PITTSBURGH – Oneil Cruz knows the learning curve.
Overall, Cruz, who hit his 10th homer in the Pirates’ 2-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night at PNC Park, has had a tough time the past few weeks. Slumps have the ability to wear on younger players, but for manager Derek Shelton, the rookie’s demeanor was reassuring.
“He smiles a lot, which is a good thing because being a young player in the major leagues and facing challenges is frustrating,” Shelton said. “When you’re working a lot – and he’s there every day and working hard – and sometimes you don’t reap the rewards right away, it can be frustrating.
“But he’s done a good job now. So that’s something that’s been really encouraging because you can be beaten as a young player.
It’s been a tough two weeks for the announced rookie from Pittsburgh. In 17 games this month, Cruz is down .180/.265/.393 in 68 plate appearances. He’s been retired at least twice in each of his last seven games.
“Unfortunately, the results are not on my mind,” Cruz said before the game through team interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “I just have to keep working. Keep working, keep learning, keep finding ways to dominate and overcome this. More than anything, I just maintain a strong mental mind game to make sure I don’t crumble and get lost out there.
Cruz’s struggles can in part be attributed to the adjustments opposing pitchers have made in recent weeks.
In July, 53.6% of the pitches Cruz saw were fastballs and 31.3% were busted pitches. Compare that to August where, coming into Monday’s series opener, Cruz saw more breakup pitches (44.1%) than fastballs (42.2%). Cruz said he works with pitchers to improve against broken balls, as well as spending time watching movies.
“I’m learning a lot about sequences. I learn a lot about how I’m attacked and the pitches thrown at me,” Cruz said. “I am learning to remove certain areas of the zone in order to have a better [idea] of the area I’m focusing on. Just little things like that that I try to implement, keep growing.
There’s also the matter of where the pitches Cruz swings on. With his long wingspan, he has shown the ability to stretch his arms and climb heights that few other human beings can. During spring training, one of Cruz’s two home runs came when he bent over and golfed a ball that was barely above his ankles. Consistently driving those throws hard, however, is a difficult task.
“You want him rocking the terrain he can drive,” Shelton said. “Again, it’s a learned trait at the Major League level. It’s learned from the fact that in the minor leagues or in Triple-A, sometimes you can get away with swinging on the pitches because It’s not the same thing.
“It’s different here. What we’re trying to get him to focus on is swinging on the pitches in his strike zone.
“He tries to find that area of my zone, trying to get to grips 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 this. I don’t want to change my attitude.”
To hit coach Andy Haines, there’s no rushing the process.
“He’s got to get that experience, and once he gets it, you’ll see him get better and better with more batsmen than we can pile on top of him,” Haines told MLB.com. “There are no shortcuts either. It’s just about recognizing what growth needs. With Oneil, with the work ethic and the attitude that he shows with the talent, over time, we really feel that it will happen.
“It’s never as fast as we all want it to be. I don’t think it’s in our nature. We want things now, but he showed it in flashes. He’s always very exciting to watch and has you on the edge of your seat every time he shows up at home plate.