Could M’s endure a Cruz swoon?

 During his first season with the Seattle Mariners, slugger Nelson Cruz lived up to or exceeded the expectations of pundits and fans alike. Despite the fact that 2015 Mariners turned out to be a huge disappointment as they extended their postseason drought to 14 seasons, “Boomstick” was a bright spot in the team’s otherwise pedestrian offense.

Last year, Cruz’s home run and hit totals — plus his .302/.369/.566 slash — were well above his career averages. Moreover, he delivered the highest wins above replacement (WAR) of his career. Considering his 2015 production, fans are likely hoping that Boomstick will be able to repeat his first-year success with the Mariners. But, is that a reasonable expectation? Probably not.

Cruz is getting older and it’s inevitable that his skills will begin to erode. That doesn’t mean that 2016 is the year that the 11-year veteran suddenly becomes “Slumpstick.” On the other hand, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll fall back from his stellar performance of last year. How much he declines is the “unknown unknown” facing both the team and its star slugger.

Entering this season, projection systems aren’t being kind to Cruz, who turns 36-years-old on July 1. Both Steamer and ZiPS, developed by Dan Szymborski of ESPN, project that the Mariners slugger will not be nearly as productive in 2016.

Some may point to Cruz’s his outstanding physical fitness and the fact that he’ll have a rejuvenated Robinson Cano as batting order protection as two reasons why he should be able to duplicate his superb offensive production from last season. This makes for a compelling argument. But, isn’t it possible that Cruz’s 2015 was nothing more than a statistical aberration and will be difficult to repeat regardless of his physical prowess, age, or lineup protection?

Why am I so leery of Cruz in 2016, other than his age? One statistic stands out as an area of concern for me going into 2016 — batting average on balls in play (BABIP). I’m not trying to go to “saber-geek” on you, but hear me out.

First, for those not familiar with BABIP, it measures how many balls put into play go for a hit — not including home runs. FanGraphs adeptly points out that several factors affect BABIP rates for individual players, including defense, luck, and talent level.

Since we know that Cruz is talented and league defense is relatively stable from season to season, that leaves luck as the remaining factor. Look at Cruz’s BABIP over the span of his career and you’ll see a dramatic uptick in 2015 after he hovered around the league-average mark between the 2011-2014 seasons.

I understand that some of you may not buy into BABIP, but Mariners general Jerry Dipoto is a believer. He specifically cited the stat when explaining the acquisition of center fielder Leonys Martin. When discussing his newest player with Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle, Dipoto noted, “He did not have a very high batting average on balls in play, which is typically an indicator that it will turn around.”

Assuming that Cruz’s BABIP returns closer to his norm, he’s looking at a drop-off from his 2015 numbers. That doesn’t mean that his 2016 performance falls off the face of the earth. However, based on his age, he’d be occupying rarefied air if he were able to repeat last year’s performance at the plate. Look at the 10 best individual seasons for 35-year-old players since 2010 and you’ll see what I mean.

Top-10 Individual Seasons for 35-year-olds (since 2010)
Rk Player oWAR Year Tm G PA H 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Adrian Beltre 5.9 2014 TEX 148 614 178 33 19 .324 .388 .492 .879
2 Victor Martinez 5.8 2014 DET 151 641 188 33 32 .335 .409 .565 .974
3 Lance Berkman 5.3 2011 STL 145 587 147 23 31 .301 .412 .547 .959
4 Jayson Werth 4.7 2014 WSN 147 629 156 37 16 .292 .394 .455 .849
5 David Ortiz 4.0 2011 BOS 146 605 162 40 29 .309 .398 .554 .953
6 Jimmy Rollins 3.7 2014 PHI 138 609 131 22 17 .243 .323 .394 .717
7 Marlon Byrd 3.7 2013 TOT 147 579 155 35 24 .291 .336 .511 .847
8 A.J. Pierzynski 3.7 2012 CHW 135 520 133 18 27 .278 .326 .501 .827
9 Chase Utley 3.5 2014 PHI 155 664 159 36 11 .270 .339 .407 .746
10 Mark Teixeira 3.3 2015 NYY 111 462 100 22 31 .255 .357 .548 .906
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 4/2/2016.

To rank players, I opted to use offensive WAR (oWAR) as the determining factor. For those wondering, Cruz’s oWAR was 6.0 in 2015. I chose oWAR because it takes the defensive component out of the equation and places the focus squarely on the player’s offensive prowess. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all can admit that most — not all — of the individuals listed above were still stars thanks to their bats, not their defense.

To be clear, I still think that Boomstick will continue to hit tape measure shots and contribute to the Mariners offensive production. I’m only suggesting that it’ll be at a diminished rate when compared to 2015. Despite the gloomy picture that I’ve just painted, there’s a reason for Seattle baseball fans to hold their collective chins up.

Thanks to their new general manager, the Mariners won’t need to be as reliant on Cruz to score runs — or win — during the upcoming season. From what I understand, winning despite an aging slugger is a foreign concept for baseball fans from the Emerald City. That’s about to change.

During the offseason, Dipoto placed a high degree of emphasis on adding players with good on-base ability. Here’s a look at the core players — ranked by on-base percentage (OBP) — who project to get majority of playing time under Dipoto and new manager Scott Servais.

Seattle Mariners Projected Regular Players
Nelson Cruz 34 152 590 178 22 1 44 3 .302 .369 .566 .936
Adam Lind 31 149 502 139 32 0 20 0 .277 .360 .460 .820
Franklin Gutierrez 32 59 171 50 11 0 15 0 .292 .354 .620 .974
Nori Aoki 33 93 355 102 12 3 5 14 .287 .353 .380 .733
Ketel Marte 21 57 219 62 14 3 2 8 .283 .351 .402 .753
Robinson Cano 32 156 624 179 34 1 21 2 .287 .334 .446 .779
Seth Smith 32 136 395 98 31 5 12 0 .248 .330 .443 .773
Kyle Seager 27 161 623 166 37 0 26 6 .266 .328 .451 .779
Chris Iannetta 32 92 272 51 10 0 10 0 .188 .293 .335 .628
Leonys Martin 27 95 288 63 12 0 5 14 .219 .264 .313 .576
League Avg .254 .317 .405 .722

New players such as Adam Lind, Nori Aoki, and Chris Iannetta all have demonstrated an above-average knack for reaching base during their big league careers. Combining these veterans with holdovers Robinson Cano, Cruz, Kyle Seager, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and Ketel Marte should propel the Mariners to their highest OBP since 2009, when they were a league-worst .314. The bar isn’t very high, so it shouldn’t be difficult for Seattle to vault it, even if Cruz takes a step backwards.

That’s why I’m convinced that the Mariners offense will be more productive than in any season since I first made the Pacific Northwest my home in 2009. They won’t make anyone forget the era when the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Edgar MartinezAlex Rodriguez, and Brett Boone wore a Mariners uniform.

As Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill points out, the club’s offense stands to be a strength this season. When was the last time you could say that about the Mariners?

Ironically, it’s highly unlikely that Cruz would’ve landed in Seattle if Dipoto had been the Mariners general manager prior to last season. He’s not a proponent of big-ticket free agents, and, unlike his predecessor, the 47-year-old executive doesn’t fixate on acquiring sluggers.

Rather than repeat the mistakes of the past, Dipoto has chosen to build a roster with on-base ability that can score more runs and — in theory — win more games, even if Cruz takes a step declines.

If Boomstick proves people like me wrong and fends off Father Time for another season, the Mariners will be even better poised to host postseason baseball at Safeco Field this coming October — assuming the bullpen doesn’t collapse upon itself. Wouldn’t that be something?


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