It's about time we talked about Nelson Cruz, the free agent nobody wanted in the offseason, at least for the money that Nelson Cruz wanted. Coming off a 50-game PED suspension, maligned for his defense, maligned for his age (he turns 34 on July 1), maligned for his mediocre on-base percentages, maligned for playing in a park that boosted his stats, he remained unsigned after spring training had already started, finally going to Baltimore on a one-year, $8 million contract.
Compare that to the $14.1 million qualifying offer he turned down from the Rangers, or the three-year, $48 million contract that ESPN Insider Jim Bowden predicted he'd receive, and Cruz headed to Orioles with his head between his legs a bit.
And maybe something to prove.
Cruz belted his 24th home run on Wednesday, tying Edwin Encarnacion for the major league lead, and it was a big one: A game-tying grand slam with two outs in the eighth inning. The Orioles would go on to beat the White Sox 5-4 in 12 innings on a walk-off wild pitch.
To say Cruz has been the team's MVP is stating the obvious. On a team that relies on the home run, Chris Davis, last year's monster masher, has struggled to replicate his 2013 season; J.J. Hardy, who hit 25 home runs last year, has just one so far this year; Matt Wieters was off to a great start but then hurt his elbow and is out for the season having played just 26 games.
But there's Cruz with his home runs, his .590 slugging percentage and his MLB-leading 64 RBIs. Fans have noticed: He's leading David Ortiz and Encarnacion in the All-Star balloting at designated hitter.
How to explain this? It certainly made sense that considering his age and change of venues from Texas to somewhere else that Cruz was a good bet to enter the decline phase of his career. After all, over the previous three seasons, he'd hit 50 home runs in Arlington and 30 on the road while also hitting 32 points higher at home.
Of course, going to Baltimore played to Cruz's primary strength, the ability to hit the long ball, since Camden Yards has those enticing power alleys. But Camden Yards doesn't explain why he's on pace for 50 home runs.
One of the problems in examining Cruz as a hitter is best represented in these three heat maps, from 2012, 2013 and 2014:
Those three maps looking nothing alike. To me, that's the profile of how Cruz has often been described through the years: He's a classic mistake hitter. Except ... mistakes are usually hanging sliders or changeups that don't move, right? Cruz has done most of his damage against fastballs, especially this year. Here are his home runs off fastballs through the years:
2014: 16 of 24 (67 percent)
2013: 17 of 27 (63 percent)
2012: 13 of 24 (54 percent)
2011: 12 of 29 (41 percent)
2010: 14 of 22 (64 percent)
2009: 19 of 33 (58 percent)
His grand slam on Wednesday came off a 2-1, 95 mph heater from Javy Guerra on the outside corner that Cruz lined just over the wall in right field. Overall, Cruz is hitting .379/.443/.831 off fastballs this year. Over the previous three years, he hit .293/.364/.563 against fastballs. So again: What's going on? He's seeing the same percentage of fastballs as usual (around 50 percent of all pitches). He's not getting into more 2-0 counts. He's not more or less aggressive. He's basically the same Nelson Cruz as always.
He's just crushing fastballs.
I can't really explain it. We've certainly seen this Cruz before, especially in the postseason, where he has 14 home runs in 34 career playoff games. It's a little insulting to suggest Cruz is merely more focused than normal, but I suppose that could be the case, a man on a mission to get a bigger contract next offseason. He could just be hot -- or had an extended hot period. He's actually cooled off in June, hitting .241 with four home runs, compared to .315 with 20 home runs through May.
With all our numbers and access to all kinds of information today, we try to explain things. We can explain many things, or at least attempt to explain why they've happened.
In the case of Cruz, I don't know. I suspect he's sitting on the right pitches at the right time. But that's just guesswork on my part without going back and looking at all 24 home runs. Everything doesn't have an easy answer. I suspect he won't hit 50 home runs, may not even hit 40. He's had injury issues at times. But you never know. It's not like the man doesn't have power.
If you're an Orioles fan, maybe better to forget the analysis and just enjoy the ride. And hope it lasts into October.