On Monday, we shared with you the 1999 Hall of Miller and Eric candidates. And what a bunch it is with four slam dunk candidates – Brett, Fisk, Ryan, and Yount. After this election, we’re going to be down to 50 or fewer players to go. Sure, it’s 50 spots, but so many of those spots are already spoken for. I don’t think I’m offering much of a spoiler to when I say Dave Winfield and Ozzie Smith and Ryne Sandberg and Dennis Eckersley have their HoME plaques as good as written. Operationally, we’re really down to our last few positions.
So today we discuss a player who we’re still considering for one of those positions, one I’d have never bet would be in the mix after his inaugural ballot of 1995, Jose Cruz. Cheo Cruz began his career as a 23-year-old for the Cardinals at the very end of the 1970 season. After four more pretty mediocre campaigns, he was sold to the Astros, the team for which he’d make his HoME case, before finishing things up in the Bronx in 1988. All told, he put up an impressive .284/.354/.420 line with over 1000 runs, over 1000 RBIs, and over 2200 hits, including an NL-leading 189 in 1983.
We don’t know what to do with Cruz, and I’m frankly shocked he’s still in the running. And when we don’t know how to treat a player, we run him through our Saberhagen List. Our version of Bill James’ Keltner List represents an effort to better understand a player’s candidacy. Hopefully that’ll happen for Cruz.
How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?
Well, Cruz only made two All-Star teams. But as an outstanding defender who didn’t hit for much power at a corner outfield position, we could already predict he’d be underrated. Sure enough, Cruz provides another data point to keep that argument alive. He played at an All-Star-level (5+ WAR) four times. For reference, HoMEr left fielder Zack Wheat also reached that level but four times, and Jim O’Rourke got there just thrice. On the other hand, guys for whom we’ve written obituaries like Willie Stargell, Jim Rice, Augie Galan, and Del Ennis also have four such seasons on their résumés.
It’s not common to find HoME-level players with only four seasons of 5+ wins, but it happens. Dwight Evans and Willie Randolph are two more examples. I’d bet that Andre Dawson, Ozzie Smith, and Dave Winfield get in, and they only had four such seasons. So the more modern player, competing in a more balanced and deeper league, can reach the HoME with only four All-Star-type seasons. Cruz certainly isn’t eliminated by this standard.
How many MVP-type seasons did he have?
Cruz didn’t have a single one. He topped out at about 6.9 wins in 1984. Of the 56 players in my data set who have exactly four All-Star-level seasons, only 18 of them ever reached the 8 WAR typically associated with an MVP season.
Of the 38 players remaining on the list, there are some high quality players. Willie Davis is there, if only barely. And we have Lou Whitaker, and the aforementioned Zack Wheat, Willie Randolph, and Ozzie Smith too. A player if far from disqualified without putting up an MVP-level season and having four 5-WAR seasons to his credit.
Was he a good enough player that he could continue to play regularly after passing his prime?
This is a strange question for Cruz. He played his best ball in seasons where he turned 36 and 37. After that it was decline, decline, decline, release. What can mostly be said of Cruz is that he had a late prime. His best ten seasons came from age 28 through age 37. During that time, he was easily one of the game’s best ten players.
Are his most comparable players in the HoME?
To determine the list of comparable non-pitchers, I considered only those who are within 10% of his WAR for his best five years, seven years, ten years, twelve years, fifteen years, and for his career. As Cruz was a plus, plus defender, I also eliminated any player who lost value on defense by DRA as sufficiently different.
The list that emerged was an interesting one. Bid McPhee, Zack Wheat, Max Carey, Reggie Smith, Billy Herman, Willie Davis, and Wally Schang are all in the HoME. Hardy Richardson, Mike Griffin, Bobby Doerr, Chet Lemon, and Bert Campaneris have had their obituaries written. We’re still considering Sam Rice, Sal Bando, Harry Stovey, and Joe Medwick. And we haven’t yet reviewed Will Clark and Tony Phillips.
Cruz’s comps suggest that he could certainly be a HoMEr and that he could fall just short.
Was he ever the best left fielder in baseball? Or in his league?
