The missing ingredient in the Nelson Cruz Formula

Joe Sheehan got me thinking about Nelson Cruz’s new four-year, $58 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. Joe, as some of you might easily guess, isn’t a big fan of the deal. But I thought I should look around, see if maybe Joe missed something important.

In the Seattle Times, Mariners beat writer Ryan Divish acknowledges the possible pitfalls for the M’s, but also writes the deal “was a necessary move.” Thanks to Divish, I also found Jeff Sullivan’s long essay … and also Jeff Sullivan’s other long essay; they add up to nearly 4,000 words. Just about Nelson Cruz.

From one of those essays:

The Mariners were blessed with Edgar Martinez. Between 1995 – 2004, the Mariners had the best DH slot in the American League, and they were the best by a lot. Then, of course, Edgar retired, and while there was nothing wrong with his retirement, one could say he didn’t do much to help the team to identify a worthy replacement. Between 2005 – 2014, the Mariners had the worst DH slot in the American League, and they were the worst by a lot. You know the stat wRC+? It’s a measure of offense, where 100 is league-average. Over the past decade, the second-worst team DH slot has had a wRC+ of 100. The Mariners came in at 84.

Now here’s the part you really won’t believe. Red Sox DHs — David Ortiz — have led the way, with 32 WAR. Then you’ve got the Indians, at 15.6. The Blue Jays, at 10.4. The Yankees, at 9.0. Keep going down. The Orioles, at 1.0. The Astros, at 0.2. The Mariners, at -11.7. Read that again. The Mariners, at -11.7. Over the past ten years, since Edgar called it a career, Mariner designated hitters have been worth a combined dozen wins below replacement level. This might be the most incredible thing I’ve seen all year. I can’t tell. I objectively recognize it as incredible, but it doesn’t pack the same punch to me since it’s not really a surprise. We’ve all lived it. We just didn’t look at it so cumulatively.

It’s amazing how bad the Mariners have been there. At what’s supposed to be the very easiest spot to put a hitter, the Mariners have posted the same collective positional wRC+ as Ben Revere…

We humans think we’re so rational, so smart. We’re really not. If your DH did well last season but is leaving, you probably don’t commit $58 million to Nelson Cruz. Because you can easily remember having a productive DH, and so you can easily imagine finding another productive DH. In fact, this seems to be exactly what the Orioles (who had the actual Nelson Cruz) are doing. They went out and found a Nelson Cruz, for not a great deal of money, and figure they can find another Nelson Cruz, also for not a great deal of money.

But because the Mariners cannot remember a productive DH since Edgar Martinez—instead, the visions of Corey Hart and Kendrys Morales and Jack Cust and Eduardo Perez and Jose Vidro and Jesus Montero and Wily Mo and Old Junior Griffey and Old Carl Everett and Old Mike Sweeney dance about in their heads—they naturally have come to believe that no, maybe you can’t just sign any old hitter and expect him to hit 30 homers and drive in a hundred runs. In fact, in the post-Edgar era, only Raul Ibañez has more than 80 RBI in one season, and only Kendrys Morales has more than 20 home runs.

Now, it should be said that part of the problem is Safeco Field. It’s just hard to hit there. Always has been, probably always will be. Last season the M’s ranked 12th in the American League in slugging percentage … but 9th in road slugging percentage. Which is not, for them, atypical. In fact, they did exactly the same thing in 2013. Not that 9th is good, either. But in a 15-team league it’s not terrible. Like the Padres, the Mariners will often have little choice but to get the best hitters they can, and tolerate what seem like lousy numbers (but aren’t really so lousy).

One wonders, then, if anyone in the Mariners’ front office will be shocked when Nelson Cruz’s numbers drop off, perhaps in a big way, because a) he’s getting old, b) he’s coming off his career season, and c) he’ll suddenly be playing half his games in an extremely unfriendly ballpark.

Maybe nobody will be shocked. Nothing I’ve written here qualifies as a trade secret, and everybody does look at the Internet every day. So what’s going on? How does Nelson Cruz get a contract that might pay him more than twice what he’s supposedly “worth”? According to Lookout Landing’s Scott Weber, “Cruz fills a need at a non-crippling cost.”

And there you have it! Is there a need? Yes. Can we fill that need without crippling the franchise in the near future? Yes. Fine, then. Contract is justifiable.

And remember, it’s not just the Mariners. The A’s just invested $30 million in Billy Butler. The Red Sox just invested $95 million in a 245-pound third baseman. If you assume that a “win” is worth seven or eight million dollars, none of these contracts make much sense.

So what’s nonsensical? Our analysis, or the contracts? Because it seems like a bunch of pretty smart people are perfectly willing to spend significantly more than $7 million per win.

Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if we’ve got all these nifty equations but something’s missing. I wonder if maybe it’s … love?*

* That’s a movie reference! But I won’t spoil anything by telling you which movie.