PITTSBURGH -- Oneil Cruz is experiencing the learning curve.
On the whole, Cruz, who hit his 10th home run in the Pirates’ 2-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night at PNC Park, has hit a bit of a rough patch in recent weeks. Slumps have the ability to wear on young players, but for manager Derek Shelton, the rookie’s demeanor has provided reassurance.
“He smiles a lot, which is a good thing because being a young player in the big leagues and going through challenges is frustrating,” Shelton said. “When you’re putting in a lot of work -- and he’s out there every day and working hard -- and sometimes you don’t get the fruits of that right away, it can be frustrating.
“But he’s done a good job maintaining. So, that’s something that’s been really encouraging because you can get beat down as a young player.”
The past couple weeks have been a grind for Pittsburgh’s heralded rookie. In 17 games this month, Cruz is slashing .180/.265/.393 across 68 plate appearances. He’s struck out at least twice in each of his past seven games.
“Unfortunately, the results aren't falling my way,” Cruz said pregame through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “I just got to keep working. Keep working, keep learning, keep finding ways to dominate and defeat that. More than anything, just maintaining a strong mental mind game so I make sure that I don't fall apart and that I don't lose myself out there.”
Cruz’s struggles can partially be attributed to the adjustments that opposing pitchers have made in recent weeks.
In July, 53.6 percent of the pitches that Cruz saw were fastballs and 31.3 percent were breaking pitches. Compare that to August where, entering Monday’s series opener, Cruz has seen more breaking pitches (44.1 percent) than fastballs (42.2 percent). Cruz said that he has been working with pitching machines to improve against breaking balls, as well as spending time watching film.
“I'm learning a lot about sequences. I'm learning a lot about the way that I'm being attacked and the pitches that are being thrown at me,” Cruz said. “I'm learning how to remove certain areas of the zone so I can have a better [idea] of what zone I'm focused on. Just little things like that that I'm trying to implement, continue to grow.”
There’s also the matter of the location of the pitches that Cruz swings at. With his lengthy wingspan, he has shown off the ability to extend his arms and barrel up pitches that few other human beings can. In Spring Training, one of Cruz’s two home runs came when he reached down and golfed a ball that was barely above his ankles. However, consistently driving those pitches with force is a difficult task.
“You want him to swing at the pitches that he can drive,” Shelton said. “Again, that's a learned trait at the Major League level. It's learned because of the fact that in the Minor Leagues or in Triple-A, sometimes you can get away with swinging at the pitches because the stuff is not the same.
“Up here it's different. What we're trying to get him to focus on is swinging at the pitches in his hitting zone.”
“It's trying to find that area of my zone, trying to get more familiar with my plan and my attack. But I don't want to change who I really am,” Cruz said. “I don't want to change my aggressiveness. I don't want to change my pitch selection. If anything, I want to be wiser when it comes to it. I don't want to change my attitude."
For hitting coach Andy Haines, there’s no rushing the process.
“He has to get this experience, and once he gets it, you’re going to see him get better and better with more at-bats we can stack on him,” Haines told MLB.com. “There’s no shortcut, too. It’s just acknowledging what growth needs to happen. With Oneil, with the work ethic and attitude that he shows along with the talent, with time, we feel really good that it’s going to happen.
“It’s never as quick as we all want it to happen. I don’t think that’s in our nature. We want things now, but he’s shown it in flashes. He’s still really exciting to watch and has you on the edge of your seat every time he comes up to the plate.”