The 2022 MLB regular season is a little more than a month old and already we’ve had two no-hitters. Last month five Mets pitchers combined to no-hit the Phillies. On Tuesday, Angels rookie lefty Reid Detmers no-hit the Rays. A record nine no-hitters were thrown in 2021. Will we approach that record in 2022? We’re off to a good start, if nothing else.
With that in mind, our weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at one veteran slugger’s struggles, an emerging reliever, and a ballpark’s transformation. Last week we look at the Red Sox’s rough bottom of the lineup, Alex Cobb’s newfound velocity, and the rising strikeout rate in the low minors.
The troubling signs with Cruz
Reader, it brings me no pleasure to tell you we may be witnessing the end of Nelson Cruz’s great career. The soon-to-be 42-year-old is working on a one-year, $15 million contract with the Nationals and he’s been terrible in the early going: .170/.258/.255 in 121 plate appearances. The underlying numbers heading into Tuesday’s game were loaded with troublesome signs:
- 89.0 mph average exit velocity (down from 92.9 mph in 2021)
- 40.7 percent hard-hit rate (down from 52.0 percent in 2021)
- 8.6 percent barrel rate (down from 13.5 percent in 2021)
- 57.5 percent ground ball rate (up from 42.9 percent in 2021)
- .179 AVG and .313 SLG vs. fastballs (down from .297 AVG and .572 SLG vs. fastballs in 2021)
The classic signs of a slowing bat are a decline in hard-hit ability, an increase in ground balls, susceptibility to fastballs, and an increase in swings and misses. Cruz is actually swinging and missing less than last year (12.8 percent vs. 14.1 percent), though all the other red flags are there. He’s having trouble with fastballs and he’s putting more weakly hit balls on the ground.
“I wouldn’t be worried about him just yet. He’s proven that he gets the benefit of the doubt because of the career that he’s had,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington’s Matt Weyrich last week. “…Shortened spring training, veteran player, he needed those five weeks to get his body into shape. He joined us late.”
The Twins traded Cruz to the Rays on July 22 last season, and although he was not as productive with Tampa (.226/.283/.441) as he was with Minnesota (.294/.370/.527), the underlying numbers were strong. He was still hitting the ball hard in the air, he was just not being rewarded as much. Now Cruz seems to have lost that ability. At minimum, we haven’t seen it yet in 2022.
Cruz has had a truly remarkable career. He did not play his first full MLB season until age 28 and only Barry Bonds (317) and Hank Aaron (245) hit more home runs after age 35 than Cruz (211). Cruz is a seven-time All-Star and an MVP vote-getter in five different seasons (including two sixth-place finishes). He’s also one of the most beloved clubhouse guys in the sport.
The only thing Cruz is missing is a World Series ring, which made his decision to sign with the Nationals so curious. They lost 97 games a year ago and looked to be even worse this season. I suppose Cruz could have joined Washington with the understanding they would trade him to a contender at the deadline, though that seems overly complicated. Why not cut out the middle man?
Either way, Father Time comes for us all, and there are indications he has come for Cruz. Cruz hasn’t shown the ability to hit the ball hard this season (as a DH, hitting the ball hard is the single most important skill), nor has he been able to handle fastballs. There’s still four-and-a-half months to play, but signs point to age-related decline. It was bound to happen eventually, and frankly it’s astonishing it didn’t happen sooner. Rarely is a player as productive as Cruz into his 40s.
Helsley emerging as relief ace
What a start to the season for Cardinals righty Ryan Helsley. Over the last three seasons the 27-year-old Helsley was a tantalizing hard-thrower with less than stellar results (4.03 ERA and 1.89 K/BB in 96 relief innings from 2019-21). Early on this year he’s made the jump to bona fide bullpen monster. His numbers are almost comical: 10 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 20 K. Goodness.
Helsley has hit 100 mph many times in the past, and this season he owns MLB’s fastest pitch at 103.1 mph. He threw eight pitches over 100 mph in one 18-pitch outing against the Diamondbacks. It was a power pitching tour de force.
“I think we’re seeing a fully healthy, confident Helsley,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month. “When you’re seeing 100 with off-speed pitches for strikes, he’s going to be a huge part of this bullpen.”
