Nelson Cruz and the foolish search for right-handed power

Nelson Cruz is a major league player, but not a star. So far, the free agent market agrees. - Otto Greule Jr

Heading into the offseason, we heard a lot about the lack of right-handed power in baseball and how that was going to make Nelson Cruz a rich man. So far, it looks like teams aren't buying the narrative.

If you're someone who follows the MLB hot stove with any regularity, you've no doubt heard members of the rumor industry trumpeting the free agent case of Nelson Cruz. As the story goes, Cruz is a right-handed power hitter, and there simply aren't any right-handed power hitters left in baseball which means Cruz should be a hot commodity. Yet it's nearly Christmas and Nelson Cruz hasn't found a home. The reasons are simple - Cruz isn't a terribly valuable player and power is, and always will be, relative.

Let's first start by establishing the kind of player that Cruz is. Over the last three seasons, Cruz ranks 78th in baseball with a 114 wRC+ among hitters with at least 1000 plate appearances. His career wRC+ also happens to be 114. During the same time period and compared to the same group of hitters, Cruz ranks 161st with a .319 OBP. If you're looking at power, his .489 slugging percentage ranks 31st. He's 64th in wOBA at .348.

Anyway you slice it, Cruz is a non-elite hitter. The raw OBP, SLG, and wOBA numbers include a boost from his days at the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington, but even if you don't correct for his park, the best you can do is claim he's one of the top 50 or so hitters. He has 80 homeruns over the last three seasons, which ranks in the top 25, but if you attempt any sort of broader analysis, he fades quickly.

And Cruz doesn't add much value anywhere else. He's a below average baserunner (-8.1 BsR since 2011) and is a poor defender in a corner (-14.2 UZR since 2011). All together, he's been worth 3.9 fWAR over the last three seasons. That's 1.3 wins per season. Even if we're generous and peg him as a perfectly average defender and baserunner, he's still only been about a six win player over the last three years, which averages out to two wins per season.

Even with the complete benefit of the doubt, Cruz is a league average player. In a complete rational market, a league average player entering his age 34 season would be very happy with a 3 year, $45 million deal before the draft pick is factored in and teams weigh the PED suspension. Some speculators are talking up Cruz at 5 years and $75 million. Jon Heyman, who has been consistently under-predicting free agent deals this offseason thinks Cruz will get 4 years and $64 million.

Cruz is certainly a major league player, but he's riding one tool. Cruz hits for power. He's a top 30 hitter by slugging percentage and is a top 25 hitter by homeruns, but he's done both in a hitter friendly park. He doesn't get on base, he plays below average defense at a non-premium position, and he isn't a good baserunner. Cruz simply isn't a great player. The reason some people think he's going to get great player money is because the one thing Cruz does well - hit for power from the right side - is a skill that seems to be scarce.

But right-handed power is only scare if you're using a counting stat - specifically homeruns - to judge what power is. The concept of power is baseball, however, is relative. Hitting 50 homeruns in 2013 is way more impressive than hitting 50 homeruns in 2001. As the run environment has trended downward over the last decade, we didn't see a decrease in power hitters, we changed the definition of power hitting. Let's take a look at slugging percentages for right-handed and left-handed batters in each of the last ten seasons to consider two points.

Year SLG (LHH) SLG (RHH)
2004 .433 .422
2005 .422 .426
2006 .440 .427
2007 .426 .420
2008 .421 .413
2009 .422 .415
2010 .405 .401
2011 .401 .397
2012 .403 .407
2013 .399 .394

First, we're seeing slugging percentage decline league-wide. Homeruns are down, extra base hits are down. You can't compare statistics across eras without a sense of context, which is why numbers like wRC+ are so useful. Second, and more importantly, right-handed power isn't really down compared to left-handed power. The numbers above include pitchers, and pitchers hit from the right side more than twice as often as they do from the left side. If you look at the last five seasons, lefties slugged .411 and righties slugged .412 when pitchers were dropped out.

Power is down league-wide, but right-handed power is not down more dramatically than left-handed power. Cruz doesn't get a bonus for hitting from the right side and his one tool isn't enough to crowd out his other faults. With power down league-wide, all run scoring attributes are more valuable, but if you're analyzing baseball with that in mind, homeruns can't be your only barometer. Cruz only looks like a standout in the column that says "HR." He's solid by slugging percentage and rough everywhere else.

Cruz simply isn't an elite player - and he's not even an elite bat. Teams, so far, are smartly staying away from his high demand and aren't falling into the trap that right-handed power is extra valuable right now. You want to buy runs and wins, you don't need to buy specific types of runs and wins. Cruz should be starting for a major league team, but there's no reason he should be signing a deal worth more than $60 million. He simply isn't that kind of player.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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