1-10-23 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter
With great talent there often also comes wild swings in possible outcomes. Oneil Cruz is indeed a great talent, you can debate what he’ll do with it, where he’ll deploy it, if he’ll ever reach the heights of what his capabilities seem to be, but you really can’t debate that the talent is there.
2023 is going to be arguably the single biggest season in determining at the very least, is Oneil Cruz a Short Stop for the foreseeable future.
Let’s talk through this a bit, and see if we can’t determine what options the team really has, what success looks like at short, and even if successful, how long it might last. That last part is intriguing to me if only because with that body type, the likelihood he can stay there for his career is really low in my mind. We’ve seen plenty of these bigger guys, albeit not as big, start careers there and ultimately have to slide over to third or transition elsewhere like Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez, heck I could argue Derek Jeter really should have moved toward the end.
Start mentioning guys like that and you’re first assumption is I’m comparing Cruz to those Hall of Famers and All Stars, but don’t worry, I’m not getting that far ahead of myself. To be a player that sticks long enough to age out of SS alone is a feat in this league, but for context, big and SS don’t tend to live together for life.
How long can he stick there to me helps determine if it’s worth the effort. So let’s take as well rounded a look as we can here and see if we can’t determine a path forward.
First Things First, Are We Just Assuming the Bat Plays?
Listen, if it doesn’t, nothing else matters. I’d of course love Cruz to be a complete player, but lets be really honest, if Cruz was a stellar defender, anywhere on the diamond for that matter, but fizzled at the plate, he’s not a guy we’re drooling over is he?
Oh sure, that arm is incredible, but if that comes with a .205 batting average and 15 homeruns, meh. So of course the bat has to be a thing.
So, no, I’m not assuming it plays, not yet, at least not as a well rounded bat. What I see right now is a player that’s going to hit homeruns, if only because he doesn’t have to do anything special (for him) to hit balls hard enough to put them over the wall. In other words, he doesn’t have to sell out to generate thump.
Bluntly, Cruz was a different hitter in 2022 than what he was most of his minor league career. Average was a huge part of his game along with a really nice OPS. He didn’t strike out at close to the amount he did in his rookie campaign.
In fact, the most striking thing about Cruz is prior to 2022 including his minor league numbers, his splits weren’t even a concern really.
In 2021 Cruz had 69 at bats vs left handers and struck out only 14 times. In 2022 with the Pirates he faced left handed pitching for 101 at bats and struck out 59 times.
Couple things here. For one in his minor league career, the organization didn’t challenge him to face a ton of left handed pitching, which is strange because when they did allow him to face them he did quite well. Upon bringing him to AAA and ultimately MLB, I should also note under a new regime, they did start expecting him to hit them and play every day.
It went much better in AAA than MLB. Strikeouts were way up at this level, so were homeruns.
OK, so his history is being a high on base, high average, high OPS hitter with elite exit velocity and barrel rates. He comes to MLB and becomes a low average, moderate OPS hitter who now hits more homeruns, with elite exit velocity and barrel rates and a big spike in strikeouts.
Rookie vs MLB Pitching? Trying too hard to hit balls over the fence? Left handed MLB pitching is a world different than minor league left handed pitching?
Probably a bit of all those things.
I’m interested to see how Cruz attacks 2023. I firmly believe he could hit 40 homeruns if he hunted them, but I’m equally sure he could hit 25 and do it with a .275 average and an .850 OPS. Either way that’s a valuable bat right? That might be where I land, he’s almost assuredly a valuable bat and I think the struggles vs left handed pitching will regulate a bit, it’s just not his history to struggle as mightily as he did last season with that aspect and the elite bat speed will ultimately allow him to take that extra split second, once he realizes he has it.
What Does Success at SS Look Like?
First of all, Errors aren’t everything, but they matter. Cruz has a history of big error numbers as he’s climbed through the system.
Now in 2021 he showed a nice reduction in those and it’s probably responsible for why the team ultimately believed moving forward giving him a shot to hold the spot was worthy of the effort.
In 2022 he played 678 innings at SS and put together a .953 FPCT% with 17 errors.
Not exactly Omar Vizquel out there is he?
Look, it’s a problem, until it isn’t. The team is going to give him every opportunity to lock it up in 2023, and I’ll touch on why a bit later, suffice to say, Cruz must improve his success rate.
A couple factors that stats just aren’t going to tell you. His range is elite and sometimes what that causes is getting to balls others wouldn’t. That often results in a rushed throw with full mustard that if inaccurate tends to create an error that for most would simply be a base hit.
Another thing that’s tough to quantify, he often gets to balls and because of his arm strength takes too long with it, forcing himself to fire it across as opposed to simply toss it over. These are technique things that you’d hope would be taught prior to MLB, and by most accounts, they were, but still being taught and applying it are two different things.
