One of the quintessential aspects of our current game, above the home runs or the strikeouts or the shifts, is that it is young. Yes, for the first time in decades, this is a sport largely dominated by players younger than 30, or even 27. Over the last decade, we have seen the share of WAR for position players over 35 plummet:
In 2017, just 4.3 fWAR originated out of age-35-or-older hitters. Aaaaaaand in that year, Nelson Cruz had 3.9 fWAR at 36 years old.
Cruz is a longtime slugger of the league on the order of which we haven’t seen since the early 2000s, when players like Edgar Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, and Moises Alou consistently mashed pitching into their late 30s. In this day and age, Cruz basically stands alone.
Yes, you could throw out the classic retort, that he was suspended for ~~*~steroid use~*~~ back in 2013, to which I say: what he has done post-2013, an era in which randomized testing is a constant feature of life, is more remarkable than almost any feat in the sport.
Cruz, who signed a paltry one-year, $14.3 million deal with an option for 2020, is arguably the steal of the offseason for the Twins. In just the second half of this season alone, Cruz has slashed .329/.430/.899 with 14 home runs in just 22 games, making him the hottest and most valuable player of the half so far. He also had his first career three-home run game, and then had his second just ten days later.
In the aggregate, let’s sketch out how ridiculous this is once he reached the age of 35, so since the 2016 season. Since then, here is where he has ranked (in percentile rank) in exit velocity, barrel percentage, and xSLG:
- 2016: 99th, 99th, 99th
- 2017: 99th, 95th, 99th
- 2018: 99th, 94th, 98th
- 2019: 99th, 99th, 99th
Not bad, and it obviously shows itself on the stat sheet. Since 1988, there have been only three (!) players with a higher wRC+ after age 35, and those players are: David Ortiz (151), Mark McGwire (157), and Barry Bonds (203).
When you stack his 2019 in particular against these kinds of players, it looks basically the same; in the same time span, the only qualified players that have a single-season wRC+ higher than Cruz’s 2019 are: Barry Bonds in 2003 (212), and Barry Bonds in 2004 (233). That speaks for itself; in the modern game, Cruz’s recent performance for a player of his age has only been topped by the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history.
Even though he didn’t dominate the league in other years and his defense is still basically unplayable, it still made him one of the most valuable age-35+ players over the last decade. Since 2016, he has ranked third, first, second, and first, respectively, for fWAR among those players.
As I said, the game just continues to get skewed towards younger players, at least on the position player side; with pitchers, there is almost the opposite effect going on where older pitchers can hang around, while younger pitchers are having difficulties with either the run environment or the long ball.
Whatever the causes are, Cruz remains a constant among many changing variables, showing that even in an age dominated by flexibility, rotating rosters, and teams with ever-expanding team control over youngsters, a DH can stand atop them all as an offensive force.