WASHINGTON – Sometimes, there’s just no projecting when a once-in-a-lifetime talent will emerge. Otherwise, Oneil Cruz would have received much more than the $950,000 the Los Angeles Dodgers paid to sign him as a 16-year-old – a smaller bonus than 26 signees in his 2015 international class.
And it’s almost impossible to predict a tall, skinny, curious talent will only keep growing as an adult, after you’ve traded him and he sprouts to 6 feet, 7 inches while retaining his fluid movement and elite speed. Clearly, the Dodgers did not see that coming when they dealt Cruz away to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
No, you simply couldn’t engineer a 6-7, 220-pound shortstop whose length and leverage and speed enable him to impact the ball and throw it harder than almost anyone else. And that has created a mythology around Cruz that may soon be matched with production.
“God just gave him all that,” Pirates All-Star outfielder Bryan Reynolds says of Cruz, “and said, ‘You’re going to hit the ball 120 mph.’”
Though he has played in just 11 major league games, Cruz has already left so much metrics madness in his wake that there’s really only one player that can stand eye-to-eye with him in person and at the altar of exit velocity: Giancarlo Stanton .
The New York Yankees right fielder stands 6-6 and owns the two hardest-hit balls measured by Major League Baseball’s Statcast system: 122.2 mph, achieved twice. Cruz has the next hardest-hit ball in measured history, a 121.7 mph single hit while playing for Class AAA Indianapolis last month. But Stanton wanders the outfield and often serves as a designated hitter.
Cruz plays shortstop, the tallest in major league history at the game’s most demanding position, a 23-year-old who keeps bucking baseball orthodoxy with no plans to stop.
“I take a lot of pride playing shortstop,” Cruz tells USA TODAY Sports via Pirates coach Mike Gonzalez, the club’s interpreter. “It’s a position not only I’m deeply in love with but I feel super comfortable in. So for me, it’s very important for myself to just maintain myself and hopefully continue in my career as a shortstop.
“I recognize I am a tall shortstop. I have recognized that my body has grown a lot more compared to other shortstops and other athletes. However, it’s never really crossed my mind, ‘Oh now, because I’m this big, or this stature, I have to find a different position.’ I’ve never really felt like that.”
And nobody so tall has ever tried to play the position before.
LOOKING AHEAD: 8 MLB players poised for second-half breakouts
NEVER MISS A MOMENT: Follow our sports newsletter for daily updates
‘It’s science, right?’
Drop down to 6-foot-5 and you’ll find a trio of guys – Archi Cianfrocco, Troy Glaus, Mike Morse – who made it at other positions but dabbled at short, Cianfrocco most frequently at 15 games a season. At 6-4, it gets real, with a gaggle of regulars, All-Stars and Hall of Famers, from Cal Ripken Jr. to Carlos Correa and Corey Seager.
Yet even they might be hard-pressed to match the economy of movement in a massive package that Cruz provides.
“He doesn’t move like a 6-7 guy,” says Pirates bench coach Don Kelly, who at 6-4 played five games at shortstop in 2007, and then never again in a nine-year career as a utilityman. “I can’t remember ever seeing anyone that size be that athletic, that fluid, and move the way he moves.”
Cruz’s overall toolbox may also be unmatched.
He made a two-game debut at the end of the 2021 season, registering the hardest-hit ball by a Pirate (118.2 mph) in one game and homering in his second. This year, he returned to Class AAA until the Pirates’ 66th game this season, a banishment that could be considered equal parts finishing school and service-time chicanery.
Cruz nearly broke the radar gun upon his return.
In an instantly-celebrated tour de force, Cruz drove in four runs in his 2022 debut but most notably established a Statcast trifecta: A 112.9 mph hit, a 96.2 mph throw from shortstop and Pittsburgh’s three fastest sprint speeds of the year, topping out at 31.5 mph.
The numbers only tell part of the story.
“It honestly didn’t look like he threw it that hard,” Kelly says of Cruz’s 96-mph heater from shortstop. “It looked nice and easy. Just exploded out. There’s no telling how hard he’s going to hit a ball, how fast he’s going to throw it.”
While Cruz does not yet have the sample size to rank among the game’s exit velocity leaders, the correlation between his size and feats and those atop the heap are no coincidence. Stanton is both the all-time record-holder and the 2022 leader in average exit velocity, at 96.2 mph. His 6-7 teammate, Aaron Judge, ranks third at 95.8 mph and has hit a majors-best 28 home runs.
While tall frames and long swings can be a death knell against elite pitching, it is a vicious weapon when paired with athletic movement in the box.
“It’s just leverage. It’s science, right? says Washington Nationals first baseman Josh Bell, who at 6-4 is batting .309 and possibly headed to the All-Star Game. “The longer leverage you have, the more mass you have impacting baseball. So I expect for (Cruz) to be on the leaderboards with guys that are his size – Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton.
