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

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When the Pittsburgh Pirates called up top prospect Oneil Cruz this week, those trying to explain the excitement around him had to look elsewhere for comparisons. 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 didn’t need any further analogies. The thrill of Cruz’s potential was there, pure visual stimulus.

You see, Cruz is 6-foot-7 and he plays shortstop. And it’s not a novelty number or a fringe player with a cool quirk. Until Tuesday, when Pittsburgh finally ended its particularly odious campaign of serving time manipulation, he was one of the most exciting players in the minor leagues. At the start of the season, Baseball Prospectus ranked him 12th among the sports prospects.

In his first game of 2022 (he made his one-game MLB debut in late 2021), Cruz threw the ball harder than any MLB infielder so far this season. , ran faster than any Pirate this season and hit the ball harder than any Pirate has this season.

By simply starting a game, Cruz became the greatest shortstop in MLB history. And it needed those anti-mold, comparison-defying abilities that so rarely mingle within the same body to overturn the dominating question of “Why?” to “Why not?”

But where it was once a good idea to think Cruz would stick around at shortstop long enough to sniff out the majors, he could quickly evolve from anomaly to trailblazer. If he maintains traction at one of baseball’s most demanding and legendary positions, his arrival could be a milestone for the unicorns conquering the positional tropes and preconceived notions of another sport.

Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz prepares for a throw down the field. (TSWT Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Oneil Cruz is MLB’s tallest shortstop…by a mile

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

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Only six players 6-foot-5 or taller, including Cruz, have ever appeared in an MLB game at shortstop in any length of time. Only two played as many as 10 games in a season there – Archi Cianfrocco, who played mostly first base for the San Diego Padres in the 1990s, and Mike Morse, who came on as a shortstop but s quickly moved to the outfield.

The tallest players to have a six-hole career have been in the 6-foot-4 range. This breed of quarterback-bodied shortstop started with Cal Ripken Jr. and has proliferated a bit in recent years with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa. Cruz, who weighs 220 pounds, has a lean, lanky body more akin to Fernando Tatis Jr., who is 6-foot-3.

When Cruz was even younger and more gangly, Jarrett Seidler, would-be writer of the baseball prospectus, was among the pack of scouts trying to predict his future. It was naturally difficult to understand what it would look like in the majors.

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

In 2018, Seidler was optimistic about Cruz’s chances of making his way to a shortstop job at the majors, in part because he showed off such a reliable glove and dynamic arm.

“The industry expected Cruz to lose his self-reliance as he continued to grow, and indeed he was 45 pounds heavier than when he signed,” Seidler said. “But it filled in without losing any noticeable range or agility.”

Removing him from shortstop means finding a new position. This, as Seidler points out, is no walk in the park.

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

It should be noted that of these 18, five are active and two others have played in the last two seasons.

Even Judge has increased his time at the toughest center field position, already playing 31 games there, a career high this season, as he paces the AL MVP race.

Part of the math there, as Seidler points out, stems from advances in defensive positioning that help teams cover more of the field with less stellar defenders. This allows them to maintain roster flexibility and improve their lineups offensively.

Teams have a vested interest in playing a potentially excellent hitter like Cruz in the toughest defensive position he can handle. Especially right now — after minor league experiences in the outfield went badly — he’s a shortstop for Cruz.

“If he’s a mid or middle shortstop but worse at third or outfield,” Seidler said, “it might make sense to leave him at shortstop even if he’s not in a perfect void to sacrifice shortstop defense.”

Why Oneil Cruz may not be an outlier for long

Perhaps no sport has abandoned rigid positional tags more completely than basketball. While Giannis is more than deserving of his “Greek Freak” moniker, he’s not the only NBA high-rise star who can handle the ball and run around the perimeter with all the fluidity of what we used to call a point guard. Game.

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Positionless basketball doesn’t quite fit the world of baseball. Positions don’t dictate matchups or cause direct physical benefits in baseball, but the demands of certain spots have limited talent pools for generations.

Just as basketball has shed most positional stereotypes and football has slowly embraced less conventionally sized quarterbacks, baseball is entering a time when the final barriers – around premium positions – could become more difficult. disintegrate.

It’s already a sport where Judge and Jose Altuve can compete for an MVP award. It could soon be a sport where they can compete for the prize and play in the same position.

Many of today’s star shortstops have overcome questions about their ability to stick. But Cruz is a different kind of proposition precisely because he has such a striking silhouette. Minor league ball tracking numbers, according to Seidler, show he is capable of hitting the ball harder than any current major leaguer other than Giancarlo Stanton. He doesn’t do it enough yet to achieve all that power consistently, but the potential is there.

Another player with comparable metrics is rising in the Cincinnati Reds organization right now – Elly De La Cruz. A flexible 6 feet 5 inches at only 20 years old, From La Cruz to a lot of minor league highlights looking like… Oneil Cruz.

Seidler calls De La Cruz one of his favorite prospects and says he’s quicker on the pitch, but less confident than his taller predecessor. The Reds have tried him at third base and second base so far, but he still plays the majority of his games at shortstop.

If you’re looking for more Giannis-like dynamic diversity on the court, encourage Cruz even more to defend. It is, after all, the first real case study for future monsters, and for De La Cruz.

“It certainly won’t hurt his chances,” Seidler said, “if Cruz can pull it off.”

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