[I know our blog audience skews a bit older than some of the other blogs, so some of us have to get used to applying the concept of “aging” to guys in their mid-30s.]
Nelson Cruz turned 34 last season, and is signed by the Mariners for his age-34, 35, 36 and 37 seasons.
Nelson Cruz has one above-average skill. He crushes balls out of the ol’ yard.
Walks? Avoiding whiffs? Speed? Defense? Not so much. Moreover, we concluded that his batting average (.268) is probably artificially high due to some BABIP good fortune to date.
So … what happens when those big flies stop clearing the fences? Well … then he’s pretty much toast. You’re not going to keep him around as an extra glove or pinch runner.
As of right now, of course, Cruz has no problems with the fence-clearing business, and, in fact, he led all of organized baseball in 2014 with 40 bombs.
The issue is whether Cruz will emerge at the end of the four-year deal with enough of that pop to make him worth the expense.
So let’s look at what similar hitters did during the same phase of their careers.
Using our database of batted-ball data from 2002 (first year available) to 2014, we identified four guys who had hitting profiles quite similar to Cruz.
[Interestingly, only one of the four (Burnitz) shows up as a “comp” on the baseball-reference.com “similarity score”; but diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.]
|Stats through age-33 season|
Clearly, there is no “perfect” comp. Sanders was a bit better all-around at the plate except for the whiffs, but had a degree less power; Dye struck out quite a bit less but also wasn’t quite the bopper; Soriano is closest on these metrics, and makes Cruz’ lukewarm walk rate look positively rosy.
In general, however, these were guys with a significant amount of power (Dye had the lowest ISO at age-33 with .211), and enough issues with either strikeouts or walks or both to get a relatively poor score on our “Plate Skills Composite.”
- Age-34 to 37 OPS: .801
- Did not play past age-37 season
Burnitz got through his age-34 and age-35 seasons just fine. His BABIP dipped in his age-34 season despite good fundamentals (line drives up, pop-ups down) (therefore indicating bad fortune), but his power was more than solid both seasons (31 then 37 HR).
Then at age-36 Burnitz saw a drop in “launched contact” (non-pop-up flies and line drives) with an equal increase in ground balls. Moreover, his rate of converting “launched contact” into home runs dropped (HR/FB fell from 16% to 10%). That combination sapped a bunch of his power and his ISO, which had been career .237 going into that season, fell to .177.
But not as bad as you’d think. Burnitz’ power actually recovered considerably at age-37, indicating that some of his struggles at age-36 were bad fortune. His rate of converting launched flies to home runs reverted back to close to his career norm, and his ISO rallied back up to .192.
What killed Burnitz’ career was a simultaneous sharp drop in line drives and in his walk rate. His BABIP, never that high to begin with, dropped to .249, and with fewer walks his OBP limped in at .289. The Pirates did not offer an extension and he chose retirement over free agency.
Bottom line: Burnitz’ age-34 to 37 years ended with two relative clinkers, but both seasons looked worse than their underlying “fundamentals.” There’s no denying, though, that Burnitz took a definite step down starting at age-36. That being said, his decent recovery of power at age-37 indicates that his struggles the year before were not entirely due to age decline. It is possible, though, that whatever adjustments he made to jack the power back up cost him in walks and line drives, diminishing his overall value.
Burnitz’ four-year ISO of .224 was worth having, though at the end it was paired with unacceptable on-base ability.
- Age-34 to 37 OPS: .838
- Age-38 and after OPS: .762
Sanders crushed his 34-to-37 seasons, thank you very much.
Sanders showed no decline in either his percentage of “launched contact” or his rate of converting launched flies into homers during the 34-to-37 period. Indeed, in 2005 at age-37 he posted a .275 ISO, the third-best in his career. And his second-best had come two years before at age-35.
At age-38, though, it was a different story. His “launched contact” rate dropped a bunch, with both ground balls and pop-ups increasing. And his HR/FB rate also plunged. Suddenly, he was no longer an elite player. And everything kept going in the same direction in his 24-game career farewell at age-39.
Bottom line: Sanders made it exactly through the age-37 season before a quick slide downhill. His .242 ISO during those four years was a huge boost to his teams. Not coincidentally, two of those teams (2002 Giants and 2004 Cardinals) went to the World Series.
Based on the Sanders precedent, Cruz’ contract runs out at exactly the right time.
- Age-34 and 35 OPS: .843
- Did not play past age-35 season
Dye gets an “incomplete” since he decided after his age-35 season that he did not want to “play for a bad team” and he did not want to “play for $1.5M.” So despite offering himself as a free agent for both his age-36 and age-37 seasons, he did not get an offer that met his standards, and he ended up retiring.
But Dye gives us another good readout on the age-34 and 35 seasons, and, for those two seasons anyway, he gives us no major worries.
Dye showed no decline in “launched contact” nor any decline in his rate of conversion of launched flies to homers. In fact, he had two of his better years in both categories.
Dye did have a dip in line drives at age-35, with a corresponding increase in ground balls. The result was a lower average and fewer doubles. But with no age-36 season, we can’t tell if that was a trend or just variation that happens.
Bottom line: No help in figuring out ages 36 and 37, Dye is strong confirmation that age-34 and 35 seem like good bets for Cruz.
- Age-34 to 37 OPS: .798
- Age 38 OPS: .611
Love him or lump him, Soriano was very much Soriano during his age-34 to 37 seasons. Still struck out a bunch. Still didn’t walk much. Still could send more than his share of rockets over the fence when he made contact.
Soriano had the highest rate of “launched contact” of any of this group, and he maintained it through the 34-to-37 years. And his rate of HR/FB went up each of those seasons. His age-37 season was his highest full season for HR/FB, and his third-highest for HR/PA. The result was 34 dingers and a .234 ISO.
Some of that was probably random variation, but it certainly was not a downward trend.
Then, just as with Sanders … age-38 happened.
He still had plenty of “launched contact” but the rate at which they cleared the fence dropped in half.
Meanwhile, his strikeout rate (already high) zoomed up and his walk rate (already low) cratered. He had 30% of PAs end in a strikeout and only 2.5% end in a walk. That’s a disaster even if you are a massive slugger, which he wasn’t anymore.
Not surprisingly, the Yankees released him in July, and he announced his retirement at the end of the season.
Bottom line: Once again, it was the age-38 season when the hammer fell.
- Age-34 and 35: four good seasons, with only a bit of a dip for Dye at age-35
- Age-36: normal seasons for Sanders and Soriano, off year for Burnitz
- Age-37: normal seasons for Sanders and Soriano, Burnitz recovers most power
- Age-38: Wipeout!