MLB trends: Has Father Time caught up to Nelson Cruz?; Camden Yards’ new dimensions making notable difference

The 2022 MLB regular season is a little over a month old and we’ve already had two no-hitters. Last month, five Mets pitchers rallied to avoid hitting the Phillies. On Tuesday, Angels rookie leftist Reid Detmers failed to meet the Rays. A record nine no-hitters were thrown in 2021. Will we approach this record in 2022? We got off to a good start if nothing else.

With that in mind, our weekly series, which breaks down various trends in the league, continues Wednesday and takes a look at the struggles of a veteran hitter, an aspiring helper and the transformation of a ballpark. Last week we looked at the rough end of the Red Sox’s lineup, Alex Cobb’s newfound speed, and the rising strikeout rate in the low minors.

The worrying signs at Cruz

Dear reader, I am not pleased to report that we may be witnessing the end of Nelson Cruz’s glorious career. The soon-to-be 42-year-old is working on a one-year, $15 million contract with the Nationals and was terrible at first: .170/.258/.255 in 121 plate appearances. The underlying numbers for Tuesday’s game were fraught with problematic signs:

  • 89.0 mph average exit speed (up from 92.9 mph in 2021)
  • 40.7 percent severely affected rate (up from 52.0 percent in 2021)
  • Barrel rate of 8.6 percent (vs. 13.5 percent in 2021)
  • 57.5 percent groundball rate (up from 42.9 percent in 2021)
  • .179 AVG and .313 SLG vs. Fastballs (compared to .297 AVG and .572 SLG vs. Fastballs in 2021)

The classic signs of a slowing racquet are a decrease in hitting ability, an increase in groundballs, a susceptibility to fastballs, and an increase in swings and misses. Cruz is actually swinging, missing less than last year (12.8 percent vs. 14.1 percent), though all the other red flags are there. He has problems with fastballs and tends to put weaker hit balls on the ground.

“I wouldn’t worry about him just yet. He’s proven that when it comes to his career, he wins when there’s a doubt,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington’s Matt Weyrich last week. “…Shortened spring training, veteran, he needed those five weeks to get his body in shape. He came to us late.”

The Twins traded Cruz to the Rays on July 22 of last season, and while he wasn’t as prolific with Tampa (.226/.283/.441) as he was with Minnesota (.294/.370/.527), his base numbers were strong. He still hit the ball hard in the air, it just wasn’t rewarded as much. Now Cruz seems to have lost that ability. At least we haven’t seen it in 2022.

Cruz has had a truly remarkable career. He didn’t 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 voter in five different seasons (including two sixth-place finishes). He’s also one of the sport’s most popular clubhouse types.

The only thing Cruz is missing is a World Series ring, which is what made his decision to sign at Nationals so odd. They lost 97 games a year ago and have looked even worse this season. I suppose Cruz could have joined Washington with the understanding that they would sell him to a competitor by deadline, although that seems overly complicated. Why not cut out the middle man?

Anyway, Father Time is coming for all of us, and there’s evidence he’s come for Cruz. Cruz hasn’t demonstrated the ability to hit the ball hard this season (as a DH, hitting the ball hard is the most important skill) nor has he been able to handle fastballs. There are still four and a half months to play, but signs point to an age-related decline. It had to happen eventually, and honestly, it’s amazing it didn’t happen sooner. Rarely is a player in his 40s as productive as Cruz.

Helsley emerges as a relief ace

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What a start to the season for Cardinals righty Ryan Helsley. For the past three seasons, the 27-year-old Helsley has been an enticing hard-thrower with less than stellar results (4.03 ERA and 1.89 K/BB in 96 relief innings from 2019-21). Earlier this year he made the leap to becoming a real bullpen monster. His numbers are almost comical: 10 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 20 K. Gosh.

Helsley has hit 100 mph many times in the past, and this season he owns the MLB’s fastest pitch at 103.1 mph. He threw eight pitches over 100 mph in an 18-pitch outing against the Diamondbacks. It was a power pitching tour de force.

