.297/.322/.431 296pa 6hr 2.6 fWAR A+
2012 in brief: Longtime minor leaguer shockingly became the best player in baseball this season or in any other season in any sport ever.
2013 status: Clearly has earned a roster spot, but will it be starting at shortstop, third, or off the bench?
Yeah, I’ve dreaded writing this one. It’s not because of why you think, because I’m fine with eating some crow and admitting that against all odds, Luis Cruz was very good for the Dodgers this season. It’s because I still just can’t explain it. There’s no rational reason that a guy like Cruz should have been so productive in the bigs this year, and it’s the not knowing why that really burns me. I mean, even though it doesn’t look great in retrospect that I said this on July 2, just hours before learning he’d been recalled…
I get a surprising amount of people who want to promote shortstop Luis Cruz, who has a career .296 OBP in parts of 12 minor-league seasons, because they insist he’s “figured it out” with a .319/.349/.533 line this year. Not quite; at home, he’s hitting a robust .353/.385/.629, while on the road, that’s a brutal .258/.286/.386. So no, no one’s going to put any trade value on a minor-league lifer who can’t hit outside of Albuquerque’s video game environment. That holds true for the superficially nice stats of Josh Fields, Tim Federowicz, and most of the other Isotopes as well.
… I really can’t find a lot that I regret saying, five months later. It just doesn’t make sense, not even the suggestion that he went back to an old batting stance this year after failing to find success with the tweaks Milwaukee & Pittsburgh asked him to make. If that were the case, he’d have been able to hit in the PCL, wouldn’t he? After all, while it’s a bit of a running joke around here that people had been on me about Cruz all year, it’s hardly like the baseball industry at large was clamoring to get him; outside of a small (yet very vocal and almost entirely Latino) continent of Twitter followers, Cruz was just another guy.
Still, that doesn’t change that he did what he did. Cruz wasn’t called up specifically to replace Dee Gordon, but when Gordon busted his thumb two days later, Cruz was suddenly the starting shortstop. For most of the next month, until Hanley Ramirez was ready to shift over from third to short in early August, Cruz started just about every game at the position.
While he was a capable fill-in who flashed a solid glove and had his moments, including a three-run homer to help back Chad Billingsley in St. Louis on July 23, let history remember that was he wasn’t exactly an instant smash. As late as August 11, when he came off the bench to relieve the injured Jerry Hairston to go 0-2 (in Hairston’s final appearance of the year), Cruz was hitting a lowly .238/.283/.381. It hardly mattered, of course, because he was a “break glass in case of emergency” fill-in and defense was all that was being asked, but that’s a Gordon-esque line.
The funny thing is, the shortstop bar had been set so low that even that seemed like a step up for us, because on August 15 I dedicated an entire post to him:
But when the Dodgers badly needed him, he was there to step in with good defense and occasional offensive contribution, and with the left side of the infield still totally up in the air, he’s still there chipping in when he gets a chance. That’s whole lot more value than I had ever given him credit for being capable of achieving, and while still limited, it’s useful. It’s enough to get him remembered fondly, and that’s not just “better than being remembered poorly” – the alternative for guys like this is not being remembered at all.
Luis Cruz, the greatest shortstop (named Luis who had previously been a Pirate & Brewer who was born in 1984) in Dodger history.
But the night after Hairston was injured, Cruz had two hits in Miami, and five over the next three days in Pittsburgh. After sitting out a night, he kicked off an absolutely red-hot stretch, starting eight games between August 17-25 and getting multiple hits in six of them, despite dodging what appeared to be a hamstring pull in the middle of it. By September 3, when he collected four hits against San Diego, Cruz had turned that horrendous line into a very good .308/.345/.454 mark in less than a month, which should tell you a bit about the small sample sizes we were playing with here.
In fact, Cruz was playing so well that when we learned Hairston would require surgery and people started asking what would happen when Gordon returned, I argued there was really no discussion to be had:
No matter how they’re positioned on the field, if someone’s losing playing time in order to get Gordon back on the field, it’s not going to be Ramirez. It’s going to be Cruz, and with solid defense along with two more hits last night, there’s absolutely no argument to be made for Gordon to be taking time away from Cruz right now. (“I’ll take sentences I never thought I’d write for $600, Alex.”)
Yet as the Dodger offense struggled in September, so did Cruz, who hit only .276/.276/.388 over his final 25 starts of the season. (We’ll get back to that middle number in a moment.) Still, it never seemed that bad, because the hits came in bunches, with seven of those games ending up with multiple hits next to his name in the box score.
As the season ended, Cruz’ worth was clear. In just about a half season of playing time, he hit .297 with good defense at two positions, in addition to 26 extra-base hits, giving the Dodgers just over two wins of value. Off the field, he became something of a cult hero, particularly with his Mexican countrymen, and inspiring even crotchety T.J. Simers to write a positive story about him.
For a player on his fourth organization in two calendar years and who had come within days of leaving the Dodgers for Japan in June, Cruz’ performance was stunning. He may very well end up as a starting shortstop or third baseman for the Dodgers next year, and at the very least he’s earned himself a roster spot. A year ago, Cruz wasn’t even sure he’d be in affiliated baseball.
So that’s the good news. Here’s the flip side of that: while I have no problem with carrying Cruz on the roster in 2013, I find it very, very difficult to think he’s going to repeat this kind of success next year. I’ll let pal Paul Swydan of FanGraphs explain:
He also finished the season with 119 straight plate appearances without drawing a walk. Cruz’s 3.0 BB% was the third-lowest in baseball among those with at least 250 PA’s this season — only Miguel Olivo, Alexei Ramirez and Pedro Ciriaco walked less frequently on a rate basis.
Instead of drawing walks, Cruz made his hay by making contact — only 30 players had a K% less than that of Cruz’s 11.5 K%. But can Cruz maintain such a low strikeout rate? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not. His swinging strike % this year was 8.3%. Thirteen other players, including his teammates Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, has an identical SwStr% — all 13 struck out more frequently. Looking at his swing percentages, there were only 11 players who swung at balls outside of the zone more frequently than did Cruz, and 11 of them struck out more frequently as well. In fact, looking at his swing percentages, a trend emerges:
Plate Discipline Percentage Rank O-Swing % 41.3 12 Z-Swing % 71.3 40 Swing % 55.1 8 O-Contact % 74.3 81 Z-Contact % 92 t-58 Contact % 84.8 73
Only seven people swung at more pitches than did Cruz, but plenty of players made more contact. What that would seem to suggest is that Cruz is about to start striking out more frequently, and as he does he will fall back towards utility player status, if that. He doesn’t have much power to speak of, and given his speed, he’s probably not going to be legging out too many infield singles. Making contact and good glovework are what keep Cruz a viable player of the Dodgers, and if his contact skills erode even a touch, so does most of his value.
And that’s really the issue for me. For as much fun as everything Cruz-related was this year, it’s hard to think that 300 good-but-not-great plate appearances have suddenly changed his entire career after more than a decade of minor-league mediocrity. Even with his excellent run, Cruz was basically a league average hitter, and while “league average” when combined with good defense from an infielder is still a good player, it doesn’t leave Cruz a whole lot of room for regression at the plate. And when you’re positively allergic to taking a walk, that means you live and die by batting average. Without a great deal of power or speed, it’s a tough path to take, and it terrifies me to think that we go into 2013 with him as a primary infield starting option.
Then again… he’s proved me wrong before.
Next up! Juan Uribe, international criminal!