Near the end of the 2020 season, I wrote a breakdown of the beginning of then-rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes‘ MLB career and what Pirates fans should expect from their young star. The decision to promote Hayes for the final month or so of that season signaled a new era of baseball in Pittsburgh, where the team’s seemingly omnipresent struggles might finally begin to pay off. The optimism and fanfare surrounding the addition of a prospect of Hayes’ caliber were reminiscent of the days of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole beginning their careers in the black and gold. Well, now there’s a new rookie phenom in Pittsburgh, and the hype surrounding him surpasses that of just about anyone fans have seen in recent memory, both in Pittsburgh and across the entire sport. Let’s talk about Oneil Cruz.
Cruz has been the subject of lots of chatter across the baseball world, and rightly so. Fans and media outlets that hardly ever acknowledge the Pirates’ existence still talk and tweet about Cruz. He possesses talent that is so unique and astonishing and shows it off while standing at an imposing 6-foot-7. Cruz is a man of superlatives who seems to be second to none in multiple facets of his game. Many people across baseball have already attempted to dive into these superlatives, so I won’t spend too much time on it here, but here’s a quick look:
Long touted as his best tool, Cruz’s 80-grade raw power was displayed throughout his ascent through the Pirates’ minor league system and continued once he reached the MLB level. Despite only having a two-game cameo in Pittsburgh to wrap up the 2021 season, he still produced eye-popping highlights, recording a 118.2-MPH single in his MLB debut. That exit velocity he achieved in his first game was topped by only six players across the entire 2021 season.
Fast forward to 2022, and it was much of the same. Once he received his long-awaited call-up to the majors on June 20th, he continued his reputation of absolutely obliterating baseballs. His average exit velocity of 91.9 MPH ranked 23rd out of 252 qualified hitters, and his Brls/BBE (barrels per batted ball event) rate of 15.5% ranked 11th. He hit 29 balls at 110+ MPH, with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton being the only qualified hitters to do so at a higher rate. Of course, Cruz also hit the hardest-hit ball ever recorded:
Cruz not only boasted insane power, but he was able to show it off in critical situations against some outstanding arms, having homered off of Corbin Burnes, Sandy Alcantara, and Jacob deGrom. He actually got Burnes twice, and very nearly did the same to deGrom, having to settle for a 111-MPH double that just missed clearing the right-center field wall at Citi Field. Only the homer off of Alcantara (a solo blast) wasn’t of the three-run variety, and all four of those home runs either tied the game or gave the Pirates the lead.
Despite playing in only 87 games in 2022, he posted one of the best slugging seasons by a shortstop in Pirates history:
|Jung Ho Kang
Once again, he did all that in only 87 games. He made his season debut on June 20th. Give him an entire season and keep him at shortstop (don’t worry, we’ll get there) and he could easily double those home run totals. He might crack 40. Who knows? But he certainly has that kind of power.
Not only can Cruz hit baseballs really hard, but he can also throw baseballs really hard. His arm was also always a plus as he came up through the minors, which prompted prospect evaluators who doubted his ability to stick at shortstop at his size (which was basically all of them) to profile him as a third baseman or outfielder down the line. Despite the front office’s push to give Cruz some experience in the outfield, he’s still at shortstop, aside from one inning spent in left field during the ninth inning of a blowout. And the arm strength is put to good use at shortstop. In addition to recording the hardest-hit ball in the Statcast era, Cruz also recorded the fastest throw by a shortstop at 97.9 MPH:
Williams is an excellent runner, with sprint speed in the 87th percentile, and with the exit velocity on that grounder being only 73.7 MPH, Cruz had to work quickly to make the play. Cruz hurling a throw that quick wasn’t just a one-off; we now know, thanks to Baseball Savant’s new arm strength leaderboard, that Cruz’s fastest throw (97.9 MPH) and his average competitive throw (93.9 MPH) were both tops among all infielders. No other shortstop had an average competitive throw speed in the nineties. While some still question whether or not Cruz can remain at shortstop long-term, his elite arm strength certainly provides an incentive to continue letting him prove himself there.
Not only can Cruz hit baseballs really hard and throw baseballs really hard, but he can also run really fast. His average sprint speed of 29.9 ft/sec was the 12th-fastest out of 582 qualified players and he achieved a bolt (30.0 ft/sec sprint) 52 times, which ranked 7th. Furthermore, he reached an astonishing 31.5 ft/sec while scoring on this sacrifice fly during his season debut:
Cruz also uses his speed to his advantage as a base stealer. He stole 11 bases with the Pirates after stealing the same amount in 55 games at Triple-A Indianapolis to begin the season. He also stole 10 or more bases in all but one of his minor-league seasons. So, in addition to his 30+ homer potential, a 20-steal season is perfectly within the realm of possibility.
