Pittsburgh Pirates: Each Breakout Candidate for 2023

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Oneil Cruz

Oneil Cruz started to show what made him one of baseball's premier prospects at the tail end of the 2022 campaign. However, many of the worries both fans and evaluators alike plagued him for the first few months of his career. Up until August 20th, Cruz was a .198/.242/.390 batter with a .271 wOBA, and 72 wRC+. Strikeouts for Cruz were a major problem, as he struck out in 37.6% of his 194 plate appearances. It's not as if he helped offset that with his walk rate, with a walk rate of just 5.7%.

However, Cruz seemingly figured out an approach to the plate that worked for him. After August 20th, the towering shortstop batted .275/.353/.523. Cruz upped his walk rate to an impressive 10% rate, and while his 31.7% K-rate still was a tad high, it was a 5.9% improvement. Cruz's power also moved in the right direction. His exit velocity went up by just over 2 MPH (90.9 MPH to 93.2 MPH), and his ISO rose from below .200 to nearly .250 at .248. Cruz nearly doubled his wRC+, reaching all the way up to 145, making him 73% better than compared to his first-half stats.

The big adjustment Cruz made was he became more selective at the dish. Cruz swung outside the zone 27% of the time, which was better than the league average rate, which sat around 30%. He still had a below average out of zone contact rate, but his 84.5% in-zone contact rate was about league average. Another statistic that sat right on the league average was his 11.3% swinging strike rate. Impressively, Cruz's strikeout rate sat just below 30% through the final month of the year, clocking in at 29.4%.

Cruz's plate discipline went from well below average to slightly above average. Sure, he still has some swing-and-miss, but he made much more contact compared to the first half of his season. When Cruz makes contact, it's usually loud contact as well. He averaged out with a 91.6 MPH exit velocity and a 45.6% hard-hit rate.

The only question is if his defense will become too much of an issue. Last year, Cruz was worth -9 outs above average. While OAA put him in an extremely negative light, defensive runs saved put him about average at +1, as did total zone runs at the same value. Range factor viewed him in the best way, with +4.53 range factor per game, and +4.38 range factor per nine innings, both of which were better than National League shortstop Gold Glove recipient Dansby Swanson (3.67/3.63, respectively).

If Cruz carries over the plate discipline he showed at the end of last season, he could easily be one of the most productive batters in the National League. The raw talent is there, and he showed he can adjust. Now he needs to do it in a full season, which I, like many others, believe he can.