Pirates Prospects Daily: The Next Step For Oneil Cruz

Everything Oneil Cruz does is to the extreme.

He hits the ball harder than anyone else while in the batter’s box. He puts up elite speed on the base paths, thanks to his towering 6’7” frame, and to put the cherry on the top, had the hardest throw from the infield last year as well.

Cruz is a walking human highlight reel, capable of bringing us out of our seats at any point in the game. The next step from him won’t require hitting a baseball in the river, or making a throw from deep in the hole that only he could possibly reach.

The next step will come from the quiet things. 

That will come from making the easy play at short, without bobbling it or taking that extra second to corral it — not relying on the cannon arm to make a routing out.

It will come from taking a little off a swing to make sure he cuts his over 50% whiff rate on both breaking balls and offspeed pitches, even if that means he ‘only’ hits the ball 100 mph off the bat.

I’m not sure what the longest home run to left field is at PNC Park, but something tells me with a flick of the wrist, Cruz can put pressure on that record by showing a bit patience and waiting on some pitches a little longer to increase his odds of making more consistent contact.

Cruz is as rare as they come, where he has the skill set to literally do anything that he wants to while he’s on the baseball field. While he is already one of the most exciting players to watch, it will be him progressing with the smaller things that will take him to the next level of super stardom.

Making Contact The Biggest Focus

Regardless of the pitch, whenever Cruz made contact with something, he did so with a unique violence we rarely see from a player. Nearly half of his batted balls qualified as ‘hard hit’, and had an average exit velocity of 91.9 – over three mph higher than what major league average is.

We know what Cruz can do when he makes contact. It’s the amount of times he missed that will be the biggest opportunity of improvement.

  % Faced XBH AVG xwOBA Whiff%
Fastballs 47.2% 21 .285 .367 15.8%
Breaking 38.5% 5 .168 .204 55.5%
Offspeed 14.4% 8 .222 .342 52.3%

*Information from Baseball Savant

Cruz came as advertised against fastballs in 2022, and he punished hitters who threw him the pitch nearly 50% of the time. Over 60% of his extra-base hits came against the fastball, and his whiff rate (15.8%) and strikeout rate (20.9%) were way above his overall averages.

He even found a little success against offspeed pitches, picking up more extra-base hits against them than he had versus breaking balls — in half the plate appearances.

There were still swing and miss issues, but there was probably enough there to keep pitchers away from throwing more against him.

Facing breaking pitches was another story, as not only did he whiff on over half of his swings, he also posted a 52.7% strikeout rate. How far he can improve on that — he is still just 24-years-old — will go a long way in stabilizing a floor for his nearly limitless upside.

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Pirates Prospects Daily

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**Ethan Hullihen looks at the official year-end Pirates payroll.

**John Dreker has the latest Pirates winter league results.

**Missed yesterday? Anthony looked at the strength of the lower levels of the Pirates’ system.

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Pirates Business: Official Year-End Payrolls Announced

Anthony began writing over 10 years ago, starting a personal blog to cover the 2011 MLB draft, where the Pirates selected first overall. After bouncing around many websites covering hockey, he refocused his attention to baseball, his first love when it comes to sports. He eventually found himself here at Pirates Prospects in late 2021, where he covers the team’s four full season minor league affiliates.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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emjayinTN

300 AB’s folks – less than half a season’s worth. This kid needs to keep doing exactly what he has been doing – keep working at it. And that means to keep swinging and staying loose in the field. He will continue to adjust and improve at his own pace.

He has been a professional for about 7 years starting with the Dodgers, and then coming over to the Pirates in a trade for Tony Watson. Before becoming a professional at age 16, he probably spent 4 or 5 years in one of the Academy’s in the Dominican. The very last thing he needs to do at this point is to try to start making wholesale changes in his swing or his basic approach at the plate. Same for his work in the field – he’s a Shortstop and has learned a lot about playing that position in just the past few years.

