Sports

The Pirates’ Rookie Sensation Is Basically Giannis With a Bat

Major League Baseball has never seen anyone like this guy.

Cruz with his helmet off in the dugout high-fiving his teammates.
It’s no surprise Oneil Cruz’s teammates appreciated his work against the Cubs on Monday. Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

What if Giannis Antetokounmpo played baseball?

It’s a ridiculous question, because athletes with Antetokounmpo’s profile do not play baseball. That they do not is a common sticking point for people who lament baseball’s steep decline from the national pastime to the United States’ third-favorite sport and falling. It’s also a ridiculous question because they do not play a ton of baseball in Greece, and because there is a video of Giannis hitting in Yankee Stadium’s batting cages, and it confirms that he made the right call by becoming a basketball unicorn.

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You will never know what a properly trained baseballing Giannis would’ve looked like. But if you want the best possible approximation, all you need to do is turn on a Pittsburgh Pirates game in the coming months and watch Oneil Cruz, a 6-foot-7 shortstop, the tallest in major league history, whom the franchise finally called up on Monday after a lengthy stint in the minors. Cruz had briefly debuted (and homered) at the end of the 2021 season, but Monday night had the feeling of something new. That was because, in his first three innings, Cruz did three things that exceedingly few players can put into one package.

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First, he ran fast. Really, really fast. In those innings, Major League Baseball’s Statcast tracking program clocked him at faster than 30 feet per second on three different trips from base to base.* That put Cruz immediately in the conversation for “fastest man in baseball” honors, and he did it with long strides that much more resembled Giannis gliding toward a transition dunk than a baseball player tagging from third on a sacrifice fly. Cruz covered 90 feet in about 12 and a half steps, by my count:

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Second, he threw a 97-mile-per-hour fastball. He did not do this from the pitcher’s mound, the site of most 97-mile-per-hour heaters. Rather, he did it from shortstop, after moving to his right and scooping a ground ball as his momentum carried him away from first base. It was the fastest throw an infielder has made in the majors all season, and Cruz delivered it on the money to the first baseman’s chest:

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Third, in his third inning of the year, he hit the hardest ball a Pirate has hit all season:

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I do not know what you are supposed to do with a baseball player who has Luka Doncic’s height, Roger Clemens’ fastball, and Davante Adams’ speed. You also probably do not know what to do with that, and if I can offer you any comfort in that respect, it is that the Pirates may or may not have any idea either. They have spent months toying with the idea that he may ultimately be an outfielder, because there is no precedent for a 6-foot-7 shortstop. Players with Cruz’s frame don’t move nimbly enough to play that premium position, in part because they usually have so much muscle on them to put toward hitting massive homers. Cruz is 23 now. When the Pirates’ since-fired front office traded for him in a 2017 deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever Tony Watson, they could not have known that Cruz would stick at short this long.

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In a few ways, the rookie is an extraordinary baseball player. Athletes with his profile just do not play this sport, which is only saying so much, because there are not that many 6-foot-7 men who can throw 97 miles per hour and sprint 30 feet per second while moving their hands quickly enough to make the ball fly like Cruz does. There have been plenty of five-tool ballplayers, blessed with the gifts of hitting for power, hitting for contact, running, throwing, and fielding. There has never been someone who has looked exactly like Cruz while exhibiting those traits. But baseball has treated him like it treats plenty of players in his position.

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One feature of modern baseball economics is what’s come to be called “service time manipulation.” Those quotes are not designed to imply skepticism. MLB players are not usually eligible for salary arbitration until they have accrued three full years on a big league roster, and they are not free agents until they have cleared six. The result is that, every year, a handful of teams put shame to the side and hold their most exciting players—no matter how ready they might be for major league action—in the minors. Once a deadline has passed—say, one making it impossible for a player to a rack up a full year of service time or to become an exception and gain arbitration rights after just two seasons—then woosh: That player is magically ready for the major leagues, and his team’s front office calls him up to debut to much fanfare. Thank goodness for player development. MLB’s players union has tried to curtail this practice, but incentives still exist for stingy teams to employ it.

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Previously, the most egregious case of service time manipulation was what the Chicago Cubs did with Kris Bryant in 2015. The Cubs kept the future MVP in the minors until exactly one day after he could no longer rack up a full year of MLB service, at which point he arrived at Wrigley Field and put together a Rookie of the Year season. The Cubs kept being cheap with Bryant for six years thereafter and ultimately decided to tear up their team and rebuild, rather than pony up to retain some of the core players that won them a World Series in 2016, Bryant’s second season in the bigs. The 2022 Cubs are the product of a front office that decided not to attempt to win games this season. As a result, they are terrible, and on Monday they became the meal for Cruz—the latest victim of egregious service time manipulation—to feast on. (To be fair, it is quite possible that Cruz would have done what he did in the game to a much better team.)

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That’s why the Pirates had a dude with such absurd talents in the minor leagues until Monday, despite the franchise’s vociferous and repeated dodges that his last few weeks in Triple-A were all about developing the finer points of his game. “We’re trying to be as thorough as possible with that component of development. He’s a dangerous bat even when he’s not in the lineup,” the franchise’s farm director said just a few days ago, as if Cruz’s problem was that he had not gotten enough reps as a pinch hitter. “We’re making sure we cover all the possible scenarios that he may encounter in Pittsburgh, and we’re getting pretty close to checking all those off the list.” Meanwhile, Pirates shortstops in 2022 had been the second-least productive in baseball, generating almost a full win less than replacement level in the season’s first two and a half months. Before Cruz went Cub hunting, Pittsburgh was 26–39.

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The deadline for rookies to eventually gain “Super Two” arbitration eligibility passed around June 6, at which point Cruz had been raking in Triple-A for a month while the Pirates called up various players with talents not nearly his equal. After every homer Cruz hit at Triple-A Indianapolis in the season’s opening months—nine in 55 games, all but two coming since May 7—he made extremely clear how he felt about the Pirates keeping him stashed in the minors:

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The Pirates are a sad enough franchise that it would be easy to get down about Cruz’s long-term future in Pittsburgh. The franchise has already messed with his career to save a few dollars while subjecting its tortured fanbase, of which I am a regretful member, to some of the most pitiful lineups in baseball. The Pirates, like a number of other not-trying big league front offices, have a long history of declining to invest in their young talent past the point of financial convenience. But on Monday, in just a few innings, Cruz did one thing that was even more astonishing than flashing an unheard-of baseball toolkit. Somehow, for an entire night, he provided a genuine reason to be optimistic about the future of the Pirates. If the Bucks can win their first title since the ’70s with a world-altering talent, then maybe the Bucs can, too.

Correction, June 21, 2022: This post originally misstated that Cruz ran between the bases at faster than 30 miles per hour.

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