Elly De La Cruz is MLB's 'create-a-player,' and he's only getting better

LOS ANGELES — Nine months ago, Elly De La Cruz poked a unicorn. After Shohei Ohtani doubled against the Reds last year in Anaheim, De La Cruz extended his index finger and gave the two-way sensation a few taps to the bicep, just to make sure he was real.

Soon, someone might want to return the gesture to De La Cruz, a 6-foot-5-inch anomaly who has already turned into appointment viewing. 

The 22-year-old's distinct combination of speed and power is putting him on pace for a 100-steal, record-setting season, and this might only be the start as the second-year player begins to turn his massive potential into consistent big-league production. 

"It's special on a nightly basis," Reds catcher Tyler Stephenson said. "If he doesn't hit one 150 (mph) off the bat and 8,000 feet, he'll steal four bags and throw 107 across the infield. It's like a create-a-player every night." 

Stephenson, of course, was describing De La Cruz hyperbolically.

Well, mostly.

This weekend, De La Cruz once again shared a field with Ohtani. In front of 53,527 fans at Dodger Stadium on the two-time MVP's bobblehead night Thursday, it was De La Cruz rising to the occasion while stealing both the spotlight and four bases. 

"I like playing in front of a lot of fans," De La Cruz said after putting on a show, becoming the first player since Ichiro Suzuki in 2012 to record at least four hits and four steals in a game. 

In the process, he also became the first player in the Reds' 130-plus-year history to steal 30 bases in his first 44 games. He currently has more stolen bases than 17 different teams, putting the phenom on pace to annihilate the personal goal he set before the season of at least 80 steals. 

And the wild part is that his speed only tells part of the story of what makes him so different. 

"Every time he takes the field, an at-bat, on the basepaths, I feel like we're going to see something special," Reds pitcher Nick Martinez said. 

As Stephenson and Martinez intimated, it is the combination of speed, power, arm strength and boldness that makes De La Cruz such an intriguing package, one that reminded both Martinez and Jeimer Candelario a bit of a bigger Fernando Tatís Jr.

"Very similar, very athletic, do freak-of-nature things on the field," Martinez said. "He's a switch-hitting Tatís. I'd say he's probably faster than Tatís, maybe a better arm, but the power's there and the athleticism is pretty much even."

This weekend, FOX Sports asked five different Reds players about the craziest feat they've seen De La Cruz accomplish on a baseball field. All five provided a different answer. 

Matt McLain pointed to last year in Milwaukee, when De La Cruz stole every base — including home — in a span of three pitches. 

Candelario picked a different accomplishment against the Brewers from last month, when De La Cruz raced around the bases for an inside-the-park home run in under 15 seconds. In the same game, De La Cruz also launched a 450-foot homer, perhaps the perfect day to encapsulate everything he can bring to the table offensively. 

"He can score from first on a pop-up single," Candelario said with bewilderment. (For what it's worth, he has been clocked from first to home in less than 10 seconds.) "It's crazy." 

Other players have averaged a faster sprint speed this year, according to Statcast. But no one is utilizing their quickness quite like De La Cruz, who has 12 more stolen bases than the next-closest player (Brice Turang has 18 steals this year without getting caught yet). 

Speed is also an element of Martinez's answer, though in a different form. 

"It's those pop flies in short left field," he said. 

On one of those catches earlier this year, De La Cruz covered 112 feet in his sprint from shortstop toward the left-field line. He made a similar play behind Martinez on Jackie Robinson Day in Seattle. 

"I think he's in a category of his own," Martinez said. 

That's certainly the case when it comes to his arm strength. Last year in the minors, De La Cruz was clocked at 99.2 mph on a throw across the diamond, which at the time was the fastest mark for any player in Triple-A or MLB. After getting called up, he later broke his own mark on a 99.8 mph infield assist. 

It is the cannon attached to his right shoulder that stands out most to Spencer Steer, who finished one spot ahead of De La Cruz in Rookie of the Year voting last season. Steer has never been more flabbergasted watching De La Cruz than he was before a game last week in Arizona, when, on a dare, the shortstop launched a ball from the right-field line across the outfield. 

"He, flat-footed, threw the ball from the line about 10 rows deep to left field," Steer recalled. "That was one of the craziest things I've seen. … I didn't doubt he could, but when you see it actually happen, it's pretty insane."

De La Cruz's otherworldly acts of athleticism have become such a common occurrence that even the stuff of legend is believable. 

Last month, there was some speculation online that De La Cruz might have thrown a ball from shortstop 106.9 mph. He didn't actually throw it that fast. There was apparently a glitch in the system and no official reading on the throw — Statcast has De La Cruz's max this year at 94.2 mph, and his average throw is 91.5 mph, still well above average — but he has a believer in Stephenson. 

"Absolute cannon," Stephenson said. "Wonder what it'd be in a bullpen. Get him off a mound."

The thought was said in jest. 

