PITTSBURGH -- The first time Ke’Bryan Hayes saw Oneil Cruz hit baseballs in person, Cruz was a 19-year-old prospect at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. Over and over, the tall, lanky shortstop would send balls to dead center off the curveball machine.
“He’s gonna be a really fun one to watch,” Hayes said.
Cruz, now 22, made his Major League debut Saturday in an 8-6 win over the Reds at PNC Park, and he gave Pirates fans a reason to be thrilled about his future with a record-setting debut.
The first MLB hit for the 6-foot-7 shortstop -- the tallest shortstop to start a game in AL/NL history -- kickstarted a six-run rally in the fifth inning, as he chopped a ball for a single to right field to score Ben Gamel.
On Wilmer Difo’s triple in the ensuing at-bat, Cruz was gauged at a 30.4 ft./sec. sprint speed running from first base to home plate -- a touch above the elite 30 ft./sec. threshold -- and he nearly caught Jacob “The Cheetah” Stallings, a nickname earned facetiously for his slow running.
“In fact, I told [first-base coach] Tarrik [Brock] every time he was at first and Stallings was at second, [Stallings should] keep his head up so [Cruz] doesn’t run [Stallings] off,” manager Derek Shelton said. “I know he’s The Cheetah, but I don’t know what we’re going to come up with for the way Oneil went first to home.”
The first hit was exciting, but the second hit was head-turning.
Cruz ripped a liner to right field in the seventh inning that Statcast clocked at 118.2 mph off the bat. That is the hardest-hit ball by a Pirate in the Statcast era (since 2015) -- an even 2 mph greater than the previous record -- and Cruz became only the eighth player to hit a ball at 118 mph or more in the Majors this season.
Shelton knew Cruz had smoked one, but he didn’t realize how torched it was until assistant hitting coach Christian Marrero came over to tell him what the data said.
“I didn’t know it was the hardest-hit ball [by a Pirate],” Shelton said, “but I know this kid is talented. He hits the ball hard. We saw him hit the ball hard in the Minor Leagues.”
“He just threw the bat at it and hit it that hard,” said Bryan Reynolds, who was a homer shy of the cycle in his four-hit night. “That’s unheard of.”
How do his teammates, both here and at Double-A and Triple-A, describe Cruz’s mix of power, speed, arm and stature?
"I always make this joke when someone says, 'Oh, that's crazy [how] Cruz is doing this,’" said Pirates No. 18 prospect Cal Mitchell. “I say, 'Well, that's what happens when Kevin Durant was born in the Dominican and decided to be a baseball player.'"
“He’s my favorite player ever,” said No. 27 prospect Canaan Smith-Njigba. “He’s going to make a lot of money in this game.”
“He’s a unicorn,” Hayes said.
Cruz’s being has baseball written all over it. He was born to Rafael Cruz, a Minor League player who never reached his dream of playing in the Major Leagues. His father named him after Yankees great Paul O’Neill, and he hoped that one day his son would reach the Majors.
When he told his dad Friday night that he was being called up, the elder Cruz was speechless. Well, not exactly: He was screaming and celebrating the entire call.
“That's why I'm really looking forward to getting back to the room tonight,” Cruz said via interpreter Mike Gonzalez, “and to finally give him a phone call so I can really hear him out and see what message he has for me, especially knowing that this was a huge dream for him as well.”
The talent is clear. The tools are plenty. But what made this callup even sweeter for Cruz was the fact that the decision wasn’t about his five homers in six games at Triple-A last week. It wasn’t about his exit velocity or his sprint speed.
Cruz was called up because the Pirates saw him grow and mature during the season. They set out challenges for him to tackle, and he checked them off one by one.
Now, Cruz will head into Spring Training in 2022 with a chance to crack the Major League roster in quick order. But after Saturday, he’s already become a Major Leaguer, and he feels the part, too.
“Everything that's been a part of this journey, I look back at it and take a look at today, and I truly believe that I belong here,” Cruz said.