MLB Has a Real-Life Create-a-Player in Pirates' Rookie Oneil Cruz

Zachary D. RymerAugust 26, 2022

AP Photo/Philip G. Pavely

You could try to imagine a Major League Baseball player who hits like Giancarlo Stanton, runs like Trea Turner and throws like Fernando Tatís Jr., but that would be unnecessary.

That guy already exists in real life, and his name is Oneil Cruz.

With time winding down on yet another non-competitive season, Cruz has become the best reason to keep an eye on the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a 6'7," 220-pound shortstop with physical abilities set to the max (basically, this), the 23-year-old rookie is a video game create-a-player made flesh. There's no telling when he's going to do something that would be more believable but less amazing if it was rendered in pixels.

Take, for example, what he did on Wednesday against Atlanta. He hit a ball off the right field wall that clocked at...[checks notes]...122.4 danged miles per hour off the bat:


122.4 MPH exit velocity! 😮 <br><br>Oneil Cruz just hit the hardest-hit batted ball in Statcast era history! <a href="https://t.co/bC9loelBoG">pic.twitter.com/bC9loelBoG</a>

That's the hardest-hit ball of the eight-year Statcast era, though its sound was surely worthy of legendary shots from baseball history. Reggie Jackson's titanic upper-decker in the 1971 All-Star Game. Bo Jackson's moonshot from 1990. Bonds' disappearing tank from the 2002 World Series. Mark Trumbo's big-big fly from 2013. And so on.

“It sounded like a bomb went off,” Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller told reporters. “It was crazy. I don’t even know how he does it.”

Provided you're in just the right place, the other sound you're liable to hear when Cruz puts his tools to work is Los Angeles Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman letting out a beleaguered sigh. It's early yet, but the Cruz-for-Tony Watson trade from 2017 is starting to resemble the infamous Yordan Álvarez-for-Josh Fields trade from the year before.

These Are the Things Cruz Can Do

Justin Berl/Getty Images

To at least one extent, it's no exaggeration to say that there's never been a player like Cruz.

Before him, the tallest player to ever log substantial time at shortstop was when a 6'5" Mike Morse—later of weirdo grand slam fame—started 50 games at short for the Seattle Mariners in 2005. Cruz has two inches on him, and he would likewise stand shorter than only Tony Clark and Nate Freiman in a lineup of all-time hitting giants.

It just wouldn't be right for Cruz to keep company like that and not have appropriately eye-popping raw power. Yet he proved his power's worth right away in his MLB debut on Oct. 2, 2021. His first two hits were singles that registered at 98.1 mph and 118.2 mph.

The latter of those eventually sandwiched Cruz between two knocks by Stanton for the 17th-hardest hit of the 2021 season. Now we know that was just the appetizer. Since Cruz resurfaced in the majors on June 20, his 122.4 mph single from Wednesday and his 118.4 mph single from Aug. 4 are the hardest hits anyone's had.

These are hardly isolated incidents in the grand scheme of the Dominican Republic native's batted balls. His average exit velocity is 91.3 mph, easily clearing the league average of 88.6 mph. His 10 home runs have averaged 410 feet, with the longest being this 434-clout that took the long way to the Allegheny River:

Pittsburgh Pirates @Pirates

ONEIL CRUZ HIT THIS BASEBALL 434 FT!!! <a href="https://t.co/HF0hMicV05">pic.twitter.com/HF0hMicV05</a>

At least until Statcast's throwing data becomes publicly available, we can only speculate that Cruz might throw the ball harder than he hits it on average. As it is, he already holds yet another record for the fastest throw ever recorded by an infielder. He took that from Tatís with this 97.8 mph seed to first base on July 14:

Pittsburgh Pirates @Pirates

Oneil Cruz with the fastest throw (97.8 mph) recorded by an infielder in the Statcast era!!! <a href="https://t.co/pSIdnD78tT">pic.twitter.com/pSIdnD78tT</a>

It would take a special kind of runner to beat out throws like that. A runner like, well, Cruz. His average sprint clocks in at 30.2 feet per second, putting him one-tenth of a second behind Turner among qualified shortstops.

