Elly De La Cruz was relaxing with a group of teammates in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards on Monday when news broke that he had been named the National League Player of the Week after only his 17th game in the big leagues.
“What took you so long?” one of his teammates asked.
“Yeah,” another added, “Matt did it in his first week.”
The mock impatience, and comparisons to Matt McLain, his teammate and fellow rookie, underscored just how promising the Cincinnati Reds’ future — and their present — appear to be.
McLain, a 23-year-old infielder, had won the same honor as De La Cruz at the end of May after only his first full week of play. De La Cruz, 21, arrived 22 days later, and it took him less than three weeks to be named the best player in his league — at least for a week.
De La Cruz and McLain are part of an almost freakish Reds rookie class that also includes Spencer Steer, 25, who was the N.L. Rookie of the Month in May, and Andrew Abbott, 24, who was so successful in his first three big league starts this year that the Elias Sports Bureau had to go back to the introduction of the raised mound in 1893 to contextualize his achievement: He is the only pitcher to open a career with three scoreless starts of at least five innings each.
Abbott won again on Tuesday, in a start against the high-flying Baltimore Orioles, improving to 4-0 with a 1.21 earned run average, and the rollicking Reds are 43-38 through Thursday, only 19 wins short of last year’s total, and perhaps a full year ahead of schedule.
In all, 11 Reds have made their major league debuts this year, and 14 rookies have appeared in games. But the one who has drawn the most attention is De La Cruz, a lithe, 6-foot-5 infielder with jetpack speed and ball-denting power. He has barged his way into the league this month, forcing his way into conversations filled with superlatives and helping complete the transformation of the Reds from a team of promise into one of the most intriguing stories of the year.
“He’s just made a huge difference for our team,” said David Bell, the Reds’ manager.
With De La Cruz’s sudden impact, the Reds won 13 of his first 17 games, including a 12-game win streak that matched the franchise’s longest in the modern era, which had come in 1957.
Last year, the Reds lost 100 games, yet many expected to see some improvement. Few predicted this.
During his wild award-winning week, De La Cruz batted .440 with two homers and six extra-base hits. He slowed down some at the beginning of this week, but for those who had seen De La Cruz in spring training or at Class AAA Louisville, where he bashed 12 home runs and 11 doubles in only 38 games this year, not even a brief slump could quell expectations.
After De La Cruz became the first Red since Eric Davis in 1989 to hit for the cycle, Joey Votto, Cincinnati’s veteran first baseman, actually uttered the words “Mickey Mantle” to describe De La Cruz’s rare combination of speed and power for a switch hitter. Not discouraged by a few days in which De La Cruz did not get a hit, Votto promised plenty more eruptions of thump and sizzle.
“I’ve read books about Mickey Mantle, and I do know something about him,” Votto said on Tuesday in Baltimore. “I can’t really think of anyone else. Is he going to have Mickey’s career? Who knows? But he’s going to start hitting balls that they’ll say: ‘Does he have more power than Ohtani? Does he have more power than Aaron Judge, than Giancarlo Stanton?’ He will do that.”
Votto, who recently returned from shoulder surgery that short-circuited his 2022 season, played two games in Class AA Dayton last year during a rehabilitation stint. In one of them, according to Votto, De La Cruz hit a ball down the right field line, over the fences and onto the street, leaving witnesses aghast. Votto saw more of the same at Class AAA Louisville this year, and this month in the big leagues, too, noting that De La Cruz could adjust quickly when necessary.
But what immediately captures everyone’s attention, besides De La Cruz’s unusual height for an infielder, is his majesty on the basepaths.
“Just watching him move is different,” Votto said. “There’s almost nobody I’ve ever seen that moves like him at the height. The speed, the grace. Most of the runners of his caliber are not 6-5, and they’re not in baseball.”
McLain, who on Tuesday hit his sixth home run of the season, helping the Reds end a three-game losing streak after their 12-game heater, played alongside De La Cruz in Class AA and marveled at how he created extra-base hits with his swift footwork. Most notably, McLain said, in one game De La Cruz hesitated at second base on what appeared to be a double until the lead man on a two-man cutoff lobbed the relay. De La Cruz turned on the boosters and flew to third.
“When he is going for extra bases, it’s incredible,” said McLain, who was batting .316 through Wednesday and playing sure-handed defense.
Now De La Cruz is doing it all at the major league level with an element of flair and joy.
“One hundred percent,” De La Cruz, who is from the Dominican Republic, said through an interpreter. “I’m having fun as much as possible and enjoying every moment.”
De La Cruz grew up in Sabana Grande de Boya, the youngest of nine siblings, including his twin brother, Pedro, who is nearly a foot shorter than Elly at 5 feet 8 inches. The Reds signed De La Cruz at a tryout when they had gone to see another player. De La Cruz, skinny and eager, grabbed their attention and now seems almost apologetic about being the one who was picked.
“None of those guys were there to see me,” he said. “Eventually they asked me my name. Obviously, that’s not my choice that they picked me.”
The signing fit the strategic plans of Nick Krall, Cincinnati’s general manager, to build a more athletic roster. Some have noted that the Reds, along with the Orioles, whom they took two of three against in a fun three-game series this week, are better suited to succeed under baseball’s new rules, which emphasize athleticism over tactics. But Krall said the Reds had been seeking more speed and mobility under the old rules, too.
Their aggressive style has been infectious. Last week, they hosted 126,724 fans for their three-game series against Atlanta (the Braves won twice, with each of the three games decided by one run). It was the highest attendance for a three-game regular season series in the 21 years of the Great American Ball Park.
“It’s incredible,” Krall said. “Cincinnati has great fans, but we’ve never had that before. You see them engaging with this team. They’ve really taken to it.”
The Reds’ biggest concern is their starting pitching, which ranked 28th in the majors with a 5.31 E.R.A. through Wednesday.
Injuries have ravaged the staff, leaving the rookie Abbott as their ace and stopper. But the bullpen has been a salvation, anchored by Alexis Díaz, 26, who was 22 for 22 in save opportunities through Wednesday. He is the younger brother of Mets closer Edwin Díaz, but Alexis’s demeanor reminds at least one veteran teammate of a former Yankee, the great Mariano Rivera.
“I don’t want to jinx Alexis,” catcher Curt Casali said, “but he’s kind of flirting with that reputation. I don’t know if he had a heartbeat before, but he definitely doesn’t have one now.”
Most of these exciting young players went through the minor leagues together, and Krall believes the relationships and trust they built on the farm will help foster a winning formula in Cincinnati, adding to the optimism. The Reds qualified for the wild-card round of the playoffs in 2020, but they have not won a postseason series since 1995, before all these young players were born. Now they want more than just the weekly honors.
“It’s really just the start of everything that we’re trying to accomplish up here,” De La Cruz said.