“I think we’re seeing a completely healthy, confident Helsley,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol told Derrick Goold St. Louis mail delivery Last month. “If you see 100 with off-speed pitches for strikes, he’s going to be a big part of that bullpen.”

Three years ago Helsley was struggling with a sore shoulder and last season it was a knee problem that led to compromised mechanics and eventually a stress reaction in his elbow. Helsley underwent season-ending surgery in August to clean the knee. Now, with a healthy knee, he’s streamlined his mechanics and added even more to his fastball, which is now sits about 99 km/h.

Here’s what Helsley told The Athletic’s Katie Woo about his healthy knee:

“I felt like I didn’t land that strong on my front,” Helsley said while sitting on a bench in the dugout at Busch Stadium last week. “I think I had too much flex in my knee to avoid the pain I was going to feel. Now I feel like I can land a little stiffer and stronger and use my front end more than before. The stronger bottom half is where a lot of the (speed) comes from.”

There’s more to Helsley’s fastball than the radar gun (FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens notes that the pitch has improved shape, which means more ride) and there’s more to Helsley than a big fastball. He’s also working a slider from the upper 80’s and a curveball that clocks in at around 80 mph. How do you hit an 80-mile curveball when you’re bracing for 100-mile heat? The answer is you don’t.

More than 80 percent of the hitters Helsley has faced this season either batted or hit a ground ball. He overpowered thugs. His 81.5 mph legal exit speed is as good as it gets, and his 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 batter and even get hit a bit. This is baseball. However, with a healthy knee, Helsley looks set to make the leap from exciting but enigmatic arm to true shutdown helper for St. Louis. Arm talent was always evident. Now he brings everything together.

The new Camden Yards

This year marks the beginning of a new era in Orioles baseball. Not because the team is ready to assert itself, or because top prospect Adleyrutschman has joined the MLB roster (although that should happen soon), but because Camden Yards has new dimensions. The Orioles moved the left field wall back up to 30 feet in some places and increased 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 badass O-Teams? — is opposite the old wall:

Seeing the dimensions in a rendering is one thing. Seeing them on the field and in action is another and there have already been several fly balls that have remained at the new Camden Yards that would have left the old Camden Yards. Ryan Mountcastle had a 404-foot flyball turned into a double from the top of the wall. Anthony Santander watched a Grand Slam turn into a sacrificial fly.

The Orioles have played 16 home games this season, and I’m counting nine balls hit that would clearly have been home runs with the old left field dimensions left at the new park (there are a few others that are borderline), including Mountcastles Double and Santander’s sack fly. Here are the nine:

In 16 games, Camden Yards has hit 17 home runs (1.06 per game), including just two – two! — to left field (0.13 per game). Last season, in the first 16 games at Camden Yards, there were 45 home runs (2.82 per game), including 15 to left field (.94 per game). In 2019, he hit 63 home runs in 16 games (3.94 per game), with 32 hits in left field (2.00 per game).

Here are the two home runs that cleared Mount Elias this season:

Home runs have been down across the league this season, so it’s not just the new dimensions that are contributing to the decline of things in Baltimore. The Orioles have also improved their pitching staff and continued to lower their home run rate. The bottom line, however, is that the new dimensions take away from home runs, which was intended.

“It’s being done with the goal of bringing the playing conditions closer to league norms,” ​​Elias told The Score’s Travis Sawchik in January. “It’s been an extreme park for home runs since its inception. It’s only grown as the style of play has evolved in the major leagues.”

The unspoken part is that the dimensional changes will do the Orioles more good than harm. From 2019–21, their pitchers gave up 369 home runs at Camden yards while their hitters hit just 275. The difference is about one home run every two games. The O’s wouldn’t have done this unless they believed it would help their specific group of players and spur on the rebuild.

Camden Yards is one of baseball’s crown jewels. It’s a beautiful ballpark and maybe I’ll grow fond of the new dimensions over time, but right now the new left field looks a bit gimmicky. The Orioles built contenders and postseason teams during their first 30 seasons at Camden Yards. Why the dimensions had to be changed three decades later to bring a contender to the field I’m not sure.

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