MLB Star Power Index: Nelson Cruz’s arc of age-curve defiance; why Adam Wainwright is just fine with his curve

MLB Star Power Index: Nelson Cruz’s arc of age-curve defiance; why Adam Wainwright is just fine with his curve

Welcome to the MLB Star Power Index — a weekly undertaking that determines with awful authority which players are dominating the current zeitgeist of the sport, at least according to the narrow perceptions of this miserable scribe. While one’s presence on this list is often celebratory in nature, it can also be for purposes of lamentation or ridicule. The players listed are in no particular order, just like the phone book.

It’s Old Man River week here at SPI, so in general solidarity with village elders let us take Geritol and make ill-judged remarks from the cab of a Datsun pickup. 

Now for the two biohackers of note this week. 

Nelson Cruz way back yonder in the winter of 2013-14 was 32-year-old corner outfielder who appeared to be a dubious investment on the free-agent market given his age, large build, and declining skills afield. The market seemed to agree, as Cruz, after sitting around unsigned until late February, was reduced to inking a one-year, $8 million contract with the Orioles

Since departing the Rangers after the 2013 season and having little faith shown in him by the free-agency process, here’s what Cruz has done: Batted .285/.361/.554 with 291 home runs in 1,063 games. To put a finer point on it, Cruz through the first nine seasons of his big-league career — i.e., through 2013 — put up a WAR of 12.1; in the eight seasons since then he’s authored a WAR of 30.9. Over those same respective spans, Cruz put an OPS+ of 114 and then across what should’ve been his deep decline period an OPS+ of 149. Those latter eight seasons in which his value has hit the trampoline cover his age-33 through age-40 campaigns. At an age when most players are either marginally useful or out of baseball altogether, Cruz has been a steady purveyor of elite power production. 

The 2021 season, Cruz’s age-40 season, has been no exception. In a combined 125 games for the Rays and Twins, he’s batted .278/.347/.530 (142 OPS+) with 31 home runs. Yes, it’s his age-40 season, but Cruz actually turned 41 on July 1 of this year. That means he was 41 years and 69 days old when he clouted his 30th home of the 2021 season. Sports footage in amazing technicolor forthcoming: 

That 30th home run — the back-end of a two-homer effort against the Red Sox — occasioned history for Large Daddy Tater, as he became the oldest player in MLB history ever to enjoy a 30-homer season. Cruz became just the third slugger ever to hit 30 or more in a season at age 40 or older, joining David Ortiz in 2016 and Darrell Evans in 1987. 

As detailed above, though, Cruz’s arc of age-curve defiance stretches longer than “just” making history in the current season. Since the start of Cruz’s age-35 season, he’s mashed 207 home runs (and counting). Here, then, is where Cruz ranks all-time for home runs hit from age 35 onward: 

Barry Bonds

317

Hank Aaron

245

Rafael Palmeiro

208

Nelson Cruz

207

Andres Galarraga

199

Cruz is one of just four players ever to hit 200 or more homers after the onset of the age-35 season, and bear in mind that the 2020 season spanned just 60 games, which no doubt cost Cruz multiple dingers. Ahead of him is one inner-circle great, Aaron, and two others who would’ve been first-ballot Hall of Famers in the absence of PED scandals. Cruz will almost certainly pass Palmeiro this season, and passing Aaron also seems quite plausible. Yes, Cruz is 41, but he’s still producing at a sky-scraping level. As well, his batted-ball metrics are near the top of the scale, which bodes well for the near- to mid-term. 

He’s a pending free agent, yes, but assuming he wants to play in 2022 and beyond, there should no doubt be suitors. It’s also entirely possible that the next CBA, which should be in place before the start of next season, will yield the universal DH, which would roughly double Cruz’s potential job opportunities. In other words, respect your elders. 

It’s Cardinals tosser Adam Wainwright, and this rotation ballast of long-standing is 40 years of age as of Aug. 30. Similar to Monsieur Cruz above, Wainwright appeared to be past his useful years long about 2014. Coming into 2021, that 2014 season was the last time Wainwright pitched at an ace level while also being healthy. This season, however, Wainwright at age 39 and 40 has put up a 2.88 ERA with his best numbers at the command-and-control level since 2013. Wainwright also presently ranks second in the majors with 190 1/3 innings on the season. He leads the majors in complete games with three, and he ranks second among qualifiers in innings per start. Likely, he’s headed for a top 10 finish in the NL Cy Young balloting. All of that has been especially vital to the contending Cardinals given that injuries have limited presumed ace Jack Flaherty to just 14 starts. 

Let us also appreciate that Wainwright has thrived not with age-defying gas like, say, late-career Roger Clemens or Nolan Ryan (he’s averaged 89.4 mph with his fastball this season). Rather, he’s done it once again by throwing his slow overhand curve a plurality of the time. Relevant video content forthcoming: 

You might be tempted to call that an Uncle Charlie, but the name “Charlie” sounds a little boyish given the 40-year-old moundsman of note. Instead, call it Uncle Abner. 

Anyhow, Wainwright is in line to become just the 28th pitcher since 1900 to put up a WAR of 4.0 or higher at age 39 or older. It says here he’ll join them and then some. 

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