Raul Ibañez is quite possibly my favorite player of all time. He was a man who never gave up on his dreams, even when that meant suffering through more delayed gratification than early-career Christopher Nolan movies. This is a man who didn’t make his MLB debut until the age of 24 and then waited patiently while the Mariners failed to use him for more than 227 plate appearances in any of his first five seasons. He didn’t reach 500 plate appearances in a season until he was 30 years old and on his second team.
However, Ibañez worked and worked and kept himself in peak physical and mental shape, and as such, he was able to hit more home runs after the age of 30 than Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., Ernie Banks, Manny Ramirez, and many more. In fact, only 21 players in MLB history have more homers after the age of 30 than Ibañez and only seven have more RBI. This is a man who ended up with more home runs in his 40s than his 20s. He hit over 90 percent of his career home runs after the age of 30, and he made his first All-Star Game as a 37-year-old.
He was the definition of an original, and someone whose career arc seemed likely to never be repeated, or at least not for a long time.
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Nelson Cruz is absolutely tearing the cover off the ball yet again in 2017. Through Sunday, he has 31 home runs, 100 RBI, and a .294/.376/.568 slash line. He is almost certain to top his previous career-high for RBI (108), and, if he can maintain his same slugging percentage through the end of the season, it would be his highest SLG in a full season to date (min. 500 PA). His wRC+ sits at a cool 150 for the season, 10th among qualified hitters in baseball. All of this as a 37-year-old.
Sound a bit familiar yet? Cruz broke into the league late, making his MLB debut at the age of 25. He couldn’t grab on to a full-time role until his fifth season in the major leagues, not reaching 500 plate appearances in a season until he was 29 years old and on his second MLB team.
Cruz is already at 238 home runs in his 30s, more than Griffey Jr., Lou Gehrig, Gil Hodges, Al Kaline, and many others. Given that Cruz turned 37 less than two months ago, there’s a very good chance, he ends his 30s with more long balls than the vast majority of ‘tricenarians’ in baseball history, potentially even reaching the top five. (Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth sitting at the top of that list with 444 and 424 respective long balls in their 30s in just another incredible reminder of the amazing careers of those two players.)
The Mariners have been using Cruz less and less in the outfield as he ages, and he has adopted to the near-full-time role as the team’s designated hitter with aplomb. Cruz has played just four games in the field all of 2017, but who needs to wear a glove when you can launch homers like this:
482 FEET!@ncboomstick23 just obliterated this baseball. #Crushed pic.twitter.com/gdwjkuLtle— MLB (@MLB) August 19, 2017
The craziest part of all this is that Cruz seems to be trending upwards as he ages. Here are his plate appearances and OPS+ for his progressing age buckets:
Cruz splits by age
Since turning 35, Cruz has more plate appearances than he had in his entire 20s, and he is hitting at the best rate of his career.
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Circling back to where we started this article, let’s look at the same age breakdown for Raul Ibañez:
Ibañez splits by age
Ibañez also posted his best wRC+ in his age 35-39 years, and he was still just about average in his two-plus seasons in his 40s. This would seemingly be an impossible career arc to project forward for any other player, but Cruz seems to be emulating the Ibañez model to perfection right now. Four of his five All-Star Game appearances have come in his 30s, and his three best OPS+ seasons (min. 200 PA) have all come in the past three seasons.
There are a lot of awesome stories in baseball this season, but the late-30s dominance of Mr. Cruz up in the Pacific Northwest is one of the best. It’s also reminiscent of Raul Ibañez, one of baseball’s most intriguing career arcs that passed many us of by. Here’s our chance to watch history unfold again, already.
Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.