“I think that’s it.”
That can result in some pleasant surprises. Monday night, Cruz hit his first home run this season, a solo shot off Washington’s Erick Fedde that started low and ended up in the second deck. Unlike some of Stanton’s no-doubt screamers, this was 408 feet, 109.8 mph off the bat, but seemingly riding cruise control all the way.
“I thought it was going to hit the wall and it just kept going. This kid’s got unbelievable power,” says Pirates manager Derek Shelton. “He just hits the ball so dang hard. I thought it was going to be a double and it just kept going.
“He creates a ton of leverage and then the extension he has on the frontside – a lot of the balls that are down, near the ground, he’s able to extend out and get. But the extension on the front side, because he’s so big and so loose, really stands out.”
Three decades marked mostly by futility, tight-fisted ownership and the departure of stars like Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen makes it seem all the more unlikely the Pirates stumbled upon a most amazing building block.
One to grow on
From birth through his professional growth, the influence of Cruz’s father, Rafael, is evident. Rafael named his son after Reds and Yankees great Paul O’Neill, and when the young man’s talent portended great things, he made sure he reached that potential.
“To make a long story short, as a child I had nowhere close to that level of strength,” Cruz remembers. “Even when I signed with the Dodgers, I was nowhere near that level of strength. However, after I signed I remember putting in a lot of work and my dad being on top of me, working out with me, making the commitment and the results are showing.”
Cruz was thrilled to sign with the Dodgers, one of his favorite teams growing up, yet his story was far from complete. As a 16-year-old, Cruz was 6-4 when the Dodgers signed him and at the timesenior vice president Josh Byrnes said Cruz, “with his body type, may have a hard time staying at shortstop.”
Come July 2017, the Dodgers were on the way to the World Series and Cruz was sporting a .293 on-base percentage in low Class A. The Pirates shipped the Dodgers reliever Tony Watson, who would help them within a game of a World Series title.
Cruz wouldn’t stop growing until he turned 20, stood 6-7 and bumped his OPS to .856 while touching Class AA.
“When I was traded by the Dodgers, it never really crossed my mind that it was a lack of recognizing my talent or valuing me as an athlete,” Cruz recalls. “I just think it was more a business part of baseball. However, I do remember when that happened, I always dreamt of coming up with them.
“And when I recognized it didn’t happen, it kind of disappointed me. But I refocused on the goal.”
In 2016, the Dodgers traded future slugger Yordan Alvarez to the Astros in exchange for reliever Josh Fields. There’s no telling if the Cruz loss will sting the Dodgers like Alvarez, who’s probably second to Judge in the AL MVP race. The Pirates are eager to find out.
They have lost 12 of 17 after threatening to reach .500 earlier this month, and the diamond resembles a workshop, with young players deployed in unfamiliar places (Diego Castillo, right fielder) and verdicts still pending on bounce-back veterans such as Michael Chavis .
In this environment, they can certainly afford a bit of on-the-job training at shortstop.
“We have to determine how he’s going to play the position. Because no one’s ever played the position at that size,” says Shelton. “How he’s going to move his feet from him, what he’s going to do. And right now, we’re getting the opportunity to watch him. And we’ll gauge that as we continue to move forward.”
Bell, the former Pirates first baseman traded to Washington in 2020, thinks it wise that they roll with Cruz up the middle, giving them a dynamic left side of the infield to build around.
“You just gotta trust the guy that’s over there,” says Bell. “I feel like there might be growing pains, but if you want him to be the face of the franchise – it’s going to be him at shortstop, Ke’Bryan (Hayes) at third – you let them age together, you let him learn the game at this level. You can always let him run around the outfield, but that’s the way you get guys like that hurt.”
For now, Cruz remains the Dominican youngster who binge-watched YouTube videos of countryman Tony Fernandez, the World Series-winning shortstop for the Toronto Blue Jays and a 17-year veteran. While Cruz doesn’t have to answer “KD” in the Pirates clubhouse much anymore – infielder Adam Frazier, fond of calling him that, has been traded – one can see the inspired comp to Kevin Durant. Cruz indeed hoops when he goes back home and not surprisingly, is a dynamic dunker.
“Remove easily,” he says, and wouldn’t that be a winter pickup game to stumble upon?
There are a few more skills he needs to hone. Cruz has yet to draw a walk in 45 major league plate appearances, but has struck out 16 times. His footwork from him at short remains choppy at times. His future position – on the field, in the lineup – could come down to a series of cost-benefit calculations.
But the tale of the tape, which says he’s the tallest and perhaps toolsiest shortstop we’ve ever seen, does not lie. And neither does the radar gun, which reminds us of his most important superlative.
“He hits the ball as hard as anybody in the game,” says Shelton. “I’d say that’s one that would be cool to have.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism