I’ve never particularly liked Nelson Cruz — one of those puffy, slugging outfielders who is constantly on the shelf with some pull or strain usually acquired trying to play defense. Nothing personal; I just don’t like him. When the veteran was outed last year in the Biogenesis scandal, I thought, “that’s it for him.”
But Dan Duquette, leaping lord of the scrap heap, convinced Cruz to DH for the Orioles on a one-year, $8 million deal and he’s produced like never before. In fact he’s only nine homers and 24 RBI off his career-highs on June 26. He’s been healthy. He hasn’t had to play the field. And with the All-Star Game less than three weeks away, Cruz leads the voting for American League designated hitter by 800,000 votes over David Ortiz.
It’s shocking for a player coming off a suspension for performance-enhancing drug use to garner more votes in a popular vote than the face of the defending World Series champs and a nine-time All-Star who’s one of the more amiable personalities in the game. Maybe other fan bases throughout baseball have tired of Big Papi.
But ultimately, Cruz is having a huge season while Ortiz just hasn’t played up to his standards.
At .256 with 18 home runs and 49 RBI, Ortiz’s power has been there, and he’s had a flair for the dramatic with several key hits and walk-off bombs. But he hasn’t been the same hitter as in recent years. Maybe it’s the pressure of hitting in the middle of an historically anemic lineup. He could be trying to do too much.
His batting average and on-base percentage are at their lowest since 2009, when he slumped due to the lingering effects of a 2008 wrist injury. Further, his strikeout rate of 18.9%, while not at Napoli-an levels, is his highest since 2010, when he struck out a career-high of 145 times. The Big Papi of the last three years has been one of the best contact hitters in the game, with much-improved patience and fewer punch outs.
It’s not like his numbers have fallen off the table, as they did at the time of the wrist injury. But the cleanup hitter for the Boston Red Sox hasn’t performed at his customary All-Star level in 2014. Nelson Cruz has been the best DH in the game. Maybe it’s time to recognize that our hero is nearly 39 years old, hopefully on a gentle downward slope.
And while the underachieving Red Sox will likely send a couple of players to the All-Star Game (Jon Lester and John Lackey are solid candidates among starting pitchers; Koji Uehara should be a shoo-in), Dustin Pedroia won’t be among them, and Big Papi might have to punch his ticket to Target Field via the “Final Vote.”