The most fun part of watching sports — getting invested in narratives and engaged in (hopefully) good-natured arguments about what could be or might have been — is absent from gambling on the games themselves, which makes gambling on games a decidedly simpler endeavor.
Wagers are made, the winning bets are paid out and losing bets are denoted with the $0.00. There’s no debating the bottom line.
The futures market, though? Sometimes the narratives and what-ifs sneak their way in there — as is happening right now with Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz vaulting himself into the National League Rookie of the Year race.
Over the last 12 days — a span in which Cruz is hitting .250 with one homer, eight RBIs, no walks and eight strikeouts in 32 at-bats for the Pirates — the 23-year-old has gone from a +1300 longshot at BetMGM to the favorite at +375.
Of course, these are not just any eight games for Cruz. They’re the first eight games of the season for the hotly hyped prospect, who was kept on the farm by the ever-frugal Pirates until the deadline for “Super Two” eligibility was long in the rearview mirror.
While spending the first two-plus months of the season in the minor leagues isn’t the best way to win the Rookie of the Year, no favorite was established while Cruz was toiling in the American Association, which gives him — as well as a couple fellow June arrivals — a chance at earning the once-in-a-career award.
And the routine-looking batting line does not even begin to explain why Cruz is eliciting such interest from futures bettors and just about everyone else with even a casual interest in baseball.
The one homer Cruz has this season? He hit it last night and it was measured at 109.8 mph off the bat as it traveled 409 feet on a frozen rope into the right-centerfield seats at Nationals Park.
Those eight RBIs? He collected four in his season debut, which, as Jayson Stark of The Athletic noted, actually gave him RBIs in three straight games because Cruz recorded an RBI apiece in his first two big league games last October. Cruz is just the third player ever, and the first shortstop, to open his career by collecting at least one RBI in each of his first three games.
His second career hit was measured off the bat at 118.2 mph, the hardest hit by a Pirates player since the Statcast era began in 2015. Cruz, the tallest player to ever start a game at shortstop at 6-foot-7, can give the radar gun a workout with his arm, too: In his season debut on June 21, Cruz hit 96.7 mph with one of his assists — the hardest-thrown ball by an infielder this season and more than two mph faster than the average fastball thrown that night by Pirates starter JT Brubaker.
For as much intrigue as Cruz has already added to the NL Rookie of the Year race, he elicits even more excitement for what he could represent long-term for the perpetually rebuilding Pirates. At 29-44, Pittsburgh is well on its way to a fourth straight losing season. But the organization began this year with six of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects as well as Ke’Bryan Hayes, who used up his rookie eligibility in 2021.
While Pirates fans are long accustomed to the rug being pulled out from under them by thrifty owner Bob Nutting, it’s also easy to envision Cruz serving as the centerpiece of the team that has a real chance to end one of the longest World Series and championship droughts in the sport.
The Pirates haven’t made the World Series since the “We Are Family” bunch won it all in 1979. Only four teams — the Cleveland Guardians, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers — have gone longer without winning a championship.
And only the Mariners, founded in 1976 and still seeking their first pennant, haven’t played in a World Series since the Pirates’ most recent appearance. (Put another way: All four expansion teams to join the league in the 1990s have made the World Series at least once) But despite not making the postseason since 2001, the Mariners have won 15 playoff games in the wild card era, 12 more than Pittsburgh.
It’ll be at least 16 months before Cruz gets to play in October. But the next few months will be fun to watch as he goes viral and tries to make a bit of history by becoming just the second Pirates player to win the Rookie of the Year and the first since Jason Bay in 2004.
Here are some of the players likely to compete with Cruz for the Rookie of the Year honors with their odds at BetMGM as of this morning.
CF Michael Harris, Braves (+450): Another midseason arrival, Harris has hit .330 with an OPS+ of 138 while playing terrific defense in centerfield for the Braves, who are an NL-best 20-8 since Harris was promoted on May 28.
P MacKenzie Gore, Padres (+450): The wizened veteran of this group, Gore made his season debut way back on Apr. 15. Gore entered this month as the frontrunner for the award but fell back to the pack by giving up 14 runs while issuing seven walks and recording just four strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings in consecutive starts against the Colorado Rockies from June 11-17.
2B Nolan Gorman, Cardinals (+475): Gorman is hitting just .254 since his debut May 20, but he has 11 extra-base hits and 17 RBIs in 118 at-bats for the Cardinals, who were four games behind the Milwaukee Brewers upon his promotion but have gone 22-16 since then to move within a half-game of first place.
P Spencer Strider, Braves (+550): Strider began the season with the Braves, but his candidacy has been enhanced by a move to the rotation this month, The right-hander is 2-0 with a 3.24 ERA and has allowed more than two runs just once in five starts while posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 35/9 over 25 innings.