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Perrotto: Oneil Cruz Becoming The Man With The Plan



Oneil Cruz, Pittsburgh Pirates

Oneil Cruz would be the star of any tryout camp.

The Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop hits baseballs as hard and far as anyone in the major leagues. He also has a strong arm and outstanding speed.

He is the proverbial toolshed, in the words of the prospect mavens, wrapped in a 6-foot-7 body.

However, the 26-year-old’s grasp of baseball’s nuances has been lacking. Cruz always seems to be trying to overwhelm the opposition with athletic ability for the sake of possessing baseball savvy.

Cruz hit a home run on Friday in the Pirates’ 5-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles in the home opener at PNC Park. The blast brought the frozen sellout crowd to its feet.

However, from a pure baseball standpoint, Cruz’s two singles were more impressive when put into the context of his career. The left-handed hitting Cruz hit both singles to the opposite field while the Orioles infield was playing him to pull.

Cruz has had a simplistic approach to hitting since breaking into the major leagues during the final weekend of the 2021 season. He swings as hard as he can and hopes to make hard contact.

That is why Cruz getting two hits to the opposite field was so encouraging because it was so unlike him.

However, Pirates manager Derek Shelton believes the more measured approach by Cruz is becoming a learned behavior under hitting coach Andy Haines’ tutelage.

“I think it’s a concerted effort to make sure he stays within himself,” Shelton said. “When you come to the big leagues and you’re a guy his size and has the ability to hit the ball as far as he does, the natural reaction is to see how far you can hit the ball. Andy and our group have done a good job making him realize that there’s a lot of the field to use and to go ahead and use it.

“If he uses the other side of the field, I think we saw with the one ground ball, you’re not going to throw him out – if he puts the ball on the ground and infielders have to go one way or another. It’s just the maturation of him as a hitter.”

Hitting to all fields was at the top of Cruz’s priority list last year during spring training. However, he never fully got a chance to try it as he sustained a season-ending broken ankle on April 9.

“Definitely it’s going to be an adjustment that you guys will see this year because 2022, in my mind, I was just hitting the ball to the right field side of the field,” Cruz said through interpreter and coach Stephen Morales. “As a hitter you mature, definitely I have to use the whole field when I hit.

“Definitely a good sign to be able to go the other way. That means as a hitter that you are in a really good spot. That you can just use the whole field. It feels really good right now.”

It also looks good for Cruz, showing no ill effects from the ankle injury. He is hitting .344/.382/.531 with two home runs in eight games while helping the Pirates get off to a surprising 6-2 start.

The 13 strikeouts and two walks in 34 plate appearances are still a concern. Even someone as talented as Cruz won’t fully prosper without better plate discipline.

However, Cruz is at least stepping into the batter’s box with a plan and that’s a good start.

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