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Fun With Small Samples: Oneil Cruz Edition

In August 2020, Jesus Sanchez made his MLB debut and spent 10 days in the majors falling flat on his face with a .040 batting average and a -16 wRC+. However, in that small sample of only 29 plate appearances, Sanchez flashed big power with exit velocity, maximum exit velocity, and hard hit rate. I wrote an article about it (PRAISE JESUS (SANCHEZ)! FUN IN SMALL SAMPLES) and predicted that any reasonably extended look in 2021 would be a much more positive experience. Indeed, it was. Sanchez came up again in 2021 and hit 14 home runs in only 251 plate appearances, a 30+ HR pace. He should be the starting right fielder in 2022 and will be a great fantasy pick.

This article is not about Jesus Sanchez. It is about Oneil Cruz, who appeared in two MLB games at the end of 2021. More on that in a moment.

Oneil Cruz was the #2 prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 2020, and the #32 prospect overall that year, according to Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs. Here is what Eric wrote about Cruz in February 2020:

I will concede that the approach is bad and that the swing needs polish if Cruz is going to get to his power in games. I’ll also concede that the Fall League look was bad (he missed several weeks with a foot fracture), and his LIDOM performance was, too. This is one of the — if not the — highest-variance players in the minors, but there aren’t many who have a chance to be what this guy might. Even the outcomes more toward the middle of what is likely — a center fielder with a hit tool in the 35-40 range with huge power, a right fielder or third baseman with the same, a gigantic target at first — are still fine. I’m way, way in on Cruz even though he has clear issues that make him one of baseball’s riskier players.

This blurb from Longenhagen's 2021 Cruz writeup crystalizes his point about Cruz's boom or bust outlook:

Cruz is among the most gifted players in the sport, and has a penthouse ceiling but a subterranean floor. He could be Aaron Judge or Jairo Beras.

A late 2020 automobile accident involving a fatality with Cruz behind the wheel (and suspected of being intoxicated) took some of the shine off of Cruz's prospect status. The uncertainty of legal questions surrounding the incident led to Cruz falling down to #5 on the 2021 Pittsburgh list and #105 of the overall list at Fangraphs. However, it does appear that the accident was just that, a tragic accident. Pirates GM, Ben Cherington, finally spoke publicly and stated that “there’s not a single piece of evidence from what we’ve seen that this is anything but an accident.”

Cruz returned and absolutely destroyed AA and AAA in 2021, slashing .310/.370/.608 with 17 home runs and 19 stolen bases (302 plate appearances). That performance earned him a major league call-up for the final two games of the 2021 season. Two games is a small sample, but small samples are fun, so let's jump to conclusions.

Unlike Jesus Sanchez, Cruz gave us the surface stats. In two games, he went 3-for-9 with a home run and 3 RBI.

But let's look at Statcast. Statcast only had 5 batted ball events to measure, so the fact that Oneil Cruz ranked 11th(!) in average exit velocity is pretty meaningless (I mean, Lucas Giolito is 5th; He got a hold of one).

If you look at maximum exit velocity, which simply measures the ability to hit ball hard and needs no large sample to stabilize, Oneil Cruz ranked 7th overall with a ball hit 118.2 mph. Take a minute to look at where he ranks and at the names that surround him:

It is one thing to be able to hit the ball almost as hard as Aaron Judge and Pete Alonso, and to hit it harder than Ronald Acuna Jr., Luis Robert, and Vlad Guerrero Jr, but the truly astounding thing here is that Oneil Cruz did it in just 9 tries (5 batted ball events). Save for Chris Gittens, everyone else on this list had hundreds of opportunities to hit the ball as hard as they could. Cruz truly announced his presence with authority.

Having already debuted, it seems likely that Oneil Cruz spends most of 2022 with the big league club. Expect an April or early May call-up, and expect him to stick.


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