When the Pittsburgh Pirates summoned top contender Oneil Cruz this week, those trying to explain the excitement around him had to reach for other areas for comparison. The Giannis Antetokounmpo of baseball† The height of Aaron Judge with the speed of Tyreek Hill†
Anyone who was really convinced to turn on the Pirates game needed no further analogies. The thrill of Cruz’s potential was all there, pure visual stimulation.
You see, Cruz is six feet and he plays shortstop. And he’s not a novelty or an edge player with a cool quirk. Until Tuesday, when Pittsburgh finally ended its particularly unpleasant campaign of service time manipulation, he was one of the most exciting players in the minor leagues. Coming in the season, Baseball Prospectus ranked him the number 12 prospect in the sport.
In his first game of 2022 (making an MLB debut in one game in late 2021), Cruz threw the ball harder than any MLB infielder this season, ran faster than any pirate this season and hit the ball tougher than any pirate has this season.
By simply starting a game, Cruz became the tallest shortstop in MLB history. And he needed those shape-breaking, comparison-defying skills that so rarely blend into one body to turn around the prevailing question of ‘Why? to “Why not?”
But where it was once a hot item to think Cruz would stay at the shortstop long enough to soak up the majors, he could quickly go from an anomaly to a trendsetter. If he keeps his grip on one of baseball’s most demanding and storied positions, his arrival could become a milestone for unicorns conquering the positional tropes and prejudices of yet another sport.
Oneil Cruz is MLB’s tallest shortstop… by a mile
Being 6-foot-7 and playing shortstop is completely unheard of.
Only six players who are six feet or taller, including Cruz, have ever appeared in an MLB game at a short stop for any length of time. Only two have ever played 10 games in a season there: Archi Cianfrocco, who mainly played first base for the San Diego Padres in the 1990s, and Mike Morse, who came on as a short stop but soon moved to the outfield.
The tallest players to have an actual career in the six holes were in the 6-foot-4 range. That breed of quarterback-body shortstop started with Cal Ripken Jr. and has spread a bit in recent years with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. Cruz, who is listed at 220 pounds, has a lean, lanky body type closer to Fernando Tatis Jr. is located, which is 1.80 meters.
When Cruz was younger and even lankier, Baseball prospectus prospect writer Jarrett Seidler was in the pack of scouts trying to predict his future. It was understandably hard to understand what it would look like in the majors.
“It’s worth noting that not only will Cruz be the biggest regular shortstop in MLB history, he’s going to be the biggest by a wide margin,” Seidler said this week. “There has never been a regular shortstop higher than 1.80 metres. Cruz is all 6-foot-7, which is the same height as Aaron Judge, and three inches taller than Seager, Tatis and Correa. So those are just totally unknown waters.”
In 2018, Seidler was optimistic about Cruz’s chances of finding the path to a short-stop job in the majors, in part because he showed such a reliable glove and dynamic arm.
“The industry expected when he was in A-ball that Cruz would lose significant range as he continued to grow, and indeed he has recorded 45 pounds heavier than when he signed,” Seidler said. “But he filled up without losing any noticeable range or agility.”
Taking him off the shortstop means finding a new position. That, as Seidler points out, is no walk in the park.
Being that big and playing *any* position except pitcher, first base, or designated batter would be considered historic, but what is most notable is the lack of tall players who have made careers in the crucial positions in the center of the diamond : catcher, second base, short stop and midfield. In fact, only 18 players six feet or taller have played 100 career games in those positions since 1920.
It is noteworthy that of those 18, five are active and two more played in the last two seasons†
Even Judge has extended his time in the more difficult midfield position and has already played 31 games in his career this season, leading the AL MVP race.
Part of the calculus there, as Seidler points out, comes from advancements in defensive positioning that help teams cover a larger portion of the field with less great defenders. It allows them to maintain roster flexibility and improve their lineup offensively†
Teams have every reason to play a potentially outstanding batter like Cruz in the most challenging defensive position he can handle. Especially now – after minor league experiments in the outfield went bad – that’s a short stop for Cruz.
“If he’s an average or fringe shortstop, but worse on third or outfield,” Seidler said, “it may make sense to leave him at shortstop, even if it’s not ideal for defense in a vacuum.” of the shortstop.”
Why Oneil Cruz might not be an outlier for long?
Perhaps no sport has thrown off rigid positional labels more thoroughly than basketball. While Giannis more than deserves his “Greek Freak” moniker, he’s not the only NBA skyscraper that can handle the ball and roam the perimeter with all the fluidity of what we used to call a point guard.
Positionless basketball doesn’t fit perfectly into the world of baseball. Positions don’t dictate matchups or cause direct physical advantages in baseball, but the demands of some spots have limited talent pools for generations.
Just as basketball has removed most positional stereotypes and football has slowly embraced some less-conventional quarterbacks, baseball is entering a time when the final barriers — around premium positions — could disintegrate.
This is already a sport where Judge and Jose Altuve can compete for an MVP award. It could soon be a sport where they can compete for the prize and play in the same position.
Many of the stars’ current shortstops have overcome questions about their ability to stay put. But Cruz is a different kind of proposal precisely because he cuts such a striking figure. The sequence numbers of the ball in the minor league, according to Seidler, show that he is capable of hitting the ball harder than any current major leaguer except Giancarlo Stanton. He still doesn’t control it enough to consistently achieve all that power, but the potential is there.
Another player of similar size is currently rising through the Cincinnati Reds organization – Elly De La Cruz. A nimble 6-foot-5 at only 20 years old, De La Cruz has A lot of minor league highlights looking like Oneil Cruz.
Seidler calls De La Cruz one of his favorite prospects, saying he’s faster in the field but less sure of his hands than his bigger predecessor. The Reds have tried him out at third and second base so far, but he still plays the majority of his games at shortstop.
If you’re looking for more Giannis-esque dynamic diversity in the field, Cruz will push even harder to hold his own. It is, after all, the first real case study for future freaks, and for De La Cruz.
“It certainly won’t hurt his chances,” Seidler said, “if Cruz can be successful.”