Through his first 54 games of the season, Pittsburgh Pirates rookie shortstop Oneil Cruz wasn’t able to find his groove at the plate.
In those 54 games, Cruz hit below the Mendoza Line, checking in with a .198 average. That mark was accompanied by a .641 OPS and 81 strikeouts in 212 plate appearances (38% strikeout rate).
Cruz was most often penciled in towards the bottom half of the Bucs’ lineup over that stretch, most commonly in the sixth spot of the batting order.
In an effort to jump start the rookie, manager Derek Shelton decided to move him to the top spot of the lineup on Aug. 28, and has done so every game since.
This was a strategy that was utilized by another Pirates’ manager with another potential superstar over 30 years ago.
In Barry Bonds’ rookie season with Pittsburgh in 1986, then-Pirates manager Jim Leyland routinely hit Bonds first in the lineup in an effort to help him become a more selective hitter.
As it did 36 years ago with Leyland and Bonds, the move by Shelton has so far paid off for Cruz, who currently has a five-game hitting streak.
In 10 games since becoming the Pirates’ leadoff hitter, Cruz is slashing .317/.349/.683 and has hit two doubles, two triples and three home runs. Cruz has driven in nine runs over that stretch and has dropped his strikeout rate to 30%.
“It’s just continuing to learn and grow and swing at the right pitches,” Shelton said on Cruz. “It’s something that we’ve continued to talk about. We’ve seen when he swings at the right pitches, he hits the ball hard.”
One of the possible explanations for Cruz’s getting those “right pitches” atop Pittsburgh’s lineup is that he has the team’s top hitter in Bryan Reynolds hitting behind him.
With Reynolds offering some form of protection, opposing pitchers are more likely to give Cruz more pitches to hit as opposed to when Cruz found himself in the bottom half of the lineup.
This is a welcomed change for Cruz who tends to be more of an aggressive hitter at the plate.
“I’m an aggressive hitter, and any ball that’s near my zone I try to hit it hard,” Cruz said through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez.
Shelton’s decision has benefited Cruz, whose OPS has jumped 67 points from .641 to .708 since the move was made.
While the move hasn’t necessarily benefited the Pirates, who are just 3-7 in those 10 games, it gives them some interesting lineup flexibility moving forward.
Could Cruz be the Pirates’ leadoff hitter in years to follow? Or will he move to where he profiles more naturally, in the middle of the lineup just as Bonds did under the watch of Leyland?
Regardless, the decision from Shelton has been a good one, and the 23-year-old Cruz will look to finish the season strong over the course of the next four weeks.