"I don't think we'd let him," Stephenson responded with a smile. 

The Reds, after all, can't afford to lose one of baseball's most thrilling talents. 

Playing for a Cincinnati team that ranks in the bottom three in OPS and batting average, De La Cruz leads the team in slugging and OPS and is tied with Stephenson for the team lead in on-base percentage.

His more consistent offensive production this year is notable for multiple reasons. 

First, consider the difficulties most of last year's top National League rookies are having in their follow-up campaign: Of the six players who finished ahead of De La Cruz in NL Rookie of the Year voting last year, the highest OPS belongs to his teammate, Steer, at .710. De La Cruz, even after going hitless over the past three games of the Dodgers series, is currently at .829. 

"His talent is almost limitless," Martinez told FOX Sports. "His talent is so high up there that it helps him kind of cut that curve a little bit." 

Second, consider the struggles he dealt with last year, when his issues with chasing played a role in a gradual offensive decline. Despite his obvious potential, he finished last season hitting slightly below league average on the year (88 OPS+). 

"I think Elly went through a good mix of success and struggles last year, and I think that really set him up for success this year," Reds manager David Bell said. "Not just the struggles and success last year, but how he handled that and what he knew he needed to work to get better at, which areas of the game to be focused on. He's just a sponge, really, as far as taking it all in, learning and doing everything he needed to do to improve." 

De La Cruz said his swing is the same this year, but he's more patient looking for the right pitch to hit and controlling the zone. 

The switch-hitter has been much more productive swinging left-handed, but even from that side he had a tendency last year to struggle with pitches low and away. He has done a much better job this year handling pitches on the outer edge and is going to the opposite field more often in 2024. 

Though the changes might have come a bit at the expense of slugging on the inner half, they also appear to be helping him reach base more often. Plus, it's not as if he isn't still slugging. In fact, he is lifting the ball in the air more often, hitting the ball harder on average, barreling more baseballs, destroying fastballs and handling breaking balls at a better rate than he did last year. His average exit velocity (92.8 mph) ranks 18th among all qualified hitters, just behind Yordan Álvarez

"I've hit behind him a ton this year," Steer said. "The big thing I've noticed is just the maturity of his at-bats. He's not chasing as much. He's a dangerous hitter and the league knows that, so they're going to pitch him carefully. He's not getting himself out on pitches just off the plate or down. He's doing a really good job of spitting on balls and understanding he's going to be pitched carefully." 

That approach has resulted in more walks and more times on base, where he can change a game with his speed and daring. He not only leads the majors in steals but also has 10 more attempts than the player with the second-most (José Caballero). 

"It's that saying, ‘Speed never slumps,'" Martinez said. "He finds a way to make an impact."

Still, as this weekend demonstrated, it remains a work in progress. There's a reason De La Cruz has tapped into his potential but not fully realized it yet. 

Despite his dazzling plays at shortstop, he has also committed a league-leading 10 errors at the position this year, one of which set the Dodgers up to take the lead in the seventh inning Friday. De La Cruz went hitless in that performance, and the next two, and the swing-and-miss issues remain prevalent in his game. 

He is actually whiffing at a higher rate than he did last year, an issue that was also evident after his dynamic series opener this weekend, as he struck out in eight of his 13 at-bats to end the series. 

Still, he is dynamic in a way unlike anything we're accustomed to seeing from a player his size. 

Though he's no longer on pace to steal 110 bases, De La Cruz remains on pace to hit more than 30 homers and steal more than 100 bags, something that has never been done before. No one in MLB history has even had a 20/90 season. (Rickey Henderson came close in 1986, when he had 28 homers and 87 stolen bases.)

If De La Cruz steals 100 bases this year, he would be the first to do so since Vince Coleman in 1987. He said he's not thinking about that number when he's on the field, but the modest answer belies his self-confidence. 

After all, De La Cruz's personality is almost as electric as his talent. 

In his first series in the big leagues last year, he doubled, tripled and homered in his first two games against the Dodgers. A month later in Los Angeles, he wore a T-shirt that featured a picture of himself with the caption "fastest man in the world," then tripled in his first at-bat and went 6-for-14 in the series. 

"This is my city," the native of the Dominican Republic said afterward, sparking some confusion about what he meant. 

This weekend, he elaborated. 

Playing against Ohtani again, this time in his new Southern California digs, De La Cruz said hello to the Dodgers' powerful designated hitter at shortstop while putting together his four-hit, fleet-footed display. It was the first time in 15 years that a player stole four bases in a game against the Dodgers. 

"Still my city," De La Cruz repeated. 

He later explained that his first time visiting the United States came on a trip to Los Angeles and that he grew up playing Grand Theft Auto 5, which was released in 2013 and based on the map of L.A., where the bright lights don't bother the second-year player whose ceiling is as high as any player in the game. 

"If he's not already one of the faces of baseball," Martinez said, "he definitely will be." 

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.