It’s Time To Get Excited About Oneil Cruz and Elly De La Cruz

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

How about this: How about you and I forget for a couple minutes that we’re at FanGraphs, deep in the stat-swamped soul of the sabermetrics community? Let’s just pretend you’re reading an article on a website with a name like SuperCoolBaseballStuff.com. This is not the time to get lost in the weeds. Spring is in the air, and we’re rhapsodizing about the smell of the freshly cut grass. The birds have returned, and they’re waking us up at dawn with their incessant noises. Now is the time to be excited about baseball (and annoyed about the birds), and quite simply, nobody does more exciting stuff on a baseball field than Oneil Cruz and Elly De La Cruz. So let’s keep it simple. Let’s talk about all the superlatives that make the pair so exciting as we race toward the 2024 season.

For the first time, both Cruz and De La Cruz will be in the show at the same time. Cruz was called up for good in June 2022, and he finished the season on a high note, running a 133 wRC+ over the final month. He came into 2023 with the stated goal of a 30-30 season, but in just his ninth game, he fractured his left fibula during a collision at the plate. De La Cruz was called up in June 2023 and promptly went supernova. He ran a 179 wRC+ with eight stolen bases and 10 extra-base hits over his first 16 games, but struggled over the last few months. This year, they’ll be the Opening Day shortstops for their respective teams, and Cruz is on record saying that his ankle feels not just 100%, but 200%, which may very well be a record.

Somehow, the two players are extremely similar while also being completely unprecedented. The similarities start with their surnames, and then there’s the fact that they’re both young, ridiculously tall shortstops who hail from the Dominican Republic and play in the NL Central. The height thing is likely a bigger deal than you realize. Cruz is 6’7” and De La Cruz is 6’5”. According to Stathead, that makes them just the seventh and eighth players ever to be 6’5” or taller and play a single inning of shortstop in, ahem, the bigs. They’re the only ones ever to be regular starters at the position; those other six combined for a total of 113 games at short. You’re not going to believe this, but until Cruz dethroned him, the leader was Michael Morse, with 57 games. The 6’5” Morse, who finished his career with -73.2 total defensive runs, totaled 450 innings at short for the Mariners in 2005, racking up -13 DRS and a UZR/150 of -20.9.

Cruz and De La Cruz have both played in exactly 98 big league games, and their skillsets are nearly identical, as well. They’ve both walked 35 times, struck out 33.7% of the time, and posted batting averages and on-base percentages within two points of one another. Here’s what that similarity looks like courtesy of some cherry-picked Baseball Savant sliders:

Not that it matters much, but 2022 Cruz is on the left and 2023 De La Cruz is on the right. There’s so much red and so much blue. These are insanely fun profiles. Cruz and De La Cruz do everything at 100 miles per hour, except for hitting the baseball, which they do at 120. They run like cheetahs who were genetically modified for maximum speed and then shot out of a cannon. They crush baseballs like PETA-members who just found out that the baseballs were responsible for performing the illegal experiments on those cheetahs. They throw the ball over to first as if they heard you get an extra out if you manage to blast it right through the first baseman’s solar plexus. They whiff like they think they can generate enough wind power to solve the climate crisis all by themselves. They’re boom and bust personified. They’re the middle schoolers who figured out that you could game the typing test by absolutely going for broke, because 150 words per minute minus a 50% error rate still leaves you at 75 words per minute. They’re like basketball played on roller skates. It’s poetry when it works, carnage when it doesn’t, and impossible to turn away from.

As for whether the whole package will work, well that’s trickier. Here are the final grades the two players received from our prospect team upon graduation:

Prospect Grades
Tool Oneil Cruz Elly De La Cruz
Hit 30 / 40 30 / 40
Game Power 40 / 70 45 / 70
Raw Power 80 / 80 60 / 70
Speed 60 / 45 80 / 70
Field 40 / 45 45 / 55
FV 60 60

Again, the numbers are very similar, but Cruz, all of two inches taller, has a tougher path defensively. He’s always been capable of making a great play, but he’s never looked like a sure thing at short, in terms of either range or hands, and he didn’t look at home in left field when the Pirates tried him out there in the minors. In 2022, he graded out as a hair above average according to DRS, but the other defensive metrics didn’t love him. As he continues to fill out, he’s less likely to maintain his speed and range. On the other hand, he owns a career 106 wRC+. He managed to cut his chase and whiff rates toward the end of 2022. In the short samples of 12 LiDOM games and nine MLB games, he boasted vastly improved walk and strikeout rates in 2023. Those trends have now held through nine spring training games as well, long enough for Cruz to tie for the MLB lead with five homers.

As Robert Orr demonstrated over at Baseball Prospectus, the switch-hitting De La Cruz made his own plate discipline gains during the 2023 season, going from a 38.8% chase rate in July to 25.7% in September and October. In fact, according to Pitcher List, by the end of the season, his swing decisions were well above average.

Although he ended the season on a low note in terms of performance, De La Cruz actually posted a .334 xwOBA in September and October, his best figure of the season by a wide margin. De La Cruz put up a 24.5% HR/FB in 2023, 10th-highest among qualified players, but that masked the fact that his 53.9% groundball rate was the 11th-highest. It’s possible that chasing less soft stuff below the zone will help him to put more balls in the air going forward. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s possible that he’ll just keep hitting the ball hard enough that he doesn’t need to lift it very often to do damage. Moreover, De La Cruz is better positioned to stick at shortstop. He graded out well according to OAA and UZR, though DRS and DRP were less impressed. Importantly, he’s also just 22, and he has time to improve. Although he put up just an 84 wRC+ last year, his defense and his propensity to take any and every base helped him put up 1.7 WAR in his 98 games.

