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Is Oneil Cruz a Breakout Player or Over-Hyped Rookie?

oneil cruz fantasy baseball rankings draft sleepers MLB prospects

Sometimes when your anticipation for something is so great, it's hard to evaluate that particular thing fairly and accurately. Sometimes we want a movie or a show or a person we're dating to be good, so we only see the positives (like people who claimed to like "Obi-Wan"). Other times, the waiting makes our expectations so high that the object of our anticipation can only pale in comparison (like Daisy to Gatsby).

We're no different when it comes to fantasy sports prospects, and perhaps no fantasy baseball prospect had the larger community anticipating the way Oneil Cruz did.

After debuting for two games last year and lacing a single 118 mph, the baseball community was dying to see what a full season of Oneil Cruz looked like.

However, the Pirates cared more about keeping what Oneil Cruz can do in Pittsburgh for years to come and held him down in the minors until his service time deadline had passed. Considering Cruz hit .333 with two home runs and a 1.067 OPS in five Spring Training games this year, many of us expected the wait for a promotion to be a short one, but Cruz bristled at being demoted and shifted to play the outfield briefly and got off to a poor start that had people doubting his ability to compete at the major league level.

Then Cruz started to rebound, hitting .256/.368/.500 in May with six home runs, 14 RBI, 20 runs scored, and three stolen bases. From June 1st until his call-up on June 20th, he hit .277/.357/.489 with two home runs and a drastically reduced strikeout rate. Not eye-popping numbers but ones that suggested his April failures were a mirage.

When he was finally promoted, he knocked in four runs in his first game and drove in seven total runs in his first four big league starts. The hype surrounding him was out of control. However, over the last two weeks, he's been hitting .209/.255/.442 with a 40.4% strikeout rate and people are starting to get concerned again. All of which begs the question: how good is Oneil Cruz really?

In this article, I'll break down Oneil Cruz's profile to suggest what type of fantasy asset he'll be for the second half of this season. I'll keep my analysis to fantasy-relevant categories, so even though his ridiculous arm strength is a clear asset in real baseball, it won't be part of our evaluation here. Again, we'll be looking at this solely from a redraft standpoint in discussing what his August to October value could be, not his future dynasty or keeper league potential.

 

Speed

Let's start here because it's the easiest to evaluate. Cruz has a 99th-percentile sprint speed, according to Statcast. In fact, his 30 ft/sec puts him sixth-fastest in the league with players who have at least 10 "competitive runs."

However, many people have suggested that home-to-first time is actually a better indicator of fantasy-relevant speed, so we can note that Cruz's 4.22 home-to-first time ranks 36th in the big leagues, tied with C.J. Abrams, Nicky Lopez, and Jose Ramirez. Still, any way you slice it, Cruz can run.

Yet, he has had an issue getting caught on the basepaths. This year, he had 11 stolen bases in Triple-A, but he was also caught stealing six times. So far in the big leagues, he's stolen four bases but been caught three times. Perhaps it has to do with a poor ability to get good jumps because his overall level of quickness should result in more stolen bases.

Also working against him is the fact that Pittsburgh ranks 18th in baseball in stolen bases attempted with 0.68 attempts per game. They rank 20th on the year in total stolen bases, with 39 in 90 games. Ke'Bryan Hayes leads the team with 16 stolen base attempts in 82 games, which is one attempt every 5.13 games. However, Cruz does have seven attempts in 26 games, which is one every 3.71 games, so perhaps Pittsburgh will be a bit more aggressive with him.

Either way, speed will be a component of Cruz's game, but his tendency to get caught mixed with his team's relative hesitancy to run means that he won't be your Jon Berti, Leody Tavares, or Jarren Duran, who goes on a massive hot streak and can win you the stolen base category. Given his current pace, maybe he steals 7-8 more bases this year, which is a solid contribution for your team.

 

Power

The power potential of Oneil Cruz is what is intoxicating to fantasy managers. He seems to have easy power in his wrists and forearms, which was on full display on his last big league home run.

That's a simple flick of the wrists that sends the ball flying. It's absurd.

Through his first 26 games this season, Cruz has a 13.1% barrel rate and 42.6% hard-hit rate, which are both above league average. In fact, if he had enough at-bats to qualify, his barrel rate would rank 22nd in baseball, right behind Rafael Devers and ahead of Max Muncy. Meanwhile, his hard-hit rate would be 64th, tied with Ketel Marte.

Despite the 118 mph max exit velocity we saw last year, Cruz has topped out this year at 113.8 mph off the bat, which is still 38th in baseball in hitters with over 50 batted ball events. All of which suggests that Cruz has real power in his bat and can deliver authoritative contact.

However, there are a few concerns when it comes to consistent power output. For starters, Cruz is currently posting a 49.2% groundball rate. This is after posting a 51.3% groundball rate in Triple-A. Those numbers are too high if you're hoping to get a big power output out of the 6'7" shortstop. Posting a 36.1% flyball rate means he's simply not hitting the ball in the air enough to drive it out of the park.

The other issue is that Cruz is spraying the ball all over the field. Now, that can be great for batting average (more on that later), but a 34.4% pull rate usually doesn't lead to tons of home runs. A low pull rate means that he's not maximizing his natural strength because he's not hitting the ball out in front of his front hip, with his arms in a stronger, bent position. When you hit the ball the other way, your arms are usually extended for plate coverage which means there is less force coming from your upper body. Additionally, to hit the ball away, you usually need to keep your front hip closed for longer to ensure plate coverage, which means your swing lacks the power derived from the aggressive torque of your hips that it gets when you attack an inside pitch.

Now, there are hitters who can hit for power with a pull rate this low. Freddie Freeman, Juan Soto, and Rafael Devers are three that come to mind. However, it is much harder and relies on consistent barrel contact and raw natural power to drive the ball with authority to the opposite field or to center. Those three names in particular are three of the best hitters in all of baseball, so it's not crazy to think that they are capable of doing something that your average hitter cannot. Cruz does seem to possess a similar raw natural power, but the consistent hard contact to make the most of it is currently lacking.

To me, this all says that Cruz has real power potential but likely not the approach to make the most of it this season. He needs to drive the ball more to the pull side and add more consistent lift to his swing if he wants to maximize the raw power in his swing. As a result, I think we could maybe expect another seven or eight home runs from him in the second half.

 

Batting Average

Now we're getting into the potential issues for Cruz. The rookie is currently hitting .204/.240/.398 while also sporting a fine .281 BABIP. The big issue for him is his aggressive approach at the plate. Going into the All-Star Break, Cruz has a 36.5% strikeout rate and a 4.8% walk rate. Those are not appealing numbers.

His 39.2% O-Swing and 14.1% swinging strike rate also tells us the story of a player who is chasing pitches out of the zone too frequently. This is also backed up by the fact that his zone contact is a solid but not great 86.7% while his overall contact rate is 67.2%, which would be seventh-worst among qualified hitters, just below Adolis Garcia and ahead of Patrick Wisdom.

Now, Cruz has a higher zone contact rate than Wisdom and Garcia, and better SwStr%, so the profile is better than both of those players. In fact, you're really looking at a contact profile similar to what Byron Buxton is doing. Buxton has a 14.4% SwStr%, 81% zone contact rate, and 68.1% contact rate overall.

While it might seem great to be on par with Buxton, this version of Buxton is hitting .216 with a 29.9% strikeout rate. His strong high flyball rate and pull rate have helped offset his 2022 fantasy value since it's led to 23 home runs, but Cruz doesn't currently have the profile to make up for the poor plate discipline metrics with that kind of power output. If you took Buxton's current season but chopped off a good portion of his home runs and steals, you would not have a strong fantasy asset.

As the league has seen Cruz's aggressive plate approach, his strikeout rate has gone up.

He did post a 12.1% walk rate and 22.7% strikeout rate in Triple-A this year, so it's not unfathomable that he could make an adjustment this season. In fact, most of his minor league strikeout rates have settled around 25%, so continuing to sit near 40% seems unrealistic.

With that being said, he doesn't have a long track record as a patient hitter and the higher quality of pitching is something that could take more than just a few months to adjust to. As a result, we could easily be looking at a strikeout rate of around 30%, and it wouldn't be a shock if Cruz was just a .230-.240 hitter for the second half of the season.

 

Counting Stats

Here is where we get to the final issue working against Cruz: his team isn't particularly good. On the season, the Pirates are 28th in runs scored, 29th in batting average, and 28th in wRC+. Cruz has been hitting fifth in the lineup against righties but eighth against lefties, which is going to make it hard for him to consistently drive in or score runs.

That could be made even worse if the Pirates wind up trading away Bryan Reynolds. However, his current oblique injury might make that less likely.

If we were to extrapolate Cruz's current 17 RBI and 14 runs scored in 26 games across the likely 60 games that he'll play the rest of the way (out of a possible 69), you'd get 39 RBI and 32 runs scored. The RBI total seems a little high and is inflated by those strong first couple of games, so a small regression leads to not awful numbers but certainly not ones that are moving the needle much for your fantasy teams.

 

Conclusion

Based on the entire breakdown, I'd speculate that Oneil Cruz in the second half will hit .235 with eight home runs, 34 RBI, 30 runs, and eight stolen bases. If you use The BAT's rest of season projections, that's slightly worse than what you'd get from Trevor Story or Jeremy Peña and pretty similar to Luis Urias.

All of which suggests that this version of Oneil Cruz is not a breakout star that is going to guide your team to a title this year; however, he could be a fine MI option if you are not in desperate need of counting stats. As a result, I might be exploring a way to trade Cruz away in a redraft league since it's possible that another manager is bullish on his upside and thinks they're going to get an NL Rookie of the Year candidate for a few months.



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