Give this kid and all of the other kids the support and patience they need to succeed.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

I think he could reduce his max out on his swing but keep everything else the same.

emjayinTN

BTW, a very good article by Ben Clemens on Jan 24 regarding 95th percentile EV hitters, difference between that EV and their average EV. Oneil Cruz with about a 20+ point difference is on there, and in some very good company. Ji-Man Choi also mentioned for his consistent hard contact.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

I was just going to post that: https://blogs.fangraphs.com/some-breakout-hitter-candidates-courtesy-of-exit-velocity-percentiles/

Not sure what to make of Cruz except to hope that he too can stop maxing out his swing like Aaron Judge did to cut down on the whiffs and become a star.

steve_zielinski

The longest LF homerun likely belongs to Sammy Sosa. As far as I know, Sosa is the only hitter to put a ball over the shed to the left of the batters eye. That’s a HR!

I saw Pujols put 10 over that shed during BP.

njbucster

The next stop for Cruz should be RF—-He does not have the quickness for shortstop, but has the perfect set of talents for RF—–2024 starting lineup:
Davis 1B Bae 25 Triolo ss Hayes 3B (if he stops hitting like his father)
C Rodriguez RF CruZ CF Reynolds LF Gorski

1979andCounting

Oneil Cruz……I’d like you to meet Jazz Chisholm.

Y2JGQ2

This is a good beginning of an article which then takes us to the offseason program that the coaches wanted him to work on, and suggested tweaks to help him reach it. I feel like this was only the first half or quarter of the article….

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

Cruz could have a 7 fWAR season in the tank and he could also be Greg Polanco.

Y2JGQ2

only injuries would make him greg polanco because that’s what made HIM Greg Polanco.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

He definitely seems like he can slide better than Polanco

https://twitter.com/JomboyMedia/status/1547666932597342213

JimEastTennessee

Flying baby giraffe

robertkasperski

i had forgotten about Rojas nd the flying tooth! Have to defend 2b much different with someone like Cruz coming in than a guy 5-10 to 6 foot.

skliesen

I think is upside is Aaron Judge with better wheels and arm strength. It won’t be long until he’s a perennial MVP candidate. I would put him at the very top of the “who should be extended” list.

RAS TN

Next Step: sign him to a 10-year deal…

Y2JGQ2

I don’t think you can because we don’t know what drives him to get better…….if its money and you erase that carrot, that could be catostrophic. This is a player whom could easily crash and burn if he doesn’t continue to develop, you can’t extend him until you’ve seen that improvement

robertkasperski

I hope that they can 🙂

b mcferren

would like to see him learn how to drag bunt to pull in the infielders more often

jsdspud

The longest homerun to left field hit in PNC Park has to be April 2002 when Sammy Sosa cleared both bullpens. The ball landed to the left (home plate view) of the little security building. Every time I am in that part of the park, I pause and marvel at how far that ball traveled.

Pirates left handed pitcher Dave Williams hit an opposite field home run that night as well. I know that Sammy Sosa was juicing, but the think that the ball might have been juiced as well.

bianco599

I remember watching both McGwire and Sosa crushing Pirates pitching that season. Just wishing that they would have been in the American league. Or not in the National League Central. Have you seen what Sammy Sosa looks like these days? If not give it a look.

Danatural08

Sophomore slumps happen when more data on a player is available & the league finds a weakness. This may be a year of adjustments for Oneil, but with trading Newman, the Bucs are all in on sticking with him. The good thing is that he’s young & the more he sees mlb pitching, the more he’ll recognize the spin.

Reminds me of someone…

robertkasperski

We need to call in Jobu!!!

Danatural08

b mcferren

have you seen the games were he hung the bat from the dugout ceiling?

b mcferren

he is a voodoo dude

leefieux

I like Cruz’s potential, but if you can’t learn to hit the curve…….

robertkasperski

I think his biggest issue was chasing the breaking pitches that ended up well out of the zone. He did seem to adjust to that over his last month but we will see if his pitch recognition keeps improving over the course of 2023.

Y2JGQ2

his power also evaporated over that last month

robertkasperski

Actually, he did have 6 of his 17 homers from Sept 2 through the end of the season; His slugging and OPS rose over the last month so not thinking it is an issue.

Last edited 12 days ago by robertkasperski
leefieux

While I agree, I NEVER count ‘adjustments’ or Sept stats of young players.They have too often been Fool’s Gold.

robertkasperski

Which is why I said my last half of my lasrt sentence, “but we will see if his pitch recognition keeps improving over the course of 2023″ 🙂

b mcferren

he was doing a pretty good job of it in the last month when he was just looking to make contact

MB21

Can’t wait to find out how “for real” Cruz will be. Is it just me or is everybody else ready to come out of baseball hibernation? Reporting dates couldn’t come sooner!

robertkasperski

Counting the days till 2/15!!!!

b mcferren

his next step should be signing a $100mil extension, pronto

phieralph

Yikes.

