Before launch angles and advanced analytics, baseball was the province of the legendary. Amazingly enough, De La Cruz has managed to make even the tracking stats wax poetic. On August 28, he threw Arizona Diamondback Corbin Carroll out from shallow centerfield as he tried to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park home run. De La Cruz’s relay throw was gunned at 99.7 mph. The week before, he ran from first base to home plate in under 10 seconds. Three of his first six career home runs traveled over 450 feet.
Late last month, I catch Votto on the phone before a Giants-Reds game. He played alongside De La Cruz on rehab trips to the Reds’ minor league affiliates in Dayton and Louisville. “He was hitting balls, both in-game and in practice, that were kind of breaking the rules of physics,” Votto tells me. “Then he would do stuff on the bases with his legs that you almost never see.”
I start listing off De La Cruz’s freakish feats, quoting exit velocities and the miles per hour of throws and runs. “The tools that we have to measure speed and arm strength and power off the bat, those are fine if you want to quantify things,” Votto says. “But this is a game that’s watched with our eyes, that’s tied to our emotions, that’s tied to our hopes and dreams.” For the 40-year-old first baseman, what most captivates him and what’s captured the imagination of the city of Cincinnati is “the energy, passion, and recklessness” with which the rookie plays. “I’m from Toronto, so I liken it to Vince Carter,” Votto continues. “I remember watching how reckless he played in terms of attacking the basket. You know, you could measure it and say, ‘Oh, he has a 42-inch vertical.’ But that doesn’t do you any good when he’s dunking over French centers.”
In 2018, the Reds spotted De La Cruz at the tryout for another Dominican shortstop prospect; no one expected the lanky kid to become a generational prospect. They signed him for just $65,000. (To put that number in context, the Reds had spent $16.75 million to lock up three international prospects the year before.) De La Cruz will make only $720,000 this year. It’s a ridiculous bargain for the Reds—and not just because of the way De La Cruz has performed on the field. Right before he got called up to the bigs, the Reds were getting outdrawn by the local soccer team, FC Cincinnati. But during their late June series against the Braves, they sold 126,700 tickets over three nights, breaking their three-game-series attendance record.