CHARLESTON, W.VA. – Oneil Cruz is the puppy with big paws.
Cruz, a 19-year-old shortstop for the West Virginia Power who came to the Pirates organization last summer from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Tony Watson deal, is listed at 6-foot-6 but might be a little closer to 6-7.
He can hit for power, evident by his five home runs — making him the team leader and among the South Atlantic League leaders. He’s also accounted for three triples this season.
The knock on Cruz, at the moment at least, is he strikes out a lot and he is not hitting for average. His .336 on-base percentage is good, but he’s also hitting .235 with 35 strikeouts in 102 at-bats. Defensively he can cover a lot of ground at short, but he has accounted for 14 errors in 28 games through Tuesday.
Consider, however, that Cruz went through a growth spurt over roughly the last 18 months in which he grew from 6-foot-1 to nearly 6-foot-7.
“He’s grown six inches in a year-and-a-half and there are adjustments that come along with that,” Power manager Wyatt Toregas said. “There are times you watch him and you can tell there is some poor coordination, but he’s just not used to his body.”
West Virginia hitting coach Chris Petersen said part of his job is to get Cruz comfortable.
“It’s not so much a hindrance, it’s just adjusting to the athlete and his ability and his capabilities then finding what feels right for him,” Peterson said. “Wherever he is at in his journey, we’re going to find a way for him to feel comfortable and confident so he can absolutely just crush the ball.”
Getting Cruz comfortable is going to be a process, but Toregas and Peterson have a plan.
For starters, they’re going to get him a bigger bat.
“He swings a 33 1/2 inch bat, which for a kid that’s 6-foot-1 is great but you’re 6-8, 6-7 now, so we’re working to get him a bigger bat,” Toregas said. “When he’s swinging he’s running out of barrel he’s so far away from the ball. I think it’s swing related as much as it is his ability to cover distances with the length of his bat. We’ve moved him up in size of bat and he’s already barreling up and striking out less. He’s reaching because he’s used to being 6-1 and being able to get that ball. We’re looking to getting him to a 35 1/2 and he’s been swinging a 33 1/2. You can’t just make that adjustment all at one time, so we’re going to go a half-inch at a time. He’s at a 34 now and on the workday he uses a 34 1/2. The end goal in maybe a year’s time is a 35 1/2.”
Peterson, meanwhile, is at work on Cruz’s swing.
“The biggest thing for him is controlling the lower half and head position,” Peterson said. “Being able to track the ball longer into the strike zone. Being able to make better decisions on pitches. That all comes with seeing the ball and having good vision. A quiet lower half will also keep him on balance in the right spot to attack the pitches that he wants to hit.”
Making better decisions on pitches will cut down on Cruz’s strikeouts and boost the batting average. He’ll have to put in the work to get there, but so far, Peterson said, he has shown the will to do the necessary work.
“His work ethic is tremendously more focused on things that are going to improve his game,” Peterson said. “He’s being more deliberate about his defense and more detailed about what’s going on in the game and how to handle certain situations. We’re focusing a lot on being consistent and that’s one of the things that all our guys are going to need at this level to move up.”
The plan seems to be paying off so far. Cruz’s strikeout number is high, but he’s cut down on them after a bad start to the season. He’s also having better at-bats, he’s just been a little unlucky. If he continues to work on his plate discipline and the ball starts to fall, the average will rise.
“I think he’s settling in,” Toregas said. “The average is what it is, but I’m looking at hard contacts. He’s had some hard contact lately that has been right at guys. Early on he was striking out a lot. We’ve been able to cut those down as we’ve been going and the barrel has been going up, which has been good. Now he just needs a bit of luck to find some holes. He’s hit a couple balls right at some first basemen. They’ve shifted him a couple of times and he’s hit it into the shift.
“The strikeouts are up, but he’s 19 years old and not used to seeing pitching like this. At the end of the day, he’s still, from a mental standpoint, a young kid. Physically he can do whatever you need him to do, so it’s just a matter of getting him to lock in on what pitch he wants and being stubborn to not swing unless he gets that. He’s had a good progression and is heading in the right direction.”