The offspeed and breaking ball whiff numbers are a bit startling. But with time, I have confidence in Cruz.

Great article. Can’t wait for baseball season.

robertkasperski

I agree. Looked like he started improving over the last month of the season. He quit chasing as much on the balls that broke away from him so teams starting pitching him with balls moving in towards him and ending up just off of the plate inside. He started to recognizing those pitches and quit going after those as much as well. I believe that he will improve even more through 2023.

phieralph

It’s still a little unnerving to see that, by the numbers, teams hadn’t really figured out he struggled with offspeed. He was still getting almost 50% of fastballs unless that’s low for league average. But given how bad his numbers are with the offspeed, you’d think the league would of adjusted and thrown offspeed always. But like you said, I do recall him improving exponentially as the season tailed off.

Ah lots of developmental excitement for next year.

robertkasperski

Definitely going to be fun to follow the Bucs and the minor league teams to see how all of the kids are progressing. 🙂

SouthernBuc

Great article. This sounds crazy, but I think we will soon become accustomed to his highlight reel things (still impressed) and the real test of his value (superstar, star, or highlight reel only) will be at the end of the day is he much better with the boring stuff that rounds out a complete player.

k1rainey

Love this article. I’d say his biggest focus should be zone recognition which I think he clearly improved by the end of the year. If he takes those wildly out of the zone breaking balls instead of swinging at them that forces the pitcher to come at him and everything will improve nicely from there.

Y2JGQ2

I would like to see his whiff rate on all pitches in the zone. This helps discern if he just can’t hit them, or if he’s swinging at pitches that can’t be hit at all

AdministrativeSky236

If cruz can find a way to strikeout under 25% in a season, he will be a top 5 mvp candidate

ArkyWags

I think even if he gets under 30%, he will be a top 5 MVP candidate.

NMR

Interesting to note his splits as a point of comparison.

He struck out only 26% of the time against righties, and that was good for “only” 132 wRC+. That makes him a star, but still short of where even Bryan Reynolds has achieved.

Oneils 80th percentile zips projection also has him at “just” a 126 OPS+ and 4 WAR output.

steve_zielinski

Zip regresses to the mean. Unless Cruz craters, someday he’ll break the 4 War barrier.

NMR

Nah that ain’t it.

skliesen

There are always outliers. And if anyone has the makings of being an outlier, it’s this dude!

I think the key to his success is if he has the self-discipline to take his walks. Hopefully guys like Santana, Choi, and Cutch will help him understand the importance of taking those wholly unsatisfying bases on balls.

Y2JGQ2

I think noone is upset with a 4 WAR season from him in 2023, hopefully setting up a 6 WAR season in 2024

NMR

In a heartbeat, amen!

Last edited 12 days ago by NMR
ArkyWags

That’s true. I should have rephrased that be “could” be an MVP candidate if he gets under 30%. Honestly the next steps I’d like to see him take are out to CF.

Y2JGQ2

uh no……no no no no no.

NMR

Agreed.

Kebryan Hayes is unquestionably the best infield defender in the organization, and Oneil Cruz’s natural position at 3B would mitigate some of the issues he shown no ability to improve as a shortstop.

If the Pirates wanted to maximize their ability to save runs while keeping both bats in the lineup, they very clearly should switch positions.

Catch_22

Man, this is a take!!!

Hayes has played 3b exclusively as a pro and if I remember correctly, as a prepster. The nuances alone of playing SS would be incredibly difficult for someone to jump into at this stage of their career. This would be unprecedented.

Then I think of Cruz and Hayes and the shift. In particular, when Keller would pitch. Hayes would be the only player on the left side of the dirt when shifting vs a lefty. Keller would throw that heavy sinker on the outside edge and hitter would smash it into the ground oppo, Hayes would range nicely to his glove side and smoothly start a 5-6-3 dp, with obviously Cruz being the pivot man. I feel like I’ve seen this playout dozens of times.

With all that said, I think at this stage of each players respected development, it would behoove them to leave Hayes at 3b and keep Cruz at SS for at least one more year.

Moving Hayes off 3b now is little league stuff.

