Cruz's goal in 2023? A 30-30 season

February 18th, 2023

BRADENTON, Fla. -- ’s ambitions are as tall as him.

As a rookie, Cruz demolished 17 home runs and stole 10 bases in 87 games. That adds up to about 32 home runs and 19 steals across a full season, numbers that could easily land him more than several MVP votes. But Cruz, someone who seldom lacks confidence, wants more. 

"I'm looking for 30-30,” Cruz said through team interpreter Stephen Morales, “or 40-40 this year. The one that is going to be under my control this year is to go play hard and put on a good show for the people who go out to Pittsburgh to see me play.”

In the century-and-a-half-long history of Major League Baseball, only 43 players have earned membership into the 30-30 club. Only four players inhabit the 40-40 club: Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Alex Rodriguez and Alfonso Soriano. But with Cruz, a true one-of-one who has already left his mark, no goal seems too lofty.

“I would never put any type of ceiling on him -- I know that,” said hitting coach Andy Haines. “You’re watching a player that has a chance for greatness, and we saw it in glimpses.”

Cruz’s unparalleled amalgamation of power, speed and height has been well-documented by this point. He snatched the record for hardest-hit ball in the Statcast era at 122.4 mph in his 54th career game. His average exit velocity of 91.9 mph ranks in the 91st percentile, and his 15.5 percent barrel rate ranks in the 96th percentile. With his legs, Cruz ranked in the 98th percentile of Sprint Speed. As far as tools go, Cruz’s only peer is Shohei Ohtani.

Tools alone, however, won’t be enough for Cruz to reach his lofty goals. Cruz finished last season with a strikeout rate of 34.9 percent across 361 plate appearances, ranking in the 1st percentile of strikeout rate and 4th percentile of whiff rate. Of the 277 hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, only Chris Taylor (35.2 percent) and Joey Gallo (39.8 percent) struck out more often than Cruz.

The shortstop may have slogged through growing pains, but clearly adapted to Major League pitching as the season went along. 

In his first 43 games, Cruz hit .209/.254/.424 with nine home runs, an 85 wRC+. He struck out 35.5 percent of the time and swung at 38.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone.

In his next 44 games, Cruz hit .254/.328/.474 with eight home runs and a 124 wRC+. His strikeout rate dropped only a tick to 34.4 percent, but the rate of pitches he swung at outside the strike zone plummeted to 27.6 percent.

“It all comes with experience,” Cruz said. “At the beginning of the season, I was swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. I tried to do too much. Then, through the season, as the games went on, I started becoming more of a big league player and started making adjustments, not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone as much.”

Added Haines: “He was studying how pitchers were trying to attack him. The way he showed up every day and challenged himself and his training and was on a mission to get better -- you combine that with his talent level and it’s pretty exciting to dream on what he could accomplish.”

Similar to the offensive end, Cruz’s defense requires polish. Cruz may possess the strongest right arm among shortstops, his 97.8 mph assist back in July being the hardest-thrown infield assist of the Statcast era, but he finished in the 3rd percentile in Outs Above Average with a fair number of throwing errors as well. Given Cruz’s 6’7” frame -- he is the tallest player to ever start at shortstop -- manager Derek Shelton noted that Cruz’s footwork will be invaluable to his success on defense. 

“I think we saw a couple of his routine errors last year where he just tried to rely on his arm, and he can’t do that,” Shelton said. “That’s why footwork and being able to do that is going to be so important. It’s going to be a focal point of what we’re working on during the spring.”

Unlike last year, Cruz will not be battling for a spot on the Opening Day roster. He will be, assuming health, the Pirates’ starting shortstop for the season’s first game and beyond. Cruz is applying for a membership in one of baseball’s most exclusive clubs. The next several months will determine if he gains admission.