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Zulgad: Bucking the trend: Could Nelson Cruz swing his way into becoming the first DH to win AL MVP?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Minnesota Twins
Aug 19, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) hits a RBI single in the first inning against the Chicago White Sox at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

A full-time designated hitter never has been the American League MVP, but, then again, an MLB regular season has never been as short as 60 games. So since the latter is true for 2020, could the former happen?

Nelson Cruz appears intent on finding out. The 40-year-old slugger woke up Tuesday in Cleveland having hit his second home run in two days and in the Top 5 in all three Triple Crown categories in the AL. Cruz was third in batting average (.340), tied for first with the White Sox’s Jose Abreu in home runs (11) and tied for second in RBIs (27) only one behind Abreu.

In a normal 162-game regular season, Cruz’s candidacy for MVP would be dismissed by the majority because he doesn’t play defense. Since the DH was implemented in the AL in 1973, three players who saw time at DH have won the MVP but none were used exclusively in that role. The Red Sox’s Jim Rice spent 49 of 163 games at DH in 1978; the Angels’ Don Baylor was a DH in 65 of 162 games in 1979; and Texas’ Juan Gonzalez spent 32 of 134 games at DH in 1996.

Cruz is no threat to get near a glove at any point in the 2020 season, but for the second consecutive season his value to the Twins has been enormous. He entered Monday tied for sixth in baseball with Seattle center fielder Kyle Lewis with a Wins Above Replacement figure of 1.7, according to FanGraphs. The only position players above Cruz were San Francisco’s Mike Yastrzemski (2.2), San Diego’s Fernando Tatis Jr. (2.1), the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts (1.8), the Angels’ Anthony Rendon (1.8) and Tampa Bay’s Brandon Lowe (1.8).

Cruz slashed .311/.392/.639 for an OPS of 1.031 with 41 home runs and 108 RBIs in 120 games last season after signing a one-year, $14.3 million contract for 2019. The Twins jumped at the chance to pick up the team option of $12 million on his contract for 2020 and he has rewarded them by putting on an offensive display on a nearly daily basis. Cruz entered Tuesday with a batting line .340/.429/.699 for a ridiculous OPS of 1.128 in 29 games.

His 396-foot blast into the right field stands on Monday night tied the score at 1-1 in what became a 3-2 victory for the Twins over AL Central-rival Cleveland. That put the Twins (20-5) 2.5-games ahead of the second-place Indians and White Sox in the division and tied them with Oakland for the best record in the American League. A day earlier, Cruz’s home run in the ninth at Kansas City gave the Twins a two-run lead but the blast turned into the winning hit when the Royals pulled within 5-4 by scoring a run off closer Taylor Rogers in the bottom of the inning.

Cruz has hit .361/.498/.972 with seven home runs and 11 RBIs in his past 11 games.

There is no doubting what Cruz’s presence in the Twins’ lineup means to the team’s offense and it’s going to be difficult to penalize him as much for not playing defense with 102 games chopped off the schedule, assuming he keeps up this pace. The fact this season has been a sprint to the finish from Opening Day is what could get Cruz into the MVP mix and enable him to maintain the type of offensive pace that ordinarily would not be possible.

Of course, the shortened schedule and altered philosophies on voting could lead to a starting pitcher, such as Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, taking the honor. The righthander entered his start Tuesday night against the Twins with a 5-0 record — his five victories tie for the MLB lead — and leading baseball with a 1.11 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 40.2 innings in six starts.

The last semi-regular DH to make a run at the MVP was Boston’s J.D. Martinez, who slashed .330/.402/.629 with 43 homers and 130 RBIs in 150 games in 2018. He spent 93 games at DH. Martinez led all of baseball in RBIs and finished second to Mookie Betts in batting average and Khris Davis in home runs. Martinez, though, finished fourth in AL MVP voting behind Betts (410 points), the Angels’ Mike Trout (265) and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez (208). Martinez’s 198 points in voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America put him fourth, meaning he wasn’t a finalist despite being in the running for the Triple Crown.

But that came during ordinary times, which hopefully will return in 2021. The 2020 season is one in which nothing will be normal, meaning it might be the perfect year for an outside-the-box selection for MVP.