Oneil Cruz has struggled heavily through his first handful of games in the year 2021, but is it something that the Pittsburgh Pirates should worry about?
Cruz, however, has been struggling for some time now. After a poor showing in the Domincan Winter League he is off to a 1-for-17 start in the Grapefruit League. Some have become extremely concerned with Cruz because of his performance so far, but do these concerns have weight to them?
Right now, Cruz is still considered one of the best prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates have and is ranked as a top 100 prospect by Baseball America, MLB Pipeline and just outside of the top 100 by FanGraphs at 105. The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates got to see Cruz play regularly was in 2019. Throughout the season, Cruz stepped to the plate 292 times and put up a .295/.356/.475 line, hit 8 home runs, hustled out 15 doubles. Overall, he had a strong .360 wOBA.
Cruz has the best power potential in the Bucs’ entire system. He’s tied with first base prospect Mason Martin in terms of future game power with a 60-grade, but has the highest current game power grade at 40. His raw power isn’t just one of the best for Pirates’ prospects, but in all of baseball with a 70-current/80-future grade. He had an average exit velocity of 91 MPH and made hard contact at a 50% rate. A major league comparison in terms of just exit velo and hard hit rate alone, that’s comparable to the likes of Trevor Story, Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Eloy Jimenez in 2019.
However, there is some risk with Cruzl. The towering 6’7″, 215 pound prospect has unimpressive plate discipline. Between 2018 and 2019, Cruz had an 8% walk rate and 23.8% strikeout rate. Both would be very slightly below average in terms of 2020’s MLB average, which had a 9.2% walk rate and 23.4% strikeout rate. Though MLB Pipeline sees his hit tool as a 50-grade tool, FanGraphs only sees it as a 35.
While his hit tool doesn’t project well, I think it’s way too early to start having serious concerns about Cruz. There’s a lot of factors we have to consider when looking at him. One, Cruz hasn’t taken a plate appearance for one of the Pirates’ affiliates since 2019. With no minor league season, many prospects are going to get off to slow starts and that should be expected.
Two, consider the mental strain Cruz was put under when he was part of the fatal car accident he was involved with in September. Not only did the crash leave three dead, but at one point, there was a real threat he would be going to prison.
Three, this is one of the weirdest Spring Trainings of all time. Games this spring are ending in the 7th, 6th and even 5th innings. There also are no split squad games like there would be under normal circumstances. With so many oddities this pre-season, getting a good reading is going to be hard in just a month’s worth of play.
Four, don’t forget Cruz missed some time in 2019. Cruz fractured his foot during the year which caused him to play in just 73 total games. He got off to an outstanding start at High-A, but his power took a dip after recovering and being promoted to Double-A. Not only has he not take a plate appearance with one of the Bucs’ affiliates since 2019, but he hasn’t appeared in 100+ games in a single season since 2018.
Lastly, and the most important thing is that if we’re concerned because of his play at the Dominican Winter League and Spring Training so far, we’re looking at just 68 total plate appearances. The difference between his numbers in Grapefruit League play so far and Ronald Acuna Jr’s. are two hits.
Small sample sizes can lead to a lot of weird numbers. Cal Ripken Jr. had a negative OPS+ in his first 19 MLB games. Mike Trout had a sub-.600 OPS in his first 51 plate appearances in the majors. On the other hand, Erik Gonzalez had a 126 wRC+ in a 117 plate appearance stretch in August and September in 2020 and Jacob Stallings was one of August 2020’s best hitters in only 61 plate appearances. Now that’s not to say that Cruz will be as good of a hitter as Ripken Jr. or Trout, or as poor of a hitter as Gonzalez or Stallings, but it’s an example of how looking at sample sizes as little as 50-100 plate appearances can have major fluctuations.
So far, Cruz has looked bad in the year 2021. But it’s way too early to start worrying about the prospect. He’s still a very talented prospect and is athletic for his size. The last time he got more than 200 plate appearances, he was a well above average hitter. Any player can look awful in just 50-60 plate appearances just like any player can look like an MVP in 50-60 plate appearances.