There is plenty of frustration for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oneil Cruz, and their fans over the shortstop's injury. However, the most frustrating is the possibility of the 2023 season becoming a lost one in his development
By now everyone knows what happened on Sunday. Oneil Cruz had an awkward slide into home on a ground ball hit to third base by Ke'Bryan Hayes and he fractured his left ankle on the play. Obviously, this will be a major blow to the Pittsburgh Pirates and their hopes this season.
Entering the season expectations were low for the Pirates. Coming off of four consecutive losing season and two consecutive 100 loss seasons, would have been three straight 100 loss seasons had the 2020 season not been shortened due to COVID, their over/under win total for the season was set at 67.5.
While team expectations may have been low, Cruz was one player who had high expectations circling around their season. Furthermore, the Pirates are off to a strong 6-3 start. This start has included a much improved clubhouse atmosphere and attitude, as well as the team playing good, exciting baseball.
This strong start did not change the overall outlook of the club. Even with Cruz, they were still viewed as a club that would likely be on their way to fifth consecutive losing season. Although, the season was viewed as one where some big strides could be made.
These strides could still be made. Losing Cruz is not nearly as big of an impact on the outlook for the club as it is on the outlook for Cruz. The worst case scenario here would be Cruz's injury leading to a lost developmental season in a way for the budding star.
As we said, with or without Cruz this is a club that was going to finish below .500 and miss the postseason. Losing Cruz does not suddenly change the Pirates' stance as contenders or anything of the sort. That was never the goal this season. What was the goal, however, was to see young players such as Cruz take a step forward. Now, that will be much more difficult for Cruz to do.
Adding to the frustration is that through the team's first nine games this season Cruz looked like a hitter who was making huge strides in the areas he needed to most. These area were his patience and eye at the plate, as well as improving his chase rate.
Cruz drew 28 walks in 361 plate appearances last season, through 40 PAs this season he had already drawn seven walks. Due to this, his walk rate had spiked from 7.8% last season to 17.5% this season. Also, his strikeout rate had dropped from 34.9% to 20.0%.
This is not to say Cruz was going to continue to draw walks at a 17.5% clip while striking out in just 20% of his trips to the plate. Both of those numbers were going to see some regression toward last season's results. However, there was clear improvement. If Cruz could put together a season with a 10-12% walk rate and a 25-28% strikeout rate, he would become one of the deadliest hitters in the National League.
As you would expect when a batter is walking more and striking out less, Cruz was also chasing fewer pitches so far this season. His swinging strike rate had dropped from 14.7% to 12.8%, his ground ball rate had dropped from 49.5% to 44.0%, and his fly ball rate had risen from 22.8% to 28.0%. All signs of a hitter trending upward.
If everything goes perfectly, the Pirates are hopeful Cruz can return to action in four months. This puts him on track to begin a rehab assignment in early August. With the amount of time he would have missed, he would likely need at least three weeks rehabbing in the minors before re-joining the MLB club.
So, if everything goes perfectly you're likely looking at Cruz re-joining the Pirates around Labor Day. This would mean that best case scenario Cruz would have about a six week season with the Pirates. Something like that is just about the absolute worst thing that can happen to a young player from a developmental standpoint. Hopefully, the amount of time Cruz is set to miss will not have a negative impact on his development as a hitter and the strides he was clearly in the process of making.