Maybe the easiest way to quantify his defense is to say a percentile of 3 for OAA (Outs Above Average) when you’re a physical freak with an Arm Strength rating of 97% doesn’t jive.
To call him a success at SS in 2023, his OAA needs to creep into the 40’s or 50’s minimally and inherently the error number would decrease as a result.
Technique wise, we need to see less crow hopping, less full effort throws, basically, less spectacular and more expected outcomes.
If his bat plays, being an above average SS will be enough. Trying to be Ozzie Smith but looking more like Javi Baez won’t cut it long term.
I’ll add one more thing here. Although I personally feel Michael Chavis with his extremely limited first base experience did well, he wasn’t a first baseman that is going to help his fielders much. He lacked the height to make up for sails, he lacked the technique to help with wide ones and he lacked the experience to help with scoops, especially scoops coming in at 98MPH.
Carlos Santana and Ji-man Choi are both experienced and above average fielders over at first base, they could really help some of this along.
We’ve all seen Cruz miss by a mile on throws, but a whole bunch of those errors were balls a “good” first baseman would prevent. Not enough to eliminate them all, but surely enough to help him cut them down even if he puts together roughly the same defensive output this season.
What if He Doesn’t Improve at SS?
First things first, if he hits, there will be incentive to find him another place to play. The arm strength is truly elite and man that’s a not something that will be on display at DH.
Outfield is logical, he’s lightning fast and has an arm that would open Dave Parker’s eyes, but he vocally doesn’t want to play there. I’ll say this, players also don’t like being embarrassed, if the Pirates come up with a superior solution at SS and Cruz doesn’t improve, he’ll likely bend. I personally think that’s the best solution should SS not work out and potentially even if it does, because as I mentioned earlier there will come a day when that position becomes too physically taxing for him and his body type.
The extra effort it takes Cruz to get down on balls in the hole, well it’s the opposite of the minimal effort it takes him to hit a ball 110 MPH. That said, we’re talking 5-6 years down the road in my mind before we start to see him physically pay a price and frankly, he’s a Pirate, it might not matter to us by then.
First base makes a bunch of sense too. With his size and experience in the field, handling first base could be a very natural transition. The argument here is the “waste of his arm” but hey, if it makes him happier than OF, it’s better than DH.
Bottom line, if he doesn’t hold onto SS, expect them to try a couple different things with DH being a last resort.
If He’s Struggling at SS, Why Keep Trying?
This first reason is simplistic as hell and admittedly, some of you simply aren’t going to care, but the player wants it. He wants to be different, and in his mind (likely advised by his representation as well), he’s a more valuable player if he’s a short stop as opposed to outfielder or first baseman. Certainly DH that’s true.
Look around the league these last two years. Short stops get PAID, and Cruz would be no different, of course he wants to stick there.
Now, for the Pirates it’s a little muddier but I’ll give it a go. For one thing, they don’t really have anyone knocking on the door to take over do they? Liover Peguero is the next closest and he’s arguably had a worse go of it defensively even if his body type fits the role better.
Next, the Pirates also see the value in having a SS with Cruz’ potential offensive prowess. It should be no secret that they aren’t going to go buy it, so when they have someone like this, they clearly would love to make it work.
Now that comes with a sundial, at some point they will simply want to do what makes the player the best version of themselves they can be, regardless of where that puts him, but first things first, they’ll want to be sure SS isn’t that place.
Something I simply have to say here is, where you want Cruz to play doesn’t mean a damn thing. I see people believe he should be in the outfield already, but for all the reasons I listed, it isn’t happening yet. I see just as many people push forward that the Pirates would be “criminal” if they moved him. Beyond silly.
Players move positions all the friggin’ time people. Neil Walker was drafted as a catcher, moved because of how “awesome” Ryan Doumit was. Posted up at third base, got called up after Pedro Alvarez had already taken charge of the position, was asked to give second base a shot, and found a way to develop and stick there until his Pirates career ended and he became an almost complete utility man.
He was worth all that because the bat played. In fact, all the consternation is about the bat playing, all the time. If they hit, teams will find a place for them to play, and that’s the bottom line.
Even the Pirates aren’t so poorly run as to assume they see no possibility Cruz becomes an at least passible short stop.
So despite how many decades you’ve been watching baseball, and despite your social convictions about how evil baseball teams are and virtuous baseball players are, nothing tells the story of placing players more than the bat.
If they develop 8 short stops because all their best hitters in the org are short stops, 7 of them will learn a new position. This is simply how things work.
Enjoy watching it happen, and embrace it. Do so knowingly and you’ll see all the signs it’s coming, instead of waiting for someone to tell you it needs to happen.