Luis Cruz: Career minor-leaguer to Top-5 SS?

Why Mr.Cruz quietly had a great season in Chavez Ravine. - Stephen Dunn

Luis Cruz is better than you thought he was last season. Here's why he may be primed to repeat.

On July 3, 2012, in the bottom of the seventh of a 1-1 game, Luis Cruz stepped up to the plate. Facing Johnny Cueto, Cruz lined a double in the gap, bringing in the go-ahead run. With the Dodger offense slowly sinking, Cruz provided an other helpful lift by stealing home in that very inning. The Dodgers went on to win 3-1, and the whole world celebrated the coming of the messiah.

On a night where Bobby Abreu-Juan Rivera-Adam Kennedy were hitting in the 3-4-5, Luis Cruz stole the show. It is hard to believe that on a night when the most fearsome lineup ever assembled took center stage, the 6'2, 220-pound native of Mexico batting seventh took home the gold.

All jokes aside, July 3, 2012 was Cruz's coming out party. From that point forward Cruz flew under the radar as an All-Star caliber SS/3B and the man who stole the hearts of all the Dodger faithful. Cruz's effortless panache and knack for the game quickly ascended the lowly expectations levels that Dodger fans anticipated when he was called up.

For one, Cruz is no rookie. No, before the 2012 season Cruz compiled a total of 56 at bats and 169 PA with the Pirates and Brewers. This was not Cruz's first go-round, this was a second shot. And the shot Cruz gave the Dodgers was well worth it.

In the second half (in which all his games were played) Cruz was a top-five SS in the game by FanGraphs WAR. According to fWAR, he ranked better than Ian Desmond, Starlin Castro, J.J Hardy, and Derek Jeter. In FLD his 7.3 mark was the best in the game for SS and seventh overall in the league.

However, being that a little under half of Cruz's time was spent at SS, it is reasonable to glance at his FLD+POS when ranking him with 3B, to account for his time spent at SS. His 9.0 FLD+POS, ranked best amongst all 3B in the second half.

However, Cruz's 104 wRC+ placed him 25th overall amongst qualified 3B. Meanwhile, that same mark was good for 11th over in the SS rankings.

As you can see given these preliminary metrics, Cruz was mostly all glove and no bat, with most of his value coming from his incredible defense in a short amount of time. Over at B-R, his oWAR and dWAR is nearly split in half, with oWAR accounting for nearly 1.1 and dWAR for 1.2.

If Cruz had been planted at SS from day one, his bat would have kept up with his counterparts while providing his defensive magic. However on July 26th Hanley Ramirez was dealt to the Dodgers and Cruz made the transition to third base.

Looking back, this seems rather counter-intuitive. If you have the best fielding SS in the second half of the season you keep him there, and then move a guy like Hanley to a position where his defensive inefficiencies can be covered by the offense he provides. Following the acquisition of Ramirez, Cruz provided more value than Hanley and perhaps even had a direct effect on the his range at SS.

Moving to the hot corner Cruz practically made Hanley a better defender at short as well. Highlighted by Eno Saris in this piece over at FanGraphs, Cruz improved Hanley's defense and overall the team's defense by 4 runs saved.

As Sarris points out, Hanley has a career deficiency going to his right. Of course, there are two ways to cover that up:

1) Move Hanley to 3rd, where the range to the right is a shorter distance to cover.

2) Keep him at short, and find a third baseman who goes to his left extraordinarily well.

Are you listening Hanley? You owe Cruz big time.

Finally let's take a closer look at Cruz's plate discipline through his PitchF/X chart.

Frequency

Batting Average

Swing Rate

Whiff rate

Needless to say, there are a few assumptions I have:

1) Take a gander at the "Frequency" chart. Pitchers pounded down and away. Cruz made them pay down in the strike zone and protected well away.

2) That being said, look at the "Swing" chart. It is largely concentrated up and in. A high correlation of these swing resulted in BIP or Fouls. The high swing and foul rate is not something that I expect for Cruz to continue.

3) Notice a low Whiff % in all areas in which a large swing% existed. This once again goes back to the large foul rate with a high swing rate.

Overall, I notice tremendous plate coverage exhibited by Cruz . Although it was a short period of time his PITCHf/x shows us just how Cruz went about at the plate. Here are his discipline stats in accordance to the league averages.

Season Team O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone%
2012 Dodgers 39.4 % 68.7 % 54.1 % 74.0 % 90.5 % 84.5 % 50.3 %

Stat Lg Average
O-Swing 30%
Z-Swing 65%
Swing 46%
O-Contact 68%
Z-Contact 88%
Contact 81%
Zone 45%

As you can see, Cruz had a tendency to swing more than he should. However, given his incredibly good proportion of swing/foul, as exhibited by the PITCHfx charts, he was able to hide up this problem from his production.

Given that his K% was well below league average at 11.5%, his tendency to swing frequently did not translate to strikeouts. However, it is just to hard to predict if Cruz can maintain his production without a sudden rise in K%. Especially for second year breakout players, we tend to see a decline in discipline if approach changes are not made. Given his low whiff rate in areas in which he swung the most, it is difficult to perceive a world in which Cruz maintains this rate.

One explanation is Cruz's emphatic open stance for a righty. Given that he stands with his left foot nearly out of the batter's box, it is reasonable to believe that he has somewhat of an "inside track" to those inside pitches and a disadvantage to the low and away ones. If we look again at the PITCHf/x diagram instead with whiff rate and swing rate both to infinite scale, we will get a better idea if his stance is a factor:

Swing-Rate scaled infinitely

Whiff-Rate scaled infinitely

Now with the idea of Cruz's open batting stance in play, we can see how many balls down low-inside and away-low were accounted for in the infinite scale. That being said, Cruz had a propensity to dive at the ball in areas in which his batting stance made vulnerable.

Even if Cruz declines to what is expected of him in 2013, count on his glove to stay steady on the right side of the field. Cruz may not be the messiah many of Dodger fans proclaimed him to be, but he sure had a hell of a half season contributing on a team with a lot of big names.

In the end, Cruz has something to prove in 2012. Expect him to be a man on a mission, to prove the world wrong that 29-year-old career minor-leaguers/replacement players can emerge out of the woodwork and have a productive career.

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