At his 1983-1984 peak, Cruz had a very reasonable argument as the game’s best left fielder. And he was far and away tops in the NL. But it gets a whole lot better than that.
If we expand things to 1976-1984, Cruz is pretty easily the game’s best left fielder. And if we include all outfield positions, it’s still Jose Cruz.
Considering all hitters, he’s bested only by Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, and Buddy Bell in total WAR. That’s a heck of a profile.
Did he ever have a reasonable case for being called the best player in baseball? Or in his league?
He played in the same league as Mike Schmidt, so no.
Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse than is suggested by his statistics?
I think it’s possible we misinterpret Cruz’s statistics a little bit. Michael Humphreys calls him the fifth best left fielder of all time. But he also admits that the Astrodome might make his defensive stats appear better than his actual defensive ability.
Conversely, his main home park absolutely suppressed offense. BBREF has a number called AIR, which represents the offensive level of the leagues and parks the hitter played in. With 100 as average and Cruz’s number at 91, we can see that he played in a situation that suppressed his offense a decent amount.
Did he have a positive impact on pennant races and in post-season series?
Cruz experienced his first pennant race with the Cardinals in 1974 when he was very much a part-time player. From September 10, when his Cards were down 3.5 games, through season’s end, he didn’t make a single start, but he was spectacular when called upon. In 13 trips to the plate, he homered, singled five times, and walked three times. St. Louis took a lead at one point and were tied going into the last day of the season. Cruz had a pinch single that day, but his Cardinals lost the game and the division.
A Houston Astro in 1979, Cruz saw his team up by half a game on September 1. From that point until the end of the season, he hit .286/.333/.396 on a season where he had been .289/.373/.426 before that. He didn’t excel, but he didn’t crater either. The Astros finished a game and a half behind the Reds.
The next season would be Cheo’s first taste of the playoffs. They were again up by half a game as September opened. And Cruz and his Astros tried to blow it. Cruz hit just .250/.281/.359 after hitting .316/.380/.444 before that. Losing three straight to the Dodgers to get caught after 162 games, Cruz stunk it up, going just 1-13. But in the playoff game he had a hit and drove in a run in a rout of LA.
Once the NLCS began, he was outstanding, posting a .400/.609/.600 line in the five-game loss to the Phillies. In the deciding game, he singled, doubled, walked twice, drove in two, and scored one. It was his RBI single with two outs in the eighth that tied the game and helped the ‘stros go to extras. Frank LaCorte couldn’t come through on the mound, and Houston was bounced before the Series.
The next season the Astros won the NL West’s second half and faced the Dodgers in the NLDS. Winning the first two games wasn’t enough though. In the three losses that followed, Cruz went 4-11 with a double and a walk. Still, his team fell.
Houston next went to the playoffs in the epic series against the Mets in 1986. There was no pennant race to speak of, and the 38-year-old Cruz didn’t do much at all in the playoffs, .192/.222/.192. He singled Kevin Bass to third with nobody out in the second inning of Game 5. But Dr. K got out of the jam, and Cruz’s Astros lost 2-1 in 12 innings. Then in the finale, he plated Houston’s third run in the first inning but did no more damage, as Houston lost in 16 innings. That was it for Cruz and pennant chases.
Is he the best eligible player at his position not in the HoME?
This is a very interesting call. We’re currently still considering Joe Kelley, Roy White, Joe Medwick, and Ralph Kiner. There’s a reasonable argument to be made that he ranks anywhere from first to fifth on that list. I prefer him to Kiner’s very short peak, and I might prefer him to Medwick too. I’m not sure as to my disposition regarding him versus Kelley or Cruz.
Is he the best eligible candidate not in the HoME?
In a year where George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Robin Yount, and Nolan Ryan are on the ballot, I think not.
As is sometimes the case immediately after running Saberhagen, there may be more questions than answers. Should we really trust Cruz’s DRA numbers? And if we can’t, can we possibly elect him? How is a guy as apparently great as he was from 1976-1984 so overlooked? Could it just be his style of play and un-sexy skill set combined with a tough home park?
I don’t know what to do with Jose Cruz yet, but I never thought he would make to this point. So I guess that’s a bit of progress for the underrated star of the 70s and 80s.