Nelson Cruz has gone through a deep slump in June, to the point where he was benched this weekend. Should his owners be worried?
Although the 28-year-old had put up big numbers at Triple-A in both 2006 and 2007, hitting a combined .317 with 35 homers, 118 RBIs and 18 steals in 533 at-bats, he didn't translate that success to the big league level, hitting .223 and slugging .385 in 130 at-bats in '06, and hitting .235 and slugging .384 in 307 at-bats in '07.
Last season, he took his Triple-A game to yet another level, banging out 37 homers and stealing 24 bases in just 383 at-bats, and was finally able to wield the bat well in the majors, hitting .330 with seven homers in 115 at-bats late in the season.
There was a reason things were different in 2008, why the third time in the majors was the charm. Cruz changed his stance last year, opening it up a bit, and it not only allowed him to handle balls on the inner half of the plate better, but it also helped him with his pitch recognition. He said he's now "seeing the ball with two eyes instead of one eye, being more open and facing toward the pitcher."
For the most part, Cruz has carried last season's success into this season, as he's put up 18 homers and 11 steals thus far. Although the open stance has been a big part of his success, it's also due to his becoming more relaxed, knowing that an 0-for-4 doesn't mean he'll spend the next day on the bench.
"I also think the more you play in the big leagues and the more experience you have, you learn what you need to do to be successful," Cruz said. "But it's also being in there every day, having the confidence knowing that whatever I do today, I am going to be in the lineup tomorrow. It can change your approach, and sometimes you lose your approach when you're not in there every day, and you can't get it back. Sometimes when you get in a slump, you need a couple of games to get out of it."
However, Cruz has been in a slump recently and has indeed found himself on the bench. He was not in the lineup this weekend and has sat out three of the past five games. Although he's hit four homers and swiped two bases this month, he's batting just .173 in June, dropping his season average to .258 and prompting manager Ron Washington give him some time off, mentioning that he thought Cruz seemed a little sluggish.
For his part, Cruz thinks it is just part of the up-and-down swings of the baseball season. Some have suggested the absence of Josh Hamilton in the lineup has been part of the problem, but I'm not certain I'd give that a ton of weight. Numerous studies have shown the concept of lineup protection or benefits from the player before or after you in the lineup is overblown, and while there might be some measurable effects, they are not necessarily meaningful.
I do think this is just a slump for Cruz and that he will work his way out of it. In 101 games and 375 at-bats over the past two seasons in the big leagues, Cruz has hit .280 with 25 HRs, 71 RBIs and 14 SBs, and that production is not a fluke, although Cruz did say it's not quite as easy to steal bases anymore.
"I do have the green light," Cruz said, "but I don't think I am sneaking up anyone anymore. I have 11 bases, so they really pay attention to me now."
It's a good time to talk trade with a potentially disgruntled Cruz owner in your league and pick him up while his value is low. Mention the June average and the recent stint on the bench, and see whether a bargain can be had.
• Another Rangers player who put up some big numbers in a short time in the big leagues last year was first baseman Chris Davis, but unfortunately, he hasn't had the same results in the first months of this season, as he's hitting just .209 while reaching 100 strikeouts more quickly than anyone else in big league history. Thankfully, he has hit 15 homers for his fantasy owners, but that's not quite what they were expecting after a .285 batting average and 17 homers in 80 games in the majors last season.
However, I had heard through the scouting grapevine that Davis was starting to put some better swings on the ball recently, and after watching him during batting practice and a couple of games from various angles this week, I would agree. He has been taking some balls the other way well and has five hits in his past seven games. He still is hitting just .243 in June, but some things appear to be coming together slowly.
I had a long conversation with Davis in which he was very forthcoming about some of the things he's been going through.
"Things obviously haven't started out the way I wanted, and after a while and trying a few different things to correct my mechanics and a couple of different mental approaches, I don't want to say I was beat down, but I was kind of running out of options," Davis said. "I said I was just going to go out there and have as positive an attitude as I could and find a way out of this, and I feel where I want to be right now. At the beginning of the season, something felt like it wasn't clicking, and I didn't feel as comfortable as I do when I was hitting the ball well. I kept going up there trying to find that comfortable feeling, and I finally feel like I've got that now. As long as the approach and the process and the at-bats are in the right direction, the results are going to come."
Davis did have some mechanical issues earlier in the season that were less evident this week. He has some natural loft to his swing, but it had gotten exaggerated in a big bottom-to-top cut that left the normally very good fastball hitter swinging through heaters, as his bat wouldn't stay through the strike zone very long, even if it was quick to get there. He wasn't staying on top of the ball and was pulling off a lot of pitches.
"The biggest thing for me is that I've looked at a lot of swings trying to find my mechanics, but I think my approach is better," Davis said. "I never really struggled more than a couple of weeks in the minor leagues and I was able to get out of it quickly. Maybe part of it is that if I had struggled a little bit in the past I would know how to get out of it, but they've made it clear to me they want me to make adjustments at the big league level, so it's good to know they're sticking with me. Had I not come up last year and had the half-season that I did, I'd probably be in a different boat."
Many point to Davis' strikeout rate as a reason he might not have better production going forward. While he is striking out at a pace that would shatter the big league record, I don't worry too much about lofty strikeout totals if they come with power production. Ryan Howard is an easy example, but a more apt one might be the current single-season strikeout record holder, Mark Reynolds, who is slugging .558 with a .916 OPS this season despite 102 strikeouts.
"A lot of people want to talk about the strkeouts, and they're obviously high," Davis said, "but I struck out a lot of times last year. Are they higher than I want them to be? Absolutely. Is it something I think I can correct? Absolutely. I'm 23 years old and still learning about my swing, and what I can and can't do. I still have some homers, so I think I can end the year on a productive note."
I agree Davis can do exactly that, but with top prospect Justin Smoak raking at Double-A, he probably can't afford to wait too much longer and will need to go on a sustained hot streak fairly soon. He does appear to be enough in tune with his swing again to give himself a chance to do that. Don't give up on him just yet.
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