Oneil Cruz is the first 6-foot-7 shortstop you’ve ever seen. It may not be the last

When the Pittsburgh Pirates summoned the best potential candidate Oneil Cruz this week, those who attempted to explain the excitement around him had to try to make comparisons in other realms. The Giannis Antetokounmpo of baseball. Aaron Judge’s height with Tyreek Hill’s speed.

Anyone who was actually convinced to turn on the Pirates game needed no further analogies. The thrill of Cruz’s potential was all there, pure visual stimulation.

You see, Cruz is 6 feet 7 tall, and plays as a shortstop. And he’s not a novelty actor or a fringe player with a cool quirk. Until Tuesday, when Pittsburgh finally put an end to his particularly heinous campaign of serving time manipulation, he was one of the most exciting players left in the minor leagues. Earlier in the season, Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the No. 12 in sport.

In his first game of 2022 (he debuted in an MLB game at the end of 2021), Cruz threw the ball stronger than any other MLB inside so far this season, ran faster than any Pirate this season and has hit the ball harder than any pirate has this season.

By simply starting a game, Cruz became the tallest shortstop in MLB history. And he needed those mold-breaking and confrontational skills that so rarely mix within a body to reverse the prevailing question from “Why? To” Why not? “

But while it was once a cool idea to think Cruz would stay at the shortstop long enough to sniff out the majors, he could quickly evolve from an anomaly to a trendsetter. If he maintains traction in one of baseball’s most challenging and legendary positions, his arrival could become a milestone for unicorns conquering positional tropes and preconceived notions of another sport.

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz prepares for a pitch on the pitch. (AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar)

Oneil Cruz is the tallest shortstop in the MLB … by a mile

Being 6-foot-7 and playing shortstop is completely unheard of.

Only six players who are 6-foot-5 or more tall, including Cruz, have ever appeared in an MLB game at the shortstop for any length of time. Only two have played up to 10 games in a season there: Archi Cianfrocco, who played primarily at first base for the San Diego Padres in the 1990s, and Mike Morse, who introduced himself as shortstop but quickly moved onto the pitch. external.

The tallest players to score real careers in the six holes were in the 6-foot-4 range. That quarterback bodied shortstop breed started with Cal Ripken Jr. and has proliferated quite a bit in recent years with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. Cruz, who is rated at 220 pounds, has a lean, lanky body type closest to Fernando Tatis Jr., who is 6-foot-3.

When Cruz was even younger and even lankier, potential baseball writer Prospectus Jarrett Seidler was in the pack of explorers trying to predict his future. It was understandably difficult to understand how he would be in the majors.

“It is worth noting that Cruz will not only be the greatest regular shortstop in MLB history, he will be the greatest by a wide margin,” Seidler said this week. “There has never been a regular shortstop listed above 6-foot-4. Cruz is each 6-foot-7 piece, which is the same height as Aaron Judge and three inches taller than Seager, Tatis, and Correa. So they are just completely uncharted waters.

In 2018, Seidler was bullish on Cruz’s chances of moving towards a shortstop job in the majors, in part because he showed such a reliable glove and dynamic arm.

“The industry expectation when he was in A-ball was that Cruz would lose a significant radius as he continued to grow, and in fact he listed 45 pounds more than when he signed,” Seidler said. “But he filled without losing any obvious reach or agility.”

Moving it off the shortstop means finding a new position. That, as Seidler points out, isn’t a walk in the park.

Being that tall and playing * any * position other than pitcher, first baseman or designated hitter would count as historical, but what is particularly striking is the shortage of tall players who have made careers in the crucial positions in the middle of the diamond: catcher, second baseman, shortstop and midfield. Only 18 players 6-foot-5 or taller have managed even 100 career games in those positions since 1920.

Of those 18, five are active and two more have played in the past two seasons.

Judge has also increased his time in the middle position of the toughest pitch, playing 31 career record games already this season while leading the AL MVP race.

Part of the calculation there, as Seidler points out, stems from advances in defensive positioning that help teams cover more court with less stellar defenders. It allows them to maintain roster flexibility and improve their lineups in an offensive way.

Teams have every incentive to play a potentially excellent hitter like Cruz in the toughest defensive position he can handle. Especially right now – after the outfield minor league experiments have gone wrong – this is the shortstop for Cruz.

“If he’s a middle or marginal shortstop, but worse on the third or outside,” said Seidler, “it might make sense to leave him as a shortstop even if in a vacuum it’s not ideal to sacrifice the defense of the shortstop.”

Why Oneil Cruz may not be an outlier for long

Perhaps no sport has eliminated rigid positional labels more completely than basketball. While Giannis is more than deserving of his nickname “Greek Freak”, he’s not the only NBA star who can handle the ball and roam the perimeter with all the fluidity of what we called point guard.

Positionless basketball is not a perfect fit for the world of baseball. Positions do not determine matches or cause direct physical advantages in baseball, but the demands of some commercials have a limited talent pool for generations.

Just as basketball has eliminated most of the positional stereotypes and football has slowly embraced some less conventional-sized quarterbacks, baseball is entering a time where the last few barriers – around premium positions – may disintegrate.

This is already a sport in which Judge and Jose Altuve can compete for an MVP award. It could soon become a sport in which they can compete for the prize and fill the same position.

Many of the current stellar shortstops have outgrown questions about their ability to stick around. But Cruz is a different kind of proposition precisely because he makes such an amazing figure. The minor league ball detection numbers, according to Seidler, show that he is able to hit the ball harder than any major league player other than Giancarlo Stanton. He’s still not fit enough to achieve all that power consistently, but the potential is there.

Another player of comparable sizes is growing through the Cincinnati Reds organization right now: Elly De La Cruz. An agile 6-foot-5 at just 20 years old, De La Cruz has lot of highlights of the minor league looking … like Oneil Cruz.

Seidler calls De La Cruz one of his favorite prospects and says he is faster on the pitch, but less confident than his taller predecessor. The Reds have tried him so far in third and second base, but he is still playing most of his shortstop games.

If you’re cheering on more Giannis-like dynamic diversity across the pitch, cheer on Cruz even more to hold his own. After all, it’s the first real case study for future freaks, and for De La Cruz.

“It certainly won’t hurt his chances,” Seidler said, “if Cruz can be successful.”

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