Oneil Cruz is an anomaly. An outlier. A baseball unicorn. A can’t-miss talent.
No matter the category, he checks almost every box.
On a team lacking a cheerful sunshine and rainbows vibe, Cruz has brought a presence to the Pirates lineup that — outside of Bryan Reynolds — hasn’t been felt in years.
You know the stories you hear from your grandparents and other longtime followers of the Pirates about how fans would stick around Forbes Field until after Ralph Kiner’s final at-bat just to see if he would hit a home run?
Cruz has provided that type of feeling when watching him play this September.
He’s the very best in max exit velocity, in the 100th percentile, and is at the top of the sprint speed charts, reaching the 98th percentile.
The 23-year-old shortstop owns a 1.6 WAR and is hitting .221 with 17 home runs and 51 RBI; only trailing Reynolds in both of the latter categories.
Cruz has experienced a tale of two halves since being promoted from Triple-A Indianapolis in mid-June.
He began hot at the plate, knocking in seven runs in his first four games. However, consistently putting the ball in play plagued Cruz for much of 2022, as his batting average continued to drop each month prior to September.
Cruz hit .214 in June, .202 in July, and .195 in August, striking out a combined 87 times.
Compared to September, Cruz is slashing .284/.304/.657. He has hit safely in 11 of 16 contests this month including six multi-hit games, six home runs, and 16 RBI.
The 6-foot-7 shortstop will benefit in 2023 from Major League Baseball banning the shift. He owns a .296 wOBA against the shift, but a .333 mark against straight-up defensive positioning.
A polarizing figure garnering national attention on a regular basis, Cruz along with Rodolfo Castro, is powering the Pirates with the long ball and bringing a struggling offense back from the dead.
The reality is, he’s going to strike out. Pittsburgh tied an MLB record with 20 punch outs Sunday against the New York Mets, two from Cruz, who also delivered the Bucs’ only scoring on a three-run homer off of possibly the game’s best pitcher in Jacob DeGrom.
Oneil Cruz - and we cannot stress this enough - is him. pic.twitter.com/U4j55tDNHE— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) September 18, 2022
Would it be ideal for the lefty batter to limit his chases and be more patient at the plate? Obviously. But at the same time, his level of production is off the charts.
In comparison to Reynolds, Cruz has six fewer homers and only three less RBI in a difference of 57 fewer games played.
Peaks and valleys are common throughout the MLB season. Cruz is currently at a peak. Not his career peak, which the first few months exemplified is sky high, but a hot streak of putting together his best at-bats.
The game looks so easy for Cruz. Yes, his defense needs work, committing 12 errors at shortstop. Yes, he needs to lower his strikeout rate, if remotely possible. Yes, he needs to be a smarter baserunner. But when you look at the glass from the opposite end of a glass-half-empty mentality, you could survive in the desert heat.
If Cruz can sustain spurts like this — he could have an Aaron Judge-type season through the entire year — the Pirates can contend with anyone offensively.
No one will focus as much on Cruz hitting the ball the hardest of anyone, throwing it to a base the fastest, or even throwing his bat with the most velocity of any player around.
Surrounding Cruz with protection in the lineup will be equally important to his continued development.
Keeping Cruz in the Majors rather than a demotion back to the Minors during his mid-August slump, bottoming his average at .196, paid dividends in his improvement and development.
The Pirates’ focus is already on 2023, and Cruz is putting the team and league on notice for what might be yet to come from one of baseball’s most fascinating young players.
In a year full of doom and gloom and possibly another 100-loss season, it’s easy to give up on the last few weeks and turn attention to other sports and events. For the next two weeks, don’t completely turn away from the Pirates just yet.
It’s not going to be easy in any sense, but Cruz control is activated and poised to power promise and potential for better days ahead.