And These Are the Things Cruz Can't (Yet) Do

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Trouble is, whatever mad scientist created Cruz clearly ran out of attribute points to use on other qualities in pushing the sliders for his power, speed and arm strength to the max.

For starters, he isn't yet a reliable defender or baserunner despite the strength of his arm and the speed of his feet. He's been caught stealing in four of his 10 attempts this season, and he's committed eight errors in only 425 innings in the field. Six of those are throwing errors that run the gamut from too casual to too eager.

As for Cruz's offensive approach, here's how the man himself described it through translator Mike Gonzalez to Kevin Gorman of TribeLive.com:

“My mindset is to never really care about who’s pitching or who’s on the mound. To be honest with you, my mind has always been, ‘See the ball, hit the ball hard.’ It doesn’t really matter who’s on the mound. I don’t really try to focus on that. I just to make sure I see a good pitch and swing hard at it.”

It's not a bad way for a hitter to go about his business...provided that he can make it work. Which brings us to the inevitable part where we can no longer ignore that Cruz is hitting just .205 with a .252 on-base percentage through 54 games.

It's bad enough that only Brett Phillips has done worse than Cruz's 38.8 strikeout percentage since he debuted last October. It's worse that Cruz isn't balancing all these empty at-bats out with frequent walks, as he's taken ball four in only 6.1 percent of his plate appearances.

As is also the case with fellow 6'7" slugger Aaron Judge, umpires are partly to blame for Cruz's lopsided K-to-BB ratio. Whereas the league has gotten strikes called outside the zone at a 6.2 percent clip since June 20, Cruz and Judge are 6.6 percent.

Yet Cruz also has another problem of his own making. See if you can spot it in this chart of the pitches he's gotten for hits thus far in 2022:

Image courtesy of Baseball Savant

Notice all that empty space at the bottom of the strike zone and below? Opposing pitchers aren't blind to that. Of the 802 pitches Cruz has seen, 344 have been no higher than two feet off the ground. That's a rate of 42.9 percent, tying him for the highest such mark among left-handed hitters.

Judge has similar issues with low pitches, but he's at least halfway decent at laying off them. Against pitches that never get higher than two feet off the ground, Judge swings only 25.3 percent of the time. For Cruz, it's 40.1 percent.

It's not just results that Cruz lacks when he swings at those pitches. It's much of anything. He whiffs on two-thirds of the swings he takes down there, and 16 of the 26 pitches he's managed to put in play have gone for ground balls.

What Will Cruz Become?

Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As things stand right now, the bluntest possible assessment of Cruz is that the jury's still out on whether he can be a viable everyday player in the majors.

Per his 78 OPS+, he's been 22 percent worse than the average hitter in 2022. Mainly by way of an appropriately dim view of his defense, FanGraphs puts his worth at exactly 0 WAR.

But since the guy is still only 23, he's more than deserving of a look on the bright side.

If nothing else, 10 home runs through 52 games is a good pace. That's a 30-homer trajectory over a full 162-game season, which is territory that only two shortstops (Corey Seager, who has 26 home runs, and Willy Adames, who has 25) are set to reach in 2022.

Further, Cruz's ongoing problems with the low ball obscure a bit of good news where his approach is concerned. Since the All-Star break, both his in-zone and out-of-zone swing rates have taken a turn for the better:

Though his strikeout rate has risen despite this, so have his walk rate and power output. This could be the beginning of the Joey Gallo-ing of Cruz, which is only an insult if you only ever watched Gallo play for the New York Yankees.

On the other side of the ball, the issues Cruz has had at shortstop aren't quieting questions about his defensive future that have been there all along. Neither the Pirates nor anyone else is saying the end of the shortstop experiment is nigh, but that day may come.

Even if it does, though, the end of the world wouldn't swiftly follow. Cruz's size and arm strength would profile well at third base. Perhaps even better, those two things plus his speed are a recipe for a right fielder of Vladimir Guerrero-esque awesomeness.

Considering all this, the super-duper exciting version of Cruz that everyone's watching right now may ultimately prove to be the worst version of him. There's a greater player in him somewhere, and he could be like nothing else MLB has ever seen if he ever comes out.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.


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