How do you write about Elly De La Cruz’s magical first week in the big leagues without resorting to hyperbole and embellishment? What Reds fans just witnessed over the last seven days—the power, the speed, the strength—was something we’ve never seen before and likely won’t see again. As shortstop Kevin Newman told reporters in the wake of Elly’s debut: “I’m not sure in what capacity, but I truly believe we just witnessed history.”
In a week full of superlatives, there were a couple of moments over the weekend that illustrate just how much De La Cruz has altered the DNA of this team. On Sunday, while leading the Reds to a series victory over St. Louis, he had two hits and two walks (one of the hits was an infield single on a grounder to first base), but it was his game-winning run that left everyone astonished.
After walking to lead off the eighth inning, De La Cruz advanced to third on a groundout and a passed ball. With one out in a tie game, the Cardinals pulled their infield in so as to potentially cut down the runner advancing home. They got their wish, as Tyler Stephenson grounded the ball directly to the shortstop. Running on contact, Elly still somehow beat the throw home. Stephenson couldn’t believe it. “I was just as shocked when I turned around and saw safe,” he said. “He’s an incredible talent.”
The day before, Jonathan India was on second base and De La Cruz was on first when Spencer Steer doubled to right-center field. India came around easily to score; behind him, De La Cruz nearly caught up to him. Reds third-base coach JR House threw up the “stop” sign, but Elly was going too fast to stop. He scored on a magnificent slide, barely avoiding the tag.
No one else on the team would have scored in either of those situations. To be honest, maybe no one in baseball would have scored. As my friend Tim Daniel said: The game has changed. And the Cincinnati Reds have that game-changer in their lineup.
Born in Sabana Grande de Boya in the Dominican Republic, De La Cruz was only 6 years old when he moved away from home to pursue a baseball career. The Reds first encountered him as a 16-year-old who was as skinny as he was tall. He was also raw, which means the Reds were able to sign him for just $65,000 in the summer of 2018.
By the time he arrived at Great American Ball Park for his first game last week, it was clear that that was the best money the Reds had ever spent. De La Cruz, now 21, had established himself as the most exciting young prospect in all of baseball in the intervening years. When his promotion to the big leagues was announced, Reds fans overwhelmed the ticket website, causing a brief outage. The crowd of 22,602 at the game gave De La Cruz a standing ovation before he ever saw a pitch in the majors and fell deathly quiet during pitches as if not to distract the kid.
He walked in that first at-bat, but later in the game Elly doubled to the gap in right-center. It was his first big league hit, and it was also the hardest hit ball of the season for any Reds player. The next day, he collected his first big league homer, a moon shot to the last row of the seats in right field. It went 458 feet, the longest Reds home run of the season. By the time the dust had settled on his first MLB series, De La Cruz had become just the second player in league history to hit a single, a double, a triple, and a homer plus steal a base in his first three games. We’re talking the stuff of legends here.
Listen, I’m not a statcast nerd, and though I appreciate what the numbers can tell us, my eyes generally glaze over when the talk turns to exit velocities and launch angles. But that was before Elly De La Cruz arrived. Now I look at these numbers and marvel over the fact that the Reds just added a comic book superhero to their lineup.
I already told you that his first hit was the hardest hit ball of the season for the club, with an exit velocity of 112 mph. Well, his first homer was even harder: 114.8 mph off the bat. So after only five at-bats, De La Cruz already had the two hardest hit balls of the Reds season. And remember that infield single on the grounder to first base I mentioned earlier? That ball had an exit velocity of 109.4 mph. What is this, a video game?
Of course, what makes Elly special is not just the power, but the speed. He’s already recorded the fastest sprint speed on a hit in the entire league this season: 31.9 ft./second on a chopper (98 mph exit velocity) to shortstop that didn’t even draw a throw because he was already past first. Then, in addition to the home run in his second game, De La Cruz also tripled, going from home to third base in 10.83 seconds. No one in either league has clocked as fast a time from first to third this season.
But wait, there’s more! In Sunday’s win over St. Louis, De La Cruz uncorked a 96.6 mph throw across the diamond to first base. That was the hardest throw of any big league infielder all season long. Seriously, are you kidding me?
Lest you think I’m overhyping this young man, listen to what his teammates are saying about him.
Reds outfielder Will Benson: “He’s a special player. I’ve never played with a player like that. I’ve played with really good hitters like Elly. But I’ve never seen a complete package like that before.”
India: “He’s the fastest human I’ve ever seen on a baseball field.”
Steer: “He can get on base so many different ways. That’s really lethal when you’ve got a guy like that in the middle of your order.”
Stephenson: “This is my first glimpse and a bunch of our first glimpses of what he can do. You always hear about it in Spring Training with all the Minor League guys. I was actually talking about that with [Andrew] Abbott on the bench, and we’re talking about obviously the play where he scored and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just like an average Tuesday.’ … That’s pretty surreal.”
The highest praise of all may have come from Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “As a fan, very exciting. Managing against him, very scary,” Roberts said after De La Cruz’s first outing. “You can hear about the tools, but to see it in action, it’s remarkable.”
After game two, Roberts went even further. “He looked like Deion Sanders running around the bases on that triple,” the L.A. skipper said. “The pure joy to play this game, not be fazed by his debut—those are unicorns.”
A unicorn: That’s the term you will hear over and over in reference to De La Cruz. There’s no one else like him. There may be players with as much power. There may be players who are as fast, or who can throw as hard or play defense like De La Cruz. But almost no one has it all in the same package. He’s a unique talent.
Let’s come back to Earth here for a second. It’s one thing to say that he’s Eric Davis and Barry Larkin and Adam Dunn all wrapped up in one amazing player. It’s another thing altogether to predict that he will actually become the best player in baseball. He’s still learning, as we saw when he struck out six consecutive at-bats in between highlight reel plays. There will be good weeks, and there will be bad weeks.
But there can be no question that the Reds have energy these days they haven’t had in recent seasons. Cincinnati is 5-2 since De La Cruz arrived, and he provides the Reds with a rare offensive weapon that no other team can match. The Reds were already fun, but now they’re electric. And that buzz is just as loud in the dugout as it is in the grandstand.
“This whole team has some type of vibe, and a really positive vibe, too,” De La Cruz said this week through his interpreter. “It’s kind of like vibes of going to the World Series.”
We’re talking about the World Series now? If Elly De La Cruz can lead this franchise back to the promised land, he may actually be a comic book superhero.
Chad Dotson helms Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, The Riverfront. His newsletter about Cincinnati sports can be found at chaddotson.com. He’s @dotsonc on Twitter.