Oneil Cruz is 6 feet 7 inches and can blast a baseball at 122 mph.  But can he play?

Oneil Cruz is 6 feet 7 inches and can blast a baseball at 122 mph. But can he play?

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On Wednesday, Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz did something we’ve never seen an MLB player do before. Well, not that we know of, seeing as the StatCast era didn’t begin until 2015. Against the Atlanta Braves, Cruz hit a 122.4 mph base off the bat, which surpassed New York Yankees hitter Giancarlo Stanton’s previous record of 122, 2 km/h.

It was an impressive “output” speed, even if Cruz’s record-breaking hit only went into a single at PNC Park. He might have hit too hard to get a double, although it would have been a home run in most stadiums. Still, it might have been the highlight for hometown fans who saw their team get beaten by the Braves, not a shocking result for a Pittsburgh team trapped in the basement of NL Central.

Cruz’s rookie season has been pretty rough too. Yes, the 6-foot-7-inch infielder has ridiculous tools: His 97.8 mph pitch to first base earlier in the season was also a StatCast-era record. The 23-year-old managed to complete both feats in 54 games, but during that time he only hit 0.199/0.249/0.398. When he made contact, Cruz hit the ball long, but his 10 home runs during that span were matched by 79 strikeouts and just 13 walks. Clearly, dish patience is a concern.

Now, Pirates fans hope this is simply because the Dominican perspective is still adjusting to life in the major leagues. Cruz, after all, played just two games at the highest level in baseball last year and still managed to squeeze his first home run in MLB. He wasn’t called up again until June of this year, which caused fans to accuse the team of manipulating his tenure, particularly as they were struggling to get production out of the shortstop position.

Were the Pirates trying to delay the start of Cruz’s free agency period by keeping him at AAA? Almost certainly! Was it necessarily the wrong decision for Cruz’s development? Maybe not! Early results suggest he is not ready to start full-time.

Despite Cruz’s obvious power, remarkable arm, and speed on base paths (with six bases stolen so far), it looks like he needs to work on the two most important aspects of the game as a hitter: making consistent contact and getting to base. Considering his physique, it’s also unclear whether his defensive future will be at shortstop or outfield. Cruz is clearly talented, but it’s still what they call a project.

Not all MLB projects are successful. The league is filled with talented hitting prospects with obvious tools that never made it to the top. Take, for example, the saga of Wily Mo Peña, the outfielder who probably had more brute strength than any of his contemporaries. His tape-measure home runs were enough to keep teams interested in him, but his impressive propensity for kicking ensured he never stayed in one place too long like anything other than a fourth outfielder.

An impressive arm is not enough to keep a starting pitcher in the main. Forget StatCast, minor league player Steve Dalkowski. Steve Dalkowski’s career ended in 1966, meaning his legendary fastball was only clocked by a radar once (with disappointing results). That means there’s no evidence to prove his offerings ever hit the 110 mph mark (for comparison, the current record is Aldois Chapman’s 105.8 mph fastball released in 2010). As much as Dalkowski played, a complete lack of control ensured he never made an MLB roster and his enduring claim to fame turned out to be that his story ended up inspiring Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh in the movie Bull Durham.

None of these players stand as a direct comparison to Cruz, who has more than a single tool to fall back on. What is Cruz’s comparison if he succeeds? He doesn’t project himself to be a versatile player like Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, no matter how much his basic skills improve. Perhaps Stanton himself is a more fitting parallel, although he is not an infielder.

Longtime Pirates writer John Perrotto asked scouts about the player he could become and the clearest answer came from an anonymous employee of an American League team. “I know this might be an exaggeration, but I would say Darryl Strawberry is playing shortstop,” said the scout. “It’s the only thing I can think of.” We may, it seems, be in uncharted territory here. Cruz’s best-case scenario may not be the Next Stanton or Next Trout, but the debut of an entirely new type of ballplayer.

Whether or not Cruz can fulfill his potential will not be based on whether he continues to dazzle with StatCast numbers: even his record-breaking hit was only for a single base. Those are just indicators of his clearly impressive skill set. What the Pirates (and MLB) need to see now is whether Cruz can pull it all together. If so, he might just be baseball’s next star.

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