CINCINNATI — This was a day everyone knew was coming, but also one that many couldn’t believe was actually here. Elly De La Cruz was finally a big leaguer, and starting at third base for the Cincinnati Reds. Oh, and the 21-year-old batted cleanup.
MLB debuts have been a theme for the 2023 Reds — De La Cruz on Tuesday became the eighth player to get that special call for Cincinnati this season, more than any other team. Fellow infielder Matt McLain and left-handed pitcher Andrew Abbott have been two recent call-ups who have already made immediate impacts as well-regarded prospects. But De La Cruz’s arrival was always going to be different — because De La Cruz is, in a word, different.
EDLC is the age of a college junior. But while highly-touted collegiate stars like presumptive No. 1 overall pick and LSU outfielder Dylan Crews (a month younger than De La Cruz) are competing in the NCAA super regionals this weekend, De La Cruz will head to St. Louis to take on the Cardinals. Furthermore, while many of the best college juniors in this year’s draft class have been well-known to scouts dating back to high school, EDLC was a relative nobody as recently as two years ago, further highlighting his absurdly speedy development into one of the game’s top prospects.
Having signed for just $65,000 out of the Dominican Republic in July of 2018, De La Cruz was just another backfield project in his first few years in pro ball. It was less than two years ago that De La Cruz made his stateside professional debut, going 0-4 with three strikeouts in the Arizona Complex League. But a growth spurt and a stunningly swift development of natural ability combined to turn De La Cruz into far more than just a curiosity. In 2022, EDLC hit 28 home runs and stole 47 bases in 121 games, reaching Double-A. In just one year, he leaped from the depths of the Reds organizational depth chart to the very top of industry-wide prospect lists. Amid a rebuild involving numerous trades of star veterans for other team’s top prospects to reload the farm system, a potential homegrown superstar turned out to be in the Reds’ system all along.
Before the game, manager David Bell shied away from answering if De La Cruz reminds him of any other players he’s seen during his extensive career and life in and around the game. This tactic of downplaying is common among managers wary of putting more pressure on a player than they already often have as a top prospect with ample hype surrounding them. But in the case of De La Cruz, it’s also entirely understandable for Bell — or anyone — to struggle to identify a reasonable comparison for a 6-foot-5 switch-hitting shortstop capable of hitting baseballs with eye-popping exit velocities (consider this, this, this and this) from both sides of the plate who is also one of the fastest players you’ll ever see.
In turn, the hype around De La Cruz’s call-up wasn’t just about the upstart Reds adding another talented young player to a team that has competed reasonably well in the National League Central through the season’s first two months. It was about adding a player singularly capable of luring people to the ballpark to witness a spectacularly skilled athletic marvel in action — and hopefully help the Reds win some ballgames along the way.
Batting practice was a spectacle as expected. Early-arriving fans were treated to EDLC launching balls to the second deck right-handed and before punctuating his final round from the left side with a blast to the seats just below the video board in right field. This level of juice from both sides of the plate is rare to say the least, his violent swings capable of thunderous impact nearly unmatched. As Reds infield coach and frequent batting practice pitcher Jeff Pickler put it, De La Cruz is “the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to throw BP to if you had two L-screens.”
Many players can put on a show in batting practice, of course. But how would a 21-year-old kid shouldering the hopes and dreams of a fan base starved for competitive baseball respond when the game actually began?
The hype and circumstance gave De La Cruz every reason to swing out of his shoes in his first career at-bat. It probably didn’t help that De La Cruz came to the plate with two runners on base and Cincy down by three. It was only the first inning, but you could understand an inclination to try to tie the game with one massive swing and start his career with a bang. Nearly the entire crowd was standing, cranking up the volume as EDLC settled into the box before sinking to an eerie, eager silence in the split second before each pitch from Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin.
Indeed, De La Cruz swung at Gonsolin’s first offering — a curveball low and in — with ferocious intent. Could you blame him? Strike one.
But what followed over the next five pitches was a demonstration not only of De La Cruz’s maturity as a player and a hitter, but an understanding of what his first career at-bat really meant. For as much as a player wants to make a strong impression in their first time in a big-league batter’s box, it’s the first at-bat, not the last. And for a player like EDLC, with such sky-high potential to become one of the game’s greats, he knows as well as anybody that there are many more at-bats — hundreds, thousands — to come. It didn’t all have to happen at once.
