Pirates’ Oneil Cruz has limitless potential. His upside: Baseball Giannis

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports activities MLB Author

You always remember the primary time you see Oneil Cruz in particular person

Clearly, you are ready to see somebody tall. However seeing a baseball participant constructed like post-stretch Mike Teevee from Charlie and the Chocolate Manufacturing unit carrying baseball pants in a dugout, and never sprinting down an NBA courtroom, is extremely jarring. The Pirates rookie shortstop is not simply tall; he is lengthy, with levers that stretch on perpetually like Mrs. Unbelievable’s.

“I bear in mind seeing him in Spring Coaching of ’21 and pondering: ‘wow, that is a tall pitcher,” Pirates reliever Chase De Jong instructed FOX Sports activities. “He did not present up for stretching and I used to be like ‘the place’d that lightning rod of a man go?’ Then somebody instructed me he was a shortstop and I heard him taking BP and he was instantly like ‘wow.’

“The primary time I noticed him in particular person was Spring Coaching 2020,” Pirates supervisor Derek Shelton instructed FOX Sports activities. “He walks onto the sector and Jarrod Dyson yells ‘what’s Kevin Durant doing right here?'”

At an imposing 6-foot-7, Cruz is already the tallest on a regular basis shortstop in baseball historical past. Had he been born in The Bronx or Paris or Buenos Aires, Cruz could be a small ahead on the Toronto Raptors or the like. However by the facility of circumstance, the 23-year-old skyscraper from Nizao within the Dominican Republic performs baseball.

And he is rattling good at it.

“One factor that we have discovered about basketball gamers,” Shelton defined. “So long as their arms are, if you happen to ever watch them come out and hit BP, it is by no means, ever easy. And with Oneil, it is at all times been easy.”

On Sunday at Citi Area, he zinged a 99 mph heater from Greatest Pitcher On Earth™ Jacob deGrom for a game-tying three-run bomb, leaving the two-time Cy Younger winner mouth in utter disbelief on the mound. The week prior, additionally in opposition to the Mets, he launched a 113 mph, 422-foot torpedo blast into the Allegheny River off reliever Tommy Hunter. Earlier this season he smacked two dingers off final 12 months’s NL Cy Younger winner Corbin Burnes and one in opposition to this 12 months’s probably winner Sandy Alcantara.

Since his MLB call-up in late June, the phenomenon prophetically named after Paul O’Neill has tantalized teammates, opponents and followers along with his immense uncooked expertise. Many declare that Cruz could be the one most naturally gifted baseball participant ever.

Again in July, I uncorked a 97.8 mph toss from shortstop to first base, the toughest throw ever recorded by an infielder.

And on Aug. twenty fourth in opposition to Atlanta’s Kyle Wright, Cruz broke Giancarlo Stanton’s file for the hardest-hit baseball within the Statcast period (and sure ever) by smashing a 122.4 mph laser beam off the right-field wall at PNC Park.

He is by some means additionally the eleventh quickest participant in baseball. Cruz is a bodily specimen, a unicorn in contrast to something we have ever seen on this sport, a person able to jaw-dropping feats on a nightly foundation. That pure skill wants some therapeutic, little question, however in time, Cruz may very effectively evolve into the sport’s most spectacular and most dominant participant.

Mainly, he is Baseball Giannis.

For these first few years in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo was an inexperienced supernova of potential who understandably struggled with a few of basketball’s finer factors. By means of hard-work, good teaching, maturation and persistence the Greek Freak has blossomed into the NBA’s most electrifying determine.

Cruz hopes to do the identical.

“That is an awesome praise.” Cruz instructed FOX Sports activities via a translator after listening to that comparability, his face lighting up with an infinite grin stretching from ear to ear. “That man is absolutely the animal of basketball.”

Admittedly, the younger shortstop has fairly a methods to go earlier than even sniffing Giannis’ stage of success. On Monday night time, Cruz surpassed Joey Gallo for the best strikeout price in all of MLB (38.79% to 38.77%). He has whiffed an outrageous 116 occasions in his 299 plate appearances this 12 months. The track-record for strikeout-prone rookies isn’t nice.

