On Wednesday, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz did something we’ve never seen an MLB player do before. Well, not that we know about, seeing as the StatCast era didn’t begin until 2015. Against the Atlanta Braves, Cruz cracked a base hit that clocked at 122.4mph off the bat, which surpassed New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton’s previous record of 122.2mph.
It was an impressive “exit” velocity, even if Cruz’s record-setting hit only went for a single in PNC Park. He may have hit it too hard to get a double out of it, though it would have been a home run in most ballparks. Still, it might have been the highlight for hometown fans who watched their team get blown by the Braves, not a shocking result for a Pittsburgh team trapped in the cellar of the NL Central.
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) August 25, 2022
Cruz’s rookie season has been rather rocky as well. 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 complete both feats in 54 games, but during that stretch he only hit .199/.249/.398. When he’s made contact, Cruz has hit the ball far but his 10 home runs during that period went along with 79 strikeouts and just 13 walks. Clearly, plate patience is a concern.
Now, Pirates fans hope that this is simply because the Dominican prospect is still adjusting to life in the major leagues. Cruz, after all, only played two games at baseball’s highest level last year and still managed to squeeze in his first MLB home run. He wasn’t called up again until June of this year, which caused fans to accuse the team of manipulating his service time, particularly as they were struggling to get production from the shortstop position.
Were the Pirates attempting 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? Perhaps not! The early results suggest that he’s not quite ready to be a full-time starter.
Despite Cruz’s obvious power, the remarkable arm and his speed on the basepaths (with six stolen bases so far), it’s looking like he needs work in the two most important aspects of the game as a hitter: making consistent contact and getting on base. Considering his body type, it’s also not certain if his defensive future will be at shortstop or the outfield. Cruz is clearly talented, but he’s still what they call a project.
Not all MLB projects are successful. The league is littered with talented hitting prospects with obvious tools who never stuck in the majors. Take, for instance, the saga of Wily Mo Peña, the outfielder who likely had more raw power than any of his contemporaries. His tape-measure home runs were enough to keep teams interested in him, but his eye-popping propensity to strike out ensured that he never stayed 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, career minor leaguer Steve Dalkowski’s career washed out in 1966, meaning that his legendary fastball was only clocked by a radar gun once (to disappointing results). This means that no evidence exists to prove that his offerings ever hit the 110mph mark (for comparison, the current record is Aldois Chapman’s 105.8 mph fastball thrown in 2010). However hard Dalkowski threw, a complete lack of control ensured that he never made an MLB roster and his lasting claim to fame ended up being that his story eventually inspired that of Tim Robbins’s Nuke LaLoosh in the film Bull Durham.
Neither of these players quite work as direct comparisons to Cruz, who has more than a single tool to fall back on. What’s Cruz’s comparison if he does succeed? 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. Maybe Stanton himself is a more suitable parallel, although he’s no infielder.
Longtime Pirates writer John Perrotto asked scouts for the player he could become and the clearest answer came from an anonymous employee from an American League team. “I know this might be a stretch, but I’d say Darryl Strawberry playing shortstop,” the scout was quoted as saying. “It’s the only thing I can think of.” We might, it seems, be in uncharted territory here. Cruz’s best-case scenario might not be the Next Stanton or 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 only went for a single base. Those are just indicators of his clearly impressive skill set. What the Pirates (and MLB) need to see now is whether Cruz can put it all together. If so he may just be baseball’s next star.