Cruz focused on taking what pitchers give him

April 6th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- nearly had an extra-base hit on his first swing Friday against Grayson Rodriguez, but the Pirates shortstop just pulled it foul.

Rodriguez followed with a changeup on the outside part of the plate, and Cruz went with the pitch and flared it to left for a base hit. Two innings later, Rodriguez again attacked the outside part of the plate, and Cruz beat the shift on an infield single to third base.

The Orioles had a clear plan for how they wanted to pitch to Cruz in the Pirates’ 5-2 loss in the series opener, peppering him with pitches outside all game:

Cruz didn’t take the bait, though, going with the pitches for a couple of base hits before catching a changeup down the middle his third time up, which he was able to put into the seats in right. He pounced on a mistake pitch for the big blast, but it was the two pitches he hit to the left side of the field that make him feel like he’s in a good spot offensively.

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

The Orioles aren’t the first team to pitch Cruz outside. In 2022, 19.9% of the pitches he saw were on the outer third of the strike zone, compared to just 13.5% on the inner-third. Pitchers know they have to be cautious with him because of his raw power potential.

But right now, if he is looking to make an impact, perhaps the best way to create those optimal pitches to pull is to show that he’s willing to take what he’s given first.

“I think it’s a concerted effort to make sure he stays within himself,” said manager Derek Shelton. “When you come to the big leagues and you’re a guy his size [that] 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.

“[Hitting coach] Andy [Haines] and our group have done a good job making him realize that there’s a lot of the field to use … 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.”

The results so far speak for themselves. Cruz has 11 hits so far this season, and seven of them have been on the left side of the diamond. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s trading away power, as his Opening Day home run against the Marlins’ Sixto Sánchez shows he can still clear the fence that way.

Oneil Cruz's spray chart of hits so far in 2024

While the season is still very young, it looks as though Cruz has matured as a hitter since 2022, despite being limited to just nine games in 2023 due to a left ankle fracture. He cycles through three bat sizes depending on the pitcher and how hard they throw. He’s working to shorten up his swing against offspeed pitches and two-strike counts to try to make more contact. He’s shown more two-handed swings early this season, which can help with bat control.

Cruz could one day achieve the 30-homer, 30-steal season that he set for himself before the 2023 campaign, but right now, he’s setting forth on achieving his 2024 goals of being available for his team and contributing.

“It’s always a blessing to be back on the field,” Cruz said. “Then to just be on the same field with my teammates. It feels pretty good.”

Cruz has the potential to be the biggest bat in the Pirates’ lineup, but if he’s going to do that, he knows he can’t always pull the ball.

“Definitely a good sign to be able to go the other way,” Cruz said. “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.”