Of the 19 different first-year hitters within the Wild Card it was to put up a Ok price over 35% (minimal 200 PA), solely three have turn into unequivocal successes (Austin Riley, Byron Buxton and Javier Báez). The remainder both puttered out (Tyler Austin, Mike Olt, Evan White) or nestled into careers as succesful however unreliable position gamers (Jorge Alfaro, Keon Broxton, Miguel Sano).

But regardless of his astronomical Ok price, Cruz has nonetheless been an above-average hitter this season. As of Tuesday morning, he has 17 residence runs and a 102 OPS+ in these 299 plate appearances. And to date in September, 42% strikeout price be damned, he is been one of many league’s finest hitters, to the tune of a .961 OPS.

“It sounds elementary, however I believe this 12 months he is discovered that swinging at strikes is actually essential.” Shelton stated. “Within the minors, he may lengthen these lengthy arms and put all the pieces in play. Right here you ca n’t try this. But when he swings and makes contact with a strike, he’ll fly off the bat.”

Cruz’s skill to easily maintain his head above water in opposition to big-league pitching this season is nothing wanting a triumph contemplating he is nonetheless studying the best way to make the most of his distinctive body. When the Dodgers signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in the summertime of 2015, he was solely 6-foot-1. However he simply saved rising.

“I needed to get new garments straight away.” Cruz remembers. “There was a degree the place I used to be averaging, like, an inch or two per 12 months. My household simply ended up shopping for me loads of garments that had been manner too huge as a result of they knew I might proceed to develop and ultimately develop into them. They had been proper.”

When he debuted for Los Angeles within the Dominican Summer time League in 2016, Cruz was round 6-foot-4. A 12 months later, when he was traded to Pittsburgh for reliever Tony Watson, he stood two inches taller. Now he is 6-foot-7, pushing 6-foot-8. And whereas he is most likely completed inching in the direction of the heavens, getting snug along with his peak and size from him is a vital a part of Cruz’s improvement from him as a hitter.

Mets reliever Tommy Hunter, who gave up that river-bound scud-missile blast to Cruz earlier this month, echoed that very same sentiment when requested concerning the Pittsburgh slugger.

“It is scary. He is solely 23 and nonetheless coming into his personal. As huge as he’s, so long as he’s, the quantity of torque he is in a position to create, it is simply so, so explosive. That is a particular expertise.”

And that residence run?

“I wanted a neck brace or some muscle relaxers, how freakin’ fast I needed to flip my head to observe it go.” Hunter joked.

When requested about his unbelievable pure skills, Cruz is understandably coy, fast to deflect consideration off himself and in the direction of what his accomplishments imply for the crew. He claims he does not harp on his new exit velocity file both as a result of “there’s a lot good expertise developing that you simply simply know that there is at all times gonna be somebody doing one thing larger and higher.” His major purpose, he says, is to assist the eleven-great Pittsburgh franchise return to postseason glory.

However modesty solely goes to date when you’ll be able to hit a baseball tougher than anybody else within the historical past of humanity. Cruz’s skills and spotlight reels communicate for themselves. His burgeoning superstardom was on show at Citi Area final week, with younger followers clamoring for autographs and footage with the towering ballplayer just a few years their senior.

The hole between what Oneil Cruz presently is and what Oneil Cruz would possibly at some point turn into is bigger than that of another huge leaguer. Traversing that canyon takes time and persistence, help and initiative, belief and self-belief. It is a chasm of improvement that Cruz has journeyed earlier than; the hole between 16 12 months outdated Oneil and present Oneil was probably much more huge.

There is a respectable probability Cruz by no means reaches his full potential and settles right into a profession as an offensively risky spotlight machine. But when he comes anyplace shut, Cruz will turn into the kind of participant you purchase tickets to go see. The kind of participant you inform your grandkids you bought to see in particular person. The kind of participant whose miraculous sporting exploits dot the entrance pages of internet sites throughout the nation.

Baseball’s reply to Giannis.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @BBQ Lawns, is a baseball author for FOX Sports activities. He is an Orioles fan residing in New York Metropolis, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he isn’t watching baseball, he is virtually definitely using his bike. Comply with him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.


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