Photo: Philip G Pavely/AP
On Wednesday, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz did something we’ve never seen an MLB player do before. Well, we don’t know, as the StatCast era only started in 2015. Against the Atlanta Braves, Cruz hit a base hit that hit 122.4 mph off the bat, which surpassed the New York slugger’s previous record. York Yankees Giancarlo Stanton 122.2 mph.
It was impressive “exit” velocity, even if Cruz’s record-breaking hit only went for a single at PNC Park. He may have hit it too hard to get a double out of it, though it would be a home run in most parks. Still, it might have been the highlight for hometown fans who watched their team get pummeled by the Braves, not a shocking result for a Pittsburgh team mired in the cellar of the NL Central.
Cruz’s rookie season was also pretty rough. Yes, the 6ft 7in infielder has ridiculous tools: his 97.8mph throw to first base earlier in the season was also a StatCast-era record. The 23-year-old managed to accomplish both feats in 54 games, but during that stretch he hit just .199/.249/.398. When he did make contact, Cruz hit the ball away, but his 10 home runs during that stretch came along with 79 strikeouts and just 13 walks. Clearly, patience at the plate is a concern.
Now, Pirates fans are hoping that’s simply because the Dominican prospect is still adjusting to life in the big leagues. Cruz, after all, only played two games at the highest level of baseball last year and still managed to squeeze in his first MLB home run. He wasn’t called up again until June of this year, leading fans to accuse the team of manipulating his serve time, particularly as he struggled to get production from the shortstop position.
Were the Pirates trying to delay the start of Cruz’s free agency period by keeping him in AAA? Almost certainly! Was it necessarily the wrong decision for Cruz’s development? Maybe not! Early results show he’s not quite ready to be a full-time starter.
Despite Cruz’s obvious power, remarkable arm and speed on the basepaths (with six stolen bases thus far), it appears he needs work on the two most important aspects of his game as a hitter: making solid contact and getting on base. Given his body type, it’s also uncertain whether his defensive future will be at shortstop or the outfield. Cruise is clearly talented, but he’s still what they call a project.
Not all MLB projects are successful. The league is filled with talented hitting prospects with obvious tools that never stuck in the majors. Take, for example, the saga of Wily Mo Peña, the outfielder who probably had more raw power than any of his contemporaries. His home run numbers were enough to keep teams interested in him, but his impressive strikeout propensity ensured he would never stick in one place for too long as anything other than a fourth outfielder.
An impressive arm isn’t even enough to keep a starting pitcher in the majors. Forget StatCast, minor leaguer Steve Dalkowski’s career span spanned 1966, meaning his legendary fastball was measured only once by a radar gun (with disappointing results). That means there’s no evidence that his pitches ever hit 110 mph (for comparison, the current record is Aldois Chapman’s 105.8 mph fastball thrown in 2010). As hard as Dalkowski tried, a complete lack of control ensured he never made an MLB roster, and his lasting claim to fame ended up being that his story ultimately inspired Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh story in the movie Bull Durham.
None of those players serve as direct comparisons to Cruz, who has more than one tool to fall back on. How does Cruz compare if he makes it? He doesn’t project to be an all-around player like the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, no matter how much his basic skills improve. Perhaps Stanton himself is a more appropriate parallel, although he is not an infielder.
Longtime Pirates writer John Perrotto asked scouts about the player he could become, and the clearest answer came from an unnamed employee from an American League team. “I know this might be a stretch, but I’d say Darryl Strawberry plays shortstop,” the scout was quoted as saying. “It’s the only thing I can think of.” We may, it seems, be in uncharted territory here. Cruz’s best-case scenario might not be the Next Stanton or the Next Trout, but the debut of a whole new type of ballplayer.
Whether or not Cruz can fulfill his potential won’t be based on him continuing to dazzle with StatCast numbers: even his record-breaking hit came just for a single base. These are just indications of his clearly impressive skill set. What the Pirates (and MLB) need to see now is if Cruz can put it all together. If so, he might be baseball’s next star.