right-handed impact bat in the middle of the Seattle Mariners lineup. Specifically, he was signed for his ability to hit home runs and be the club’s designated hitter, though he would get time in the outfield on occasion.

What has he done so far this season? Hit home runs. Only catch is that they have all come in four starts in right field.

There is a huge small sample size alert, of course, and the discussion would likely be non-existent if Seattle wasn’t visiting the Los Angles Dodgers for a three-game set in the second series of the season. But this much is true: Cruz has five home runs in four consecutive games as the club’s starting right fielder.

At the outset of the season, manager Lloyd McLendon estimated that we’d see Cruz in right field 30-to-35 times this year. The rest of the time he’d be at DH where the value of his bat would be maximized. It appears that McLendon’s tune has changed, however, as he commented earlier in the week that Cruz would see, “his share of outfield” time and he never said Cruz would be the primary DH.

The decision to have Cruz play right field in games No. 2 and 3 on the season had more to do with Seth Smith’s groin injury than a desire to have the slugger man the outfield. The decision to have Cruz start in right for the first two games of the series against the Dodgers had everything to do with the lack of a DH spot available.

We know Cruz’s attitude towards being a DH — he finds it “boring.” He’s not wrong, spending the entire game sans a handful of at bats on the bench isn’t particularly exciting. But the general consensus, and Cruz agreed, that he offers the most value to the club as the primary DH.

Being a primary designated hitter is an entirely different mindset than playing in the field everyday, many players will tell you. And only a few have managed to master the position; Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz top that list.

Through eight games Cruz is 0-for-8 as a DH and 8-for-26 as a right fielder. Though it could be noted that at Safeco, he is just 1-for-7 without any of his five long balls. Again, it’s way too early to make anything meaningful out of this.

What we can do, though, is take a look at Cruz’s history as an outfielder vs. his time as a DH and look to the future.

Between 2011 and 2013 Cruz appeared at DH only 22 times. Otherwise he was the Texas Rangers’ starting right fielder. During that time he produced ultimate zone ratings of -6.2, -3.7, and -4.3 respectively. Obviously his defensive shortcomings subtracted from his offensive value, but the numbers weren’t earth-shatteringly bad — hence the limited time needed at DH.

After a 2013 season that included a PED suspension and injury issues, Cruz signed with the Baltimore Orioles knowing that he was about to start seeing more and more time as a designated hitter.

In 385 plate appearances as DH, Cruz posted a .266/.325/.497 slash line with a 125 wRC+. In 252 plate appearances as the left fielder, he posted a .279/.345/.571 slash line with a 155 wRC+ — a clearly superior set of statistics across the line. Of his 40 home runs in 2014, 20 came while performing designated hitter duties and 18 came as the left fielder in more than 100 fewer plate appearances. The other two long balls came in 41 plate appearances as the right fielder, his primary outfield role for the current season.

Talking about small sample sizes, even a full season isn’t going to five us enough data to definitively say that Cruz is a better performer when he’s playing in the field than when he’s the DH. The data suggests this though, and perhaps McLendon has seen enough from Cruz, be it a change in approach or attitude, to believe that giving the slugger more time in the outfield will result in better performance at the plate.

That plan is all fine and dandy so long as any potential extra offensive value coming from this is greater than the defensive value lost. In 57 innings in the outfield to start the year, Cruz has already accumulated -2 DRS. Fielding numbers take longer to even out and provide meaningful data to analyze, but for anyone who’s watched Cruz in the outfield, there is somewhat of a consensus: he hasn’t looked good.

As age, injuries, and whatever effect the the PED’s may or may not have had on Cruz for one or many years have caught up with Cruz, we see an outfielder who more than likely would be better-served in the DH role. His range is limited and he’s exhibited several poor reads on balls in play.

One thing he has going for him, however, is his arm. The 34-year old has always had a strong throwing arm in right field — especially compared to Dustin Ackley’s in left — and it should play just fine. Over the course of the season it won’t make up for what his lack of mobility will end up costing the team.

McLendon has been particularly keen on maximizing platoon advantages thus far in the season yet we’ve still seen Cruz manning right field in the latter innings when implementing a defensive replacement would make sense. Obviously in a close game you want to keep the slugger’s bat in the lineup, and it’s not as if Smith or Justin Ruggiano are elite defenders.

If Cruz is belting a walk-off home run in the tenth inning then obviously nobody is going to have a specific problem with him defending in the ninth inning. One thing we know is that McLendon is playing a high risk, high reward game with Cruz in the late innings.

We’re likely to see Cruz back in the DH spot when the M’s return to Safeco this week so all this could be much ado about nothing. But it is an interesting talking point that will likely come up throughout the season.

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Tyler Carmont

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