As for Cruz, many, SS’s have gotten better over time. Marcus Semien was terrible initially. Was close to 40 E’s in a single season and prob half were throwing E’s. From what I see with Cruz, he can gobble up all the grounders and ranges well, but rushes and his feet doesn’t get set and balls are errant to first. Kid is a phenomenal athlete and deserves time to see if he can clean up his actions a bit.

NMR

Oh come on buddy, look at what you’re saying!

“Unprecedented” quite *literally* describes Oneil Cruz as a shortstop! We’re already far off Precedent Lane. There’s never been anyone close to being like him.

Be at least a little curious!

If there’s any logic at all behind forcing Oneil Cruz at shortstop, and not just some weird fucking stunt, then that means we should absolutely have no qualms about trying a ton of other defenders at positions they’d normally be moved off of or never given a chance to begin with.

What sense does it make to stop at Oneil?

Last edited 10 days ago by NMR
Catch_22

This is the fun stuff! Neither of us are wrong and we could go back and forth on this topic but what’s the sense? At the end of the day, the wins gained by switching Hayes and Cruz would be negligible at best. It’s unconventional, I get it. Your premium defensive infielder should be at SS, your premium infield bat with should be at 3b. It’s weird but also pretty cool making the entire thing a wash, in my opinion

NMR

Love it buddy!

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

Jazz Chisholm offered to move to CF to help his team win more games. Always just depends on the player and their drive to win vs their drive to either do what they’re most comfortable with or what will pay them the best. From what has been reported, Cruz has made it pretty clear that he’s primarily interested in playing SS. I don’t really know how Hayes would react to a request to move to SS.

Catch_22

Moving Hayes off 3b is extreme to say the least.

Regarding Hayes, poll 30 GMs and more than likely 30 GMs would say you’re smoking something pretty potent.

Poll 30 GMs about Cruz moving off SS and it’s probably 70/30 keeping him at SS for at least a year.

I guess these would be fun questions to ask during a FanGraphs chat.

NMR

Wildly overestimating that ratio my man.

There are dozens of infielders in the game who could give up 10 to 20 runs a year at shortstop, but you don’t see teams doing that because it’s generally not a good idea.

The amount of narrative at play here is what gets me.

Using “extreme” to judge moving unquestionably the best infielder in the organization over a position while in defense of a unicorn 3″ taller than the next tallest shortstop in league history is beyond irony!

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

I’ve seen some scout commentary that Hayes could play SS even when he was in A ball. It’s not that far fetched. Defense is the only thing he’s good at.

Catch_22

he’s a good baserunner, good at taking bb’s, good k rates, hits the ball hard.

The only thing he’s not good at is elavating the ball.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

How important is good baserunning when your OBP is .314?

Catch_22

I like your style, man, but it’s very important. If you can get an extra bag, whether it’s a straight steal or going 1st to 3rd, it makes that .314 seem like .350. Subsequently, if you have an oaf like a Moran, it makes that .314 seem like .265.

Who would you rather have on 2b with 2 outs Hayes or Moran?

Aurorus

I was insulted and called every type of name for saying this same thing 3 months ago in this forum. Actually, I think Cruz is best suited for centerfield if he can learn the position and get a good jump on balls, but I would happily take him at 3B over SS. There is no doubt Hayes would be a better SS than Cruz, but I am still not sure if, even at SS, his bat plays.

Wasn’t everyone convinced that trading Newman was OK? Newman had a better OPS than Hayes last year, is a better SS, and makes less money than Hayes. Hayes needs to learn to hit or that salary is going to sink the Pirates’ chances to be competitive on Nutting’s budgets, regardless of which position he plays.

Last edited 10 days ago by Aurorus
RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

I’ve been pounding the Erik Gonzalez table for the Pirates to try Hayes at SS and Cruz at 3b for at least a year now. At least then I’d irrationally stopped being depressed by Hayes hitting stats for no good reason other than his premium defense was at a premium position.

NMR

There’s two of us!!

NMR

Actually that’s an embellishment, shame on me.

Cruz was one of the worst shortstops in the league and that performance *was* a massive improvement over what he did over his first six weeks or so in AAA. Yay improvement!

ArkyWags

I don’t think he’s a very good shortstop right now and since defense peaks early, it’s likely he gets worse. Are there any metrics that suggest he’s actually good at short?

jon6er

Are there any metrics that suggest he can play outfield. Saw him play outfield a couple of times and it wasn’t pretty.