He’s more than just a base stealer, however, and he’s not just a fast runner but also a very efficient one. According to Baseball Prospectus’s baserunning leaderboards, Cruz finished 10th in MLB in baserunning runs (and 1st in baserunning runs per opportunity, with a minimum of 50 opportunities). He also had the 8th-highest rate of hit advancement runs per opportunity (minimum 25 opportunities), so his well-established knack for going first to third and collecting extra-base hits has already begun to add to his value.
While the uber-talented Cruz certainly has a lot going for him, there were some significant bumps along the way. As a result, he needs to make many adjustments before establishing himself as a consistent major leaguer. Despite his extraordinary power, he currently sports a .235/.295/.456 slash in his first 89 career games. While those aren’t inherently bad numbers, it isn’t unfair that the Pirates expect better than a 107 wRC+ from a player of Cruz’s caliber. Now let’s examine some reasons why he’s struggled so far:
34.9% – that was Cruz’s strikeout rate in 2022. No qualified hitter struck out that much. While this gradually improved later in the year – his strikeout rate fell to 29.8% in September, and his walk rate nearly doubled after the All-Star break – this is still an alarming figure. It’s pretty simple to understand why he scuffled so much.
The main culprit here is Cruz’s struggles against left-handed pitching. His strikeout rate was a manageable 26.8% against righties, but against southpaws, that number skyrocketed to 53.2%. Joey Gallo (48.2%) was the only other left-handed hitter even in the same ballpark. More specifically, Cruz’s plate discipline was heavily tested against left-on-left low and away breaking balls (which, for convenience’s sake, will hereupon be referred to as LLABs). I am classifying LLABs as any breaking pitch thrown by a left-hander to a left-handed hitter in zones 17, 27, and 37 according to Baseball Savant’s attack zone:
This was evident just from watching him play on a daily basis, but looking at the numbers, the extent to which he struggled with this is shocking. Here’s a chart listing the ten left-handed hitters who were the recipients of the most LLABs in 2022:
There’s a lot to take away from this. It sure says a lot that Cruz saw 400 fewer pitches against lefties than Olson but only five fewer LLABs. Five. That’s it. There’s a 10.3% difference in LLAB% between Cruz and Olson and a 6.5% difference between Cruz and Tellez, who had the next highest LLAB% among those players. Pitchers were unquestionably deliberate in their approaches to Cruz. Right-handed hitters included, Cruz was still thrown same-handed low and away breaking pitches at a much higher rate than any other hitter:
That was done with excellent reason, as Cruz swung and missed at those pitches way more than anyone else did. Harris, Seager, Tellez, Olson, Yelich, and Garcia were the only other players to whiff on even 20 LLABs. None of them had more than 26; Cruz had 47. He was called up in mid-June and still lapped the field. His extreme aggressiveness on these pitches is even more puzzling when considering his swing tendencies against hittable pitches.
One would think a player of Cruz’s size would naturally have a larger strike zone, which is true. Despite this, not only does Cruz receive a ton of low breaking balls, but pitchers hardly ever give him hittable pitches. The percentage of pitches thrown to Cruz in the heart of the strike zone (zones 1-9 in the aforementioned attack zone chart) was 21.1%, the lowest of any qualified hitter besides Ozzie Albies (who, at 5-foot-8, has a much smaller strike zone). Seeing how he sees so few pitches over the heart of the plate, it would make sense for him to be aggressive on those pitches to avoid falling behind in the count and setting up those low breaking balls, but…
|Heart swing %
There lies Cruz’s biggest problem. He swings at pitches he shouldn’t swing at and doesn’t swing at pitches he should be swinging at. He has all the talent in the world, but his faulty approach makes it easy to pitch to him. Only time will tell if he can adjust this, but until the Pirates part ways with hitting coach Andy Haines, not many fans are overly optimistic.
Part of opposing pitchers’ refusal to pitch to Cruz obviously stems from his absurd power potential and poor swing decisions, but I believe there’s another factor to this that really isn’t his fault at all…
Sure, some baseball fans believe lineup protection is just a myth, but hear me out. Following Cruz’s recall to the majors, it took quite some time to find him a consistent spot in the batting order. He started batting leadoff on a regular basis on August 28th, but for the first two months or so, he was usually slotted in anywhere from fifth to eighth in the order. Cruz was in Pittsburgh’s starting lineup a total of 85 times in 2022. Here’s the complete list of every hitter who was penciled in immediately behind Cruz on Derek Shelton’s lineup card:
- 27 times – Bryan Reynolds
- 9 times – Greg Allen
- 7 times – Bligh Madris
- 6 times – Jason Delay
- 5 times – Kevin Newman
- 4 times – Jack Suwinski, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Diego Castillo
- 3 times – Rodolfo Castro, Ben Gamel, Cal Mitchell, Josh VanMeter
- 2 times – Michael Chavis, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Tyler Heineman
- 1 time – Tucupita Marcano
Outside of Reynolds, that’s a pretty uninspiring group of hitters. Reynolds had a fine season, posting a 125 wRC+. As for everyone else? They had a cumulative slash line of .221/.286/.348 with the Pirates this season. Opposing pitchers should have zero incentive to pitch to Cruz if the hitter behind him is a near-automatic out, as was the case almost every time Cruz didn’t bat leadoff.
