Nelson Cruz is not quite the oldest player on the Seattle Mariners’ roster. That honor, Cruz notes lightheartedly, belongs to backup catcher Carlos Ruiz, who entered this world a little more than 17 months before Seattle’s All-Star designated hitter.
Still, it is something of a marvel that Cruz, now 37 years old, remains one of the American League’s most productive sluggers. He leads the American League in RBI with 70, a feat he has managed in fewer at-bats than the seven guys ranked immediately behind him. His home run total (17) is lagging a bit behind that of his previous three seasons – each yielded 40-plus dingers – but he still ranks a healthy 11th in the league in on-base-plus-slugging (OPS), and is batting .292.
So Cruz is an All-Star yet again. He’s not a starter – Tampa Bay’s Corey Dickerson claimed a narrow victory in the fan voting for the starting DH spot – but Cruz was elected as a reserve and will make his fifth All-Star Game appearance on Tuesday in Miami. He will be joined by Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, who was originally snubbed before taking the place of injured New York Yankees second baseman Starlin Castro.
Now in his third season with the Mariners, Cruz has surpassed even the most optimistic expectations for what his tenure in Seattle could be. He has hit 103 homers in two-and-a-half seasons, driven in 266 runs, been an All-Star twice, and hit .295 with an OPS of .920. In other words: even if he goes completely busto next season, the four-year, $57 million contract he signed in December 2014 will still have been worth every penny.
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After you get past 30, the abilities go away if you don’t push yourself and make sure you do your routine daily.
Nelson Cruz, who at 37 still is among the best sluggers in the league
“Pretty incredible,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Really, when you look at it, I think a lot of people wrote Nelson Cruz off a few years ago. … I think what he’s done — he totally changed his routine. It’s a credit to him and how in tune he is to the changing of the times, I think, and how to stay healthy and get the most out of his physical ability.”
That praise is amplified by the club’s performance specialist, James Clifford, who says of Cruz: “He’s different.”
“I wish he wasn’t an outlier, but he somewhat is, when it comes to his preparation,” Clifford said. “His routine isn’t just his training. Basically everything revolves around being ready to play at whatever time the game is.”
Such preparation, Cruz said, is crucial for a player his age.
“After you get past 30,” Cruz said, “the abilities go away if you don’t push yourself and make sure you do your routine daily.”
In Clifford’s words, here is what Cruz’s typical day looks like:
“At least five out of the seven days of the week, he’s in early – soft tissue work, corrective exercises, mobility work and training. The days he isn’t in training, he’s still coming in doing his corrective exercises. That’s just his first time in a day.
“At post-(batting practice), he takes little naps. He takes a little 20-minute power nap almost daily just to get the mind refreshed. Most of the time he does sleep; other times he’ll just visualize and do other things to get mentally prepared for that day.
“And then as soon as he’s done with that, he gets ready. He’ll come in pregame and just basically do a lot of activation work, make sure everything’s turned on, things are moving the way they should move, and getting his blood flowing and getting his nervous system fired up.
“That doesn’t take into account the nutrition side of things, also. He brings in his own food a lot of times, just making sure everything he does revolves around just getting ready to play that day.”
In the offseason, a few weeks before reporting to spring training, Cruz says he works out from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., running and hitting and doing field work before heading in to get ice and a massage.
He said he changed his routine after his 2012 season in Texas, bothered by a few hamstring injuries. So he focused more of his training on his legs, and became more diligent about stretching.
Cruz does have more time each day to focus on his preparation, given that he is now essentially a full-time designated hitter (he has appeared in the outfield in only four games this season, after playing right field in 48 games last year and 80 in 2015).
But Servais is quick to note that despite not playing in the field anymore, Cruz is as engaged as anybody in the dugout.
“He’s in the cage, he’s staying loose, he’s going to be ready for his at-bats. But he’s also into the game,” Servais said. “… He is in the dugout, he’s talking to guys even when his at-bats aren’t coming up, (saying), ‘let’s go, let’s get on base,’ and that type of stuff. It’s not just about his at-bat. He wants us to win. He knows he’s a big part of it.”
Said Cruz: “Anything that I can do to help, I’m there for.”
It’s why young teammates such as rookie outfielder Mitch Haniger are eager to glean tips from Cruz during hitters meetings. And Cruz is always willing to speak up.
“If Robbie or Nelly has success off the guy before, they’ll kind of share their general approach against him – what they look for, what they think about his stuff,” Haniger said.
Minor ailments of the hamstring and knee have slowed Cruz some this season, though obviously not much. He has missed only five of Seattle’s first 90 games, and appears poised to finish the season with a stat line that belies his age.
“Everything has been hard. Nothing has been easy,” Cruz said. “I’ve always worked to get where I am, to get what I want. That’s the only way that I know to do it.”