And so, De La Cruz spit on four breaking pitches nowhere near the zone and calmly took his base. The crowd of 22,602 erupted. OBP check: 1.000.
De La Cruz came out swinging in the third inning, unleashing vicious hacks at a center-cut fastball followed by a trademark Gonsolin splitter, quickly falling behind 0-2. Preying on the rookie’s apparent aggression, Gonsolin went with the tried-and-true method of throwing a heater well above the zone to get an over-eager De La Cruz to chase. In theory, Gonsolin succeeded in his mission: EDLC chased. The problem for Gonsolin? The 6-foot-5 De La Cruz can cover that with relative ease.
In an instant, the ball was on the warning track. Almost as quickly, De La Cruz was careening toward second base with ideas of advancing further. Had the ball not been hit so hard — 112 mph to be exact, the hardest-hit ball by a Reds batter all season — perhaps it wouldn’t have caromed off the center-field wall fast enough for Jason Heyward to get the ball back in so quickly. Alas, EDLC slammed on the brakes and settled on a double for his first career hit.
By De La Cruz’s third plate appearance, Gonsolin wanted nothing to do with the newcomer. A five-pitch walk ensued, with just a 3-0 fastball eased in for a harmless strike. Just as he had demonstrated earlier in the night — and over the last month in Triple-A — De La Cruz was willing to wait for his pitch.
His sixth inning showdown with Yency Almonte yielded a groundout to second base to end the inning. It was a disappointing result, especially with two runners on base, only De La Cruz still managed to show off with this otherwise uneventful 4-3 putout: its 108.7 mph exit velocity was the second-hardest hit ball by any hitter on either team all night behind only his own double in the third inning.
In his fifth and final plate appearance, De La Cruz battled for five pitches against reliever Evan Phillips before succumbing to a perfectly placed sweeper on the outer half for a backward K. Even on a night when De La Cruz was clearly locked in with his approach, sometimes the best pitchers in the world are going to win. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
While that strikeout looking closed the book on De La Cruz’s night at the plate, the game turned out to be far from over. A Dodgers bullpen that has been uncharacteristically shaky gradually bungled what was an 8-3 lead through four innings, including coughing up three runs in the bottom of the ninth in ugly fashion: walk, single, popout, walk, walk, hit by pitch, walk-off hit. The dramatic Reds comeback was capped off by a deep fly ball from the rookie McLain, who had spent the day in the literal shadow of De La Cruz while showing his good friend and infield mate the ropes on his first day in The Show.
Reds second baseman Jonathan India was on deck when McLain ended the ballgame. The 2021 NL Rookie of the Year figured his services wouldn’t be needed in the ninth.
“I told some people on deck he’s gonna win it,” India said of McLain after the game. “I wasn’t even swinging on deck. I had full faith in Matty to do that.”
Though McLain ended the day as the hero, everything about De La Cruz’s debut demanded respect. A player batting cleanup in their MLB debut is hardly common, with only a handful of players doing so this century, including future MVPs Kris Bryant, José Abreu and Justin Morneau. At 21 years and 146 days old, EDLC is younger than all of those three when they debuted, and the youngest debut cleanup hitter since Andrés Mora in 1976.
Furthermore, his spot in the order was reflected in how he was pitched. It wasn’t just the two walks; all three pitchers who faced De La Cruz registered their highest fastball velocities of the night against the young phenom: Gonsolin at 94.3 mph, Almonte at 97.2, and Phillips at 97.5.
All in all, De La Cruz’s arrival electrified and energized a ballpark that less than two months ago drew the smallest crowd in its 20-year history (7,375). Its renewed spirit and enthusiasm was felt not just during EDLC’s five plate appearances, but all throughout the epic ninth-inning comeback of which he wasn’t even involved.
As the elated, rejuvenated fans streamed out of Great American Ballpark on a Tuesday night in June, a raucous chorus of “Let’s Go Reds!” ensued.
“It was amazing,” India said. “Elly’s making his debut and brought a whole crowd with him. That’s pretty sick.”
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.