Oneil Cruz, the Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop of the future, looks like he should play football; in another life, he could’ve been a lethal deep threat wide receiver, out-running and out-jumping cornerbacks like a jumbo-sized Desean Jackson. Or maybe he could be a 3&D wing in the NBA who can step up to be a small-ball center in the later rounds of the playoffs. If baseball requires a very specific kind of physicality—fast hands, meaty haunches, torque-able hips—Cruz is a truly stupefying athlete by any standard; At 6’7, 220 pounds, he’s the tallest infielder in MLB history; he runs faster than Byron Buxton, throws harder than Max Scherzer and hits the ball harder than Mike Trout. While baseball has largely moved away from body positive kings like David Ortiz or Bartolo Colon, Cruz is built different even amongst his cohort of the differently built.
A consensus top 20 prospect in all of baseball, Cruz is part of a new generation of players who are bringing baseball out of its fuddy-duddy past and into a more dynamic future. Through his first 17 games since being called up to the Pirates, Cruz has been a revelation in hearts, if not minds; Cruz generates more highlights per game than just about any other player. In his debut on June 20th, Cruz drove in four runs and uncorked a 96.7 mile per hour throw from shortstop, the hardest by any infielder in the Statcast era.
Beyond the exciting, Tik Tokkable moments, he’s already an excellent fielder at shortstop. For years, the knock on Cruz was that he was simply too large to ably and nimbly navigate as a shortstop. Instead, his size is his super power; it’s basically impossible to sneak a hit by a guy this big and this quick. Prorated over the course of a season, Cruz is already among the best defenders at his position—his 25 defensive runs saved per 1200 innings (roughly the length of an average season) and his 5.06 Range Factor per game are both the best of any current regular starting shortstop.
Offensively, though, Cruz demonstrates that same degree of promise but without the polish. And yet, despite a pedestrian .630 OPS, Cruz is the favorite to win National League Rookie of the Year because the flashes of greatness are so spellbinding. Although he’s still learning the minor procedural aspects that are needed to be a consistently good player, Cruz has been intermittently great. He strikes out more than would be ideal (like many young players, he’s struggled against sliders and curveballs), but he has explosive power when he does make contact.
With an average exit velocity of 92.6 miles per hour, Cruz has more juice than any other Pirates. Similarly, he has barrelled the ball (i.e. hit it with the ideal combination of launch angle and velocity) on more than nine percent of his at-bats, which is also the best on the team. In this sense, the thing that will determine whether Oneil Cruz is a superstar or merely an All-Star is whether he can master the ordinary as well as the extraordinary.