As the Nationals’ bats have started to heat up the last few days, one glaring hole in the middle of their lineup has been the spot occupied by Nelson Cruz. The 41-year-old isn’t just off to a slow start by his standards, he enters play Wednesday hitting .143 with two extra-base hits and a .442 OPS in 24 games to begin the season.
Those are some startling numbers for a player who’s either made an All-Star team or received MVP votes each of the last nine years. Manager Davey Martinez moved him back and forth between the No. 3 spot and cleanup over the last week to get him going, but Cruz had yet to hit his groove before exiting Tuesday’s game against the Colorado Rockies with back stiffness.
Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo joined 106.7 The Fan’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday morning and expressed confidence in the veteran DH’s ability to turn his season around.
“I feel comfortable because he feels good,” Rizzo said. “He had a little back spasm last night but I think that his overall health is good and that makes me feel good because…at the end of the season I think his numbers are gonna be there. Just because he knows how to go through the grind and he’s such a strong, capable hitter and I think that he’s got a lot of hits ahead of him this year.”
To Rizzo’s point, there’s always an element of luck involved when it comes to small sample sizes and that’s exactly what the Nationals are looking at with Cruz sitting at 104 plate appearances on the season. His batting average on balls in play is just .153, a far cry from his career average of .305. Cruz also has a home-run-per-flyball rate of 9.5% (his lifetime ratio is 21.2%), which suggests more of the balls he hits in the air should be leaving the yard.
However, the slugger’s big problem has been his inability to hit flyballs in the first place. His average launch angle of 6.2 degrees is on pace to be the lowest since ball tracking data was implemented in 2015, resulting in a 55.4% groundball rate that ranks 10th highest in baseball. Cruz isn’t hitting the ball as hard as he usually does, either, recording only six barrels thus far.
“I wouldn’t be worried about him just yet,” Rizzo said. “He’s proven that he gets the benefit of the doubt because of the career that he’s had. I just like the fact that he’s swinging the bat and playing the game healthy. I think the hits are gonna be there. He’s showing the bat speed that he’s had in the past and when he’s hit balls with that launch angle they still leave the ballpark.
“Shortened spring training, veteran player, he needed those five weeks to get his body into shape [and] he joined us late. But I think that he does his job each and every day he comes to the ballpark and he’s a leader by example and he’s good protection for Juan Soto in that batting order. He’s gonna get his. At the end of the season we’ll look up and say, ‘Hey, Nelly had another hell of a season again like he always has.’”
The Nationals are willing to be patient with Cruz, something that should be easier to do if the rest of the lineup can continue to produce as it has since Friday. Over their last four games, the team has outscored opponents 38-20 while averaging more than 15 hits per contest. They still have two more games at Coors Field as well, so they may not be done yet.
While Cruz is day-to-day with his back injury, his team is confident that he’ll find a way to get right once he does return to the lineup.