For both players, the future has some truly massive error bars. They’re just 22 and 25 years old, and they’ve yet to play a full season’s worth of games. With apologies to Michael Morse, there just aren’t many comparable players we can look to for insights on their development. Their tools are so preposterous that their ceiling is somewhere out by the asteroid belt. But their long levers and their unproven eyes could keep them from ever making enough contact to take advantage of all that power. All the same, even if they just manage to stick it out as league-average shortstops, they’ll achieve it by way of some of the most electric, entertaining baseball the world has ever seen. They’ll also be doing it in an era where each 100 mph throw from deep in the hole and each 122 mph rocket off the bat can be tracked and marveled at in all its gaudy splendor. It’s time to get excited.





Davy Andrews is a Brooklyn-based musician and a contributing writer for FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @davyandrewsdavy.

52 Comments
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DLHughey
2 months ago

All this fuss, but they could both just be Javy Baez clones. Those statcast slider selections almost exactly mirror Baez’s peak (2018, 131 wrc+). But Baez, has been around for 10 years, has only had 3 seasons with a wrc+ over 100, and has seemed toast from the minute he put pen to paper in detroit. Tooled up guys with contact issues have been around forever, I’m holding my excitement until either of them proves that they can make it work as a sustainable profile. If they can, sure, they’re easy stars.

soddingjunkmailmember
2 months ago
Reply to  DLHughey

Tooled up guys with contact issues have been around forever

Looks like someone missed the author’s explicit instructions to get excited.

🙂

v2miccamember
2 months ago

I mean, its okay to do either. Its okay for fans to get excited about the possibilities of young toolsie players, and its okay for other fans to remain cautious as they may have been burned before.

EonADS
2 months ago
Reply to  DLHughey

I think the biggest difference is just the physicality Cruz and EDLC that vastly surpasses Baez. Oneil Cruz has seven inches and thirty pounds on Baez. He could choke up on the bat as far as possible and still post similar pure power. Elly is also two inches and ten pounds heavier, and is likely to bulk up a bit more.

On top of that, Baez’ career high in walk rate is 6.6%, which is far lower than the two new guys in their rookie seasons, and in any season of at least 80 games played (mirroring their rookie seasons), his best is 5.9% BB%. Baez is far more swing happy (65.5% Z-Swing and 38.1% O-Swing as career bests, which did not happen in the same season), and doesn’t have the plate discipline of either Elly or Oneil. Elly has 8.2% BB% with 60% Z-Swing and 31.9% O-Swing as a rookie, and Oneil had 7.9 BB% with 51.5% Z-Swing and 31.1% O-Swing as a rookie. Their plate and swing discipline ability are just naturally superior to Baez.

Last edited 2 months ago by EonADS
CC AFCmember
2 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

And which correlates with them both already having overall better contact rates than Baez except in Baez’ 2016 season when he seemed to try to intentionally trade power for contact.

But more than that, the point should be that Javier Baez was REALLY good. And REALLY fun. He had over 20 WAR by both fangraphs and bref before he was 30. If we’re gonna pick on players to shit on, Javy isn’t a good one.

sadtrombonemember
2 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Baez is the exception that proves the rule. On everything. He did everything wrong and for his Cubs years he either got away with it or thrived. Whenever someone comps a guy to Baez I figure he’s going to bust because he was such an anomaly. I’m pretty sure if either Cruz or de La Cruz were so reckless they wouldn’t even sniff Baez’s production.

PC1970
2 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Yeah, if the comp is Baez (which doesn’t seem 100% accurate), you still have an incredibly fun, entertaining player for 6-8 years & the real concern is what happens when he loses a beat athletically (maybe the quick twitch becomes a slow twitch?)…but, that won’t a problem for a long time.

I’d be a lot more concerned of signing a player with this profile to a FA contract that goes into their mid 30’s than I would be about performance today..& that date is years down the road.

Last edited 2 months ago by PC1970
RoyalsFan#14321
2 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I mean, we don’t have to be weird about it, I fucking enjoy watching dude’s (who can pick it) swing out of their shoes. And if he can make enough contact to run something like an 85 wRC+ that’s kinda fucking good (enough, like 2 WAR, right?).

<not sarcasm – I really do>

Ivan_Grushenkomember
2 months ago
Reply to  DLHughey

But with 40 HR / 40 SB potential and worse fielding. It’s more like Bo Jackson at SS

cowdisciplemember
2 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

40HR/40SB/40% K rate potential.

Having watched Joey Gallo and Miguel Sano strike out at those levels and occasionally hit one to the moon, I can say that it isn’t a lot of fun most of the time.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
2 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

If it helps, ZiPS thinks they’ll K around 30% of the time. That’s a bit better, and they’re projected around .245/.310 BA/OBP so they do do positive things about as often as say Trevor Story. I can see a more flashy version of Trevor Story not being everyone’s cup of tea.

RealCarlAllen
2 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I remember arguing with ZIPs projections last year when they said there was a 1/5 chance Elly would be the best offensive SS in baseball

Shirtless George Brett
2 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Considering Elly was basically at 30% in the minors that seems like an optimistic projection.

RoyalsFan#14321
2 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

I would throw my grandmother down a set of stairs to watch Miguel Sano go for 40 SB.