ArkyWags

Considering he’s played sparingly there, isn’t that expected? I think given enough time with his speed, athleticism, and howitzer, he’d be pretty dang good. Like Judge.
This still bothers me with this FO. They either don’t want to face a tough decision, like moving a guy off a position he can’t play too well or (worse) they think he can play it when lots of scouts and metrics say he really can’t. And the longer they delay, the worse it gets because the player is entrenched in that position. A proper defensive alignment (not playing guys out of position) is a pretty easy way to get better, so moves like this (if they had made them a few years ago) should have been low-hanging fruit for them. Of course, this is the bunch that put Cole Tucker in a corner OF position, so…
Playing defensively stretched players in premium defensive positions became pretty popular because you could shield guys with a shift. That won’t be the case anymore. A much better defensive alignment would have a Reynolds/Cruz/Jack OF.

Last edited 12 days ago by ArkyWags
Aurorus

Playing Cole Tucker in RF was absolutely indefensible. It was such an obviously stupid thing to do that I wonder how so many have such faith in this front office. Not only the Cole Tucker in RF but also their attempt (since abandoned to have most of their pitchers pitch 3-4 innings and blur the lines between bullpen and starter for everyone in the organization). Add to these the acquisition of all those garbage waiver wire claims after spring training. There was just an endless string of stupidity last year. And people still think that $30 million for a junk pitcher, a 43-year-old pitcher, and 2 mediocre firstbaseman was somehow a great off-season for management. For $30 million, they could have had 2 impact players in addition to McCutcheon. It is a real indictment that the know-nothing, cheap-skate owner made a better off-season signing (McCutcheon) than the front office “experts:” both in terms of putting butts in seats and generating revenue to spend in 2024 on payroll, and value for the dollars spent in quality of play in 2023.

Last edited 10 days ago by Aurorus
1979andCounting

There are alot of indefensible things this FO has done, but playing Tucker in the OF is not one of them. It kept him on the MLB roster getting him ABs, which is where he needed to proove his worth. The bat never came around, so mission was accomplished. His athleticism and attitude made it at least a possibility.

Catch_22

Well said. If you pigeonhole to SS, he’s DFA’d well before he was actually DFA’d.

Catch_22

If you can’t spell McCutchen, you should never post these inane, opinionated sh*t posts.

Aurorus

I didn’t have my glasses on, so I could not see the error. I am sick and tired of your insults and name-calling you obnoxious jerk.

NMR

Amen, and my reply was less of a gotcha than a “huh, I would’ve expected more.”

Really puts the jump from good to elite into perspective.

sewer2001

Agreed. Baby steps. 33% then 30% and maybe even 27.5%. 25% is a bit much to ask considering more than half the hitters in the majors are above that. Literally. In any case, Cruz has a floor of above average production even now. In MLB to date he has a 106 WRC+ Last season he put up a 102 and then add in his cup of coffee in 2021, which included a home run off his toes, it bumps him up to 106.

This is with the K rate where it is. That’s what his power accomplishes. It really is a great lesson in why the league has moved toward the three true outcomes. If he increase his walk rate and his K rate stays steady, he could be as much as 10-15% above average with little to no other improvement.

This is not what I want or predict, I m simply pointing out that he will be playing for the pirates every day no matter how much he Ks.

The ceiling is clear MVP candidate. Indeed if forced to predict, I think he finishes top 10 MVP this season.

Last edited 12 days ago by sewer2001
skliesen

If his walk rate increases, there’s a near 0% chance his batted ball profile stays the same. He will force Pitchers to throw strikes to get him out, and more of those strikes will end up as hits. Many of them in the form of big flies!

Y2JGQ2

he isn’t getting any votes on this team this year. doesn’t matter if he hits 40 hrs

skliesen

Won’t get votes, or won’t get 1st place votes? Big difference between the two.

Don’t forget not too long ago Harper won the MVP on a 3rd place team.

ArkyWags

He sure could. If Reynolds got some down ballot MVP love on a 100 loss team, Cruz could easily get some if he hits a bunch of bombs.

Anthony

Not really above average, xwOBA was slightly below league average last year, 36th percentile. Quality of contact not that good; he technically outperformed results.

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