by JACK KEWITSCH
At 40 years old, age seems to be but a number for Nelson Cruz. For the Minnesota Twins’ designated hitter, he has become an ageless wonder, escaping Father Time for another year. At least that is what fans have been treated to this early in this truncated season.
It has only been three games, but Cruz has continued to terrorize opposing pitching staffs. At, least the White Sox staff that is, solidifying his role as one of the most terrifying hitters in Major League Baseball. He is leading the league with seven runs, seven hits, three home runs, and 10 RBI, while also racking up an absurd slugging (1.385) and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.956), putting him way above pace to break every projection statisticians had for him coming into the year.
If Cruz was to continue hitting at this torrid pace, or even under it, he would be among elite company — not just among hitters in the league this year, but of all time. Only four players over the age of 40 have ever managed to register an OPS over .900: Harold Baines, Moises Alou, Willie Mays and Ty Cobb, a list that would likely catapult Cruz into the Hall of Fame if he were to join.
Again, it has been an extremely small sample size and the season may be in jeopardy. Thanks, Miami Marlins. But it appears Cruz has not lost a step during the pandemic-induced hiatus.
This begs the question: how is he doing this?
Less than a year removed from one of his best seasons in his illustrious 15-year career, there are a few potential answers. After hitting 41 home runs, 108 RBI, and batting .311, some will immediately point to the usage of performance enhancing drugs.
They aren’t necessarily wrong, as Cruz was found guilty of such claims back in 2013, but it is too early to tell. That, and one could speculate Twins fans could turn a blind eye to it if it meant bringing the first major championship to the state in nearly 30 years. But that may be wrong too. Plus, wouldn’t Cruz have been caught by now?
So how is he performing at such a high level at age 40? Well, if we ignore the argument for illegal substances, we only need to look at history for the answer. We don’t even have to go that far back.
In 2016, David Ortiz put together arguably the best season by a 40-year old of all-time, hitting 38 home runs, while leading the American League with 127 RBI, and MLB in slugging (.620) and OPS (1.021) — all while hitting .315. If you dove deeper into the advanced analytics, you would have even more verification that he was a monster in 2016.
Yet the real question is how he did it. In a 2013 interview with the Boston Globe, Ortiz dove into the details of how he performed the way he did late in his career, citing everything from trainers teaching him the importance of working out the whole body to his nutrition and simply learning how his body works. Yet it was a process to get there, needing to take time to push himself in the right ways.
That is exactly what Nelson Cruz has been doing over the last few seasons. With an emphasis on preparation, along with his love for napping, he has held aging at bay. Cruz noted to the Seattle Times back in 2018 that his preparation begins the night before his next game, focusing on quality sleep and the recuperative powers it possesses. He then moves onto his workout, which takes less than an hour, before finally approaching any aspect of the game, working on his swing and progressing through one-handed swings until he comfortably settles into his in-game routine.
This tenacity and focus have been key for players later in their careers, not just Cruz and Ortiz. And while science and technology have only helped prolong athletic careers, it still takes a mental toughness for players like Cruz to continue to perform. Only having to play as a designated hitter must help, too.
While fans and players hope the season continues, we can only hope to continue to see Nelson Cruz perform at this ridiculous level, as it may be a key part in bringing the World Series back to Minnesota.