Ichiro and Rod Carew’s favorite player? How Luis Arraez is making batting average cool again

It hits, and it hits, and it hits, a seemingly endless parade of lashes to left field and peas down the chute and bolts fired to the right, and it all feels so easy, so natural, so elemental to Luis Arraez – as if he were playing a different game from the others. Just look at him: curled into the batter’s box, short and crouched, ready to roll out his compact swing – on pitches north and south, east and west, inside and outside the strike zone, fast , slow, and in between — and feather an unguarded square-foot practice line among the roughly 120,000 that make up a baseball field.

He might as well be a time traveler, sent here a century ago, when batting average was king and home runs were the domain of Babe Ruth and a legion of lesser. Arraez is as abnormal today as Ruth was then. In the hit or miss world of baseball, he is everything.

Everything that has happened in baseball during its seismic shift over the past two decades has conspired to rid the game of someone like Arraez – to overwhelm him with speed and spin, to position him defensively in oblivion, to address his lack of raw power, to punish him for not worshiping at the altar of the launch angle. And yet it remains – and, this year, thrives.

“I love hitting,” Arraez said, and for someone who makes a living swinging a baseball bat, that kind of statement shouldn’t come as a surprise, or seem out of place, or register as archaic, except it’s 2022, the league’s wide-batting average hovers around .240, and one in three plate appearances ends in a strikeout, walk, or home run. The base stroke is an anachronism.

That doesn’t make much sense to Arraez. He’s 25, in his fourth major league season and ninth in pro baseball, and he’s here because of the hits. He compiled them everywhere he went: as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League, where he batted .348 after signing as an amateur from Venezuela for $40,000; at 19 in Low-A, where it reached 0.347; as a 21-year-old player in two minor league affiliates, where he returned from a torn ACL that he thought would end his career and needed contact lenses to correct his vision and still managed to post an average of .310; and now in the majors, where his .320 career average is the highest for a player with at least 1,000 at-bats in his first four seasons since Ichiro Suzuki (.339) and Albert Pujols (.333) from 2001 to 2004.

“He doesn’t do it in a time when guys are pitching to contact,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s doing it in a time when the positioning is better. The pitching stuff is better. It’s harder to get hits today than ever. It can be frustrating. It’s not easy. And he simplifies it, even though it’s nothing simple in practice or theory.There’s no easy way to do what it does.

What Arraez does — and what he does better now than ever before — requires a combination of elite bat-to-ball skills, the ability to hit bad pitches, and a manic routine that supercharges both.

Hitting has always come naturally to Arraez. He started playing competitive baseball at age 8 and remembers hitting around .800. Although those garish numbers continued through his teenage years, he never found himself among seven- or even six-figure prospects because he looked like a Weeble and scouts had trouble