When Cruz batted first, Reynolds was almost always the number two hitter. Knowing this, the difference in Cruz’s production as the leadoff hitter versus any other spot in the order makes a ton of sense:
|# in lineup
It’s certainly possible that there are other contributing factors this stark contrast. For example, it’s entirely plausible to make the argument that Cruz was starting to adjust to MLB pitching after a slow start, and it would also be fair to say that he benefitted from finally having a consistent spot in the lineup as opposed to bouncing around different places near the bottom of the order. But it’s impossible to notice this variance without also acknowledging the difference in ability and production of the hitters protecting him in those spots.
Can he – and should he – stay at shortstop?
This was a scorching hot topic among Pirates fans during the spring and into the regular season after Cruz didn’t make the team out of Spring Training despite a strong offensive showing. Fans and media alike have long been critical of Cruz’s tendency to commit errors, mainly throwing errors. To an extent, that criticism is deserved. Cruz committed 16 errors in 59 games at shortstop in the minor leagues last year and 31 errors in 123 games at shortstop between Triple-A and Pittsburgh this year. But at the same time, this is almost always an issue for young shortstops that often sorts itself out over time and with experience.
But the most significant question mark surrounding Cruz’s defensive capabilities comes from his size. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds; no major leaguer with that kind of physical makeup has ever manned shortstop with any kind of regularity before Cruz. But this really hasn’t held him back much, if at all. Sure, he still makes more throwing errors than he should – and that cost the Pirates multiple games this year – but he’s still more physically gifted than anybody else playing shortstop right now, and he’s getting positive results. Here’s how he stacks up against this year’s five best and five worst shortstops, courtesy of The Fielding Bible:
|Bobby Witt Jr.
Cruz’s accuracy issues are conveyed by his arm being worth -2 runs despite being by far the strongest of any shortstop in the league. But that figure would be a lot worse if not for Cruz’s ability to use his exceptional arm strength and range to make plays that no other shortstop can make. One trait that Cruz has in common with those top shortstops is his penchant for making plays while moving far to his right, away from first base. He didn’t record an out on this play, but the fact that he even made it a close play speaks to how immensely gifted he is:
He was playing pretty deep but it’s still relatively impressive that he even got to that ball in the first place. Not only that, but he was also smooth enough to transition straight from the slide to the throw without having to stop and set his feet. And that throw was also remarkable – it was right on target and hardly had any arc on it at all. That kind of defensive effort isn’t normal, and I don’t think any other shortstop can make that play.
The Fielding Bible also tracks how well middle infielders successfully pivot and turn double plays, and despite his large limbs and all the moving parts, Cruz is top-notch in this area as well. He turned exactly two-thirds of his double play opportunities into double plays (the league average is 61.3%), and his successful pivot rate of 65.9% ranked third out of 35 qualified shortstops. He’s shown an ability to do this under pressure as well, turning a very nifty double play to secure a win in Milwaukee in August:
So can Oneil Cruz stick at shortstop over the next few years? I think it’s a resounding “yes.” He sports well-above-average range and an elite arm. As long as he can cut down on the throwing errors, he has all the tools to be a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop, which is a pleasantly surprising development. Obviously, as he gets older, he will lose a good portion of his quickness and mobility. Still, he should be able to maintain his current level of play for the foreseeable future.
But will the Pirates keep him there? One thing this front office loves to do is expand players’ positional versatility, and Cruz has been no exception. He started getting looks in left field in Spring Training and even made nine starts there in the minors this season. The Dodgers originally signed Cruz as a third baseman, so he has some experience there too, but the Pirates already have the best defender in all of baseball at the hot corner – and have him locked up long-term – so Cruz likely won’t ever need to shift over there.
Pittsburgh’s system is lavish with middle infield prospects, including players like Rodolfo Castro, Diego Castillo, and Tucupita Marcano, who profile best as utility guys and have already filled that role at various points in Pittsburgh. But the farm also features Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales, and Termarr Johnson, all of whom are top-100 prospects with high ceilings. Johnson, the team’s 2022 first-round pick, is still a good ways away, but Peguero and Gonzales spent the year at Double-A Altoona and only played shortstop and second base. If all of those players pan out (which is always a big “if”), then the Pirates will be left with more middle infielders than starting spots, which could ultimately force Cruz to move to a different position. But for now, he’s the shortstop, and it should stay that way.
Oneil Cruz has the physical talent to be the face of Major League Baseball. He has already proven that in his short time in Pittsburgh. He can turn outs into hits on the basepaths and turn hits into outs at shortstop. His combination of strength and speed is unmatched by any athlete in the sport right now. Of course, he still has flaws he must iron out, which won’t happen overnight. But if he can manage that, he’s perfectly capable of playing the Andrew McCutchen/Barry Bonds role on the next Pirates title contender, which hopefully will come before too long.