Three years ago Helsley battled an achy shoulder and last season it was a knee issue that led to compromised mechanics and, eventually, a stress reaction in his elbow. Helsley had season-ending surgery to clean up the knee in August. Now, with a healthy knee, he’s tightened up his mechanics and added even more to his fastball, which now sits around 99 mph.
“I felt like on my front side I wasn’t landing as strong,” Helsley said as he sat atop a bench in the dugout at Busch Stadium last week. “I think I had too much flexion in my knee trying to dodge the pain I would feel. Now I feel like I can land a little stiffer and stronger and use my front side more than I was. The stronger lower half is where a lot of the (velocity) comes from.”
There is more to Helsley’s fastball than the radar gun reading (Ben Clemens at FanGraphs notes the pitch has improved shape, meaning more ride) and there’s more to Helsley than a big fastball. He also works with an upper-80s slider and a curveball that sits right around 80 mph. How do you hit an 80 mph curveball when you have to gear up for 100 mph heat? The answer is you don’t.
More than 80 percent of the batters Helsley has faced this season have either struck out or hit a ground ball. He has overwhelmed hitters. His 81.5-mph average exit velocity allowed is as good as it gets, and the 20 strikeouts in 10 innings speak for themselves. This is as good a 10-inning stretch as we’ve seen from any reliever in recent history.
The season is long and unforgiving, and at some point Helsley will walk a batter and even get hit around a little bit. That’s baseball. With a healthy knee though, Helsley looks like he’s making the jump from exciting but enigmatic arm to bona fide shut down reliever for St. Louis. The arm talent was always obvious. Now he’s putting it all together.
The new Camden Yards
This year marks the beginning of a new era of Orioles baseball. Not because the team is ready to contend or because top prospect Adley Rutschman has joined the MLB roster (though that should happen soon), but because Camden Yards has new dimensions. The Orioles moved the left field wall back as much as 30 feet in some spots, and raised the wall height to 16 feet.
Here’s where the new wall — the new wall needs a nickname, maybe Mount Elias for GM Mike Elias, the architect of these hard-tanking O’s teams? — lies in relation to the old wall:
Seeing the dimensions in a rendering is one thing. Seeing them on the field and in action is another, and already there have been several fly balls that stayed in the new Camden Yards that would have left the old Camden Yards. Ryan Mountcastle had a 404-foot fly ball turn into a double off the top of the wall. Anthony Santander watched a grand slam turn into a sacrifice fly.
The Orioles have played 16 home games this season and I count nine batted balls that clearly would have been home runs with the old left field dimensions that stayed in the new park (there are a few others that are borderline), including Mountcastle’s double and Santander’s sac fly. Here are the nine:
Through 16 games there have been 17 home runs hit at Camden Yards (1.06 per game), including only two — two! — to left field (0.13 per game). Last season there were 45 home runs in the first 16 games at Camden Yards (2.82 per game), including 15 to left field (0.94 per game). In 2019, it was 63 homers through 16 games (3.94 per game), with 32 hit to left field (2.00 per game).
Here are the two homers that have cleared Mount Elias this season:
Home runs are down all across the league this season, so it’s not just the new dimensions that are contributing to decline in dingers in Baltimore. The Orioles have improved their pitching staff as well, cutting into the home run rate further. Bottom line though, the new dimensions are taking away home runs, which was the intention.
“It is being done with the goal in mind of bringing the playing conditions more toward the league norm,” Elias told The Score’s Travis Sawchik in January. “Since inception, it’s been an extreme park for home runs. That has only grown as the style of play in the major leagues has evolved.”
The unspoken part is that the dimension changes will benefit the Orioles more than hurt them. From 2019-21, their pitchers gave up 369 home runs at Camden Yards while their hitters hit only 275. The difference is roughly one home run every two games. The O’s would not have done this unless they believed it would help their specific group of players and advance the rebuild.
Camden Yards is one of baseball’s crown jewels. It is a gorgeous ballpark and maybe the new dimensions will grow on me in time, but, right now, the new left field looks a bit gimmicky. The Orioles built contenders and postseason teams in the first 30 seasons at Camden Yards. Why the dimensions had to change three decades later to put a contender on the field, I’m not sure.