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

By Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

You never forget the first time you see Oneil Cruz in person.

Obviously, you’re prepared to see someone tall. But seeing a baseball player built like post-stretch Mike Teevee from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wearing baseball pants in a dugout, and not sprinting down an NBA court, is incredibly jarring. The Pirates rookie shortstop isn’t just tall; he’s long, with levers that stretch on forever like Mrs. Incredible’s.

“I remember seeing him in Spring Training of ‘21 and thinking: ‘wow, that’s a tall pitcher,” Pirates reliever Chase De Jong told FOX Sports. “He didn’t show up for stretching and I was like ‘where’d that lightning rod of a guy go?’ Then someone told me he was a shortstop and I heard him taking BP and was immediately like ‘wow.”

“The first time I saw him in person was Spring Training 2020,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton told FOX Sports. “He walks onto the field and Jarrod Dyson yells ‘what is Kevin Durant doing here?'”

At an imposing 6-foot-7, Cruz is already the tallest everyday shortstop in baseball history. Had he been born in The Bronx or Paris or Buenos Aires, Cruz would be a small forward on the Toronto Raptors or the like. But by the power of circumstance, the 23-year-old skyscraper from Nizao in the Dominican Republic plays baseball.

And he’s damn good at it.

“One thing that we’ve learned about basketball players,” Shelton explained. “As long as their arms are, if you ever watch them come out and hit BP, it’s never, ever smooth. And with Oneil, it’s always been smooth.”

On Sunday at Citi Field, he zinged a 99 mph heater from Best Pitcher On Earth™ Jacob deGrom for a game-tying three-run bomb, leaving the two-time Cy Young winner mouth in utter disbelief on the mound. The week prior, also against 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 last year’s NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and one against this year’s likely winner Sandy Alcantara.

Since his MLB call-up in late June, the phenom prophetically named after Paul O’Neill has tantalized teammates, opponents and fans with his immense raw talent. Many claim that Cruz might be the single most naturally gifted baseball player ever. 

Back in July, he uncorked a 97.8 mph toss from shortstop to first base, the hardest throw ever recorded by an infielder. 

And on Aug. 24th against Atlanta’s Kyle Wright, Cruz broke Giancarlo Stanton’s record for the hardest-hit baseball in the Statcast era (and likely ever) by smashing a 122.4 mph laser beam off the right-field wall at PNC Park.

He’s somehow also the 11th fastest player in baseball. Cruz is a physical specimen, a unicorn unlike anything we’ve ever seen in this sport, a man capable of jaw-dropping feats on a nightly basis. That natural ability needs some curating, no doubt, but in time, Cruz could very well evolve into the game’s most spectacular and most dominant player. 

Basically, he’s Baseball Giannis.

For those first few years in Milwaukee, Giannis Antetokounmpo was an inexperienced supernova of potential who understandably struggled with some of basketball’s finer points. Through hard-work, good coaching, maturation and patience the Greek Freak has blossomed into the NBA’s most electrifying figure.

Cruz hopes to do the same.

“That’s a great compliment.” Cruz told FOX Sports through a translator after hearing that comparison, his face lighting up with an enormous grin stretching from ear to ear. “That guy is the absolute animal of basketball.” 

Admittedly, the young shortstop has quite a ways to go before even sniffing Giannis’ level of success. On Monday night, Cruz surpassed Joey Gallo for the highest strikeout rate in all of MLB (38.79% to 38.77%). He has whiffed an outrageous 116 times in his 299 plate appearances this year. The track-record for strikeout-prone rookies is not great.

Of the 19 other first-year hitters in the Wild Card era to post a K rate over 35% (minimum 200 PA), only three have become unequivocal successes (Austin Riley, Byron Buxton and Javier Báez). The rest either puttered out (Tyler Austin, Mike Olt, Evan White) or nestled into careers as capable but unreliable role players (Jorge Alfaro, Keon Broxton, Miguel Sano).

Yet despite his astronomical K rate, Cruz has still been an above-average hitter this season. As of Tuesday morning, he has 17 home runs and a 102 OPS+ in those 299 plate appearances. And thus far in September, 42% strikeout rate be damned, he’s been one of the league’s best hitters, to the tune of a .961 OPS.

“It sounds elementary, but I think this year he’s learned that swinging at strikes is really important.” Shelton said. “In the minors, he could extend those long arms and put everything in play. Here you can’t do that. But if he swings and makes contact with a strike, it’s going to fly off the bat.”

Cruz’s ability to simply hold his head above water against big-league pitching this season is nothing short of a triumph considering he’s still learning how to utilize his unique frame. When the Dodgers signed him as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2015, he was only 6-foot-1. But he just kept growing.

“I had to get new clothes right away.” Cruz remembers. “There was a point where I was averaging, like, an inch or two per year. My family just ended up buying me a lot of clothes that were way too big because they knew I would continue to grow and eventually grow into them. They were right.”

When he debuted for Los Angeles in the Dominican Summer League in 2016, Cruz was around 6-foot-4. A year later, when he was traded to Pittsburgh for reliever Tony Watson, he stood two inches taller. Now he’s 6-foot-7, pushing 6-foot-8. And while he’s probably done inching towards the heavens, getting comfortable with his height and length is a crucial part of Cruz’s development as a hitter.

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

“It’s scary. He’s only 23 and still coming into his own. As big as he is, as long as he is, the amount of torque he’s able to create, it’s just so, so explosive. That’s a special talent.”

And that home run?

“I needed a neck brace or some muscle relaxers, how freakin’ quick I had to turn my head to watch it go.” Hunter joked.

When asked about his incredible natural abilities, Cruz is understandably coy, quick to deflect attention off himself and towards what his accomplishments mean for the team. He claims he doesn’t harp on his new exit velocity record either because “there’s so much good talent coming up that you just know that there’s always gonna be someone doing something bigger and better.” His primary goal, he says, is to help the once-great Pittsburgh franchise return to postseason glory.

But modesty only goes so far when you can hit a baseball harder than anybody else in the history of humanity. Cruz’s talents and highlight reels speak for themselves. His burgeoning superstardom was on display at Citi Field last week, with young fans clamoring for autographs and pictures with the towering ballplayer only a few years their senior.

The gap between what Oneil Cruz currently is and what Oneil Cruz might one day become is larger than that of any other big leaguer. Traversing that canyon takes time and patience, support and initiative, trust and self-belief. It’s a chasm of development that Cruz has journeyed before; the gap between 16 year old Oneil and current Oneil was possibly even more vast.

There’s a decent chance Cruz never reaches his full potential and settles into a career as an offensively volatile highlight machine. But if he comes anywhere close, Cruz will become the type of player you buy tickets to go see. The type of player you tell your grandkids you got to see in person. The type of player whose miraculous sporting exploits dot the front pages of websites across the country.

Baseball’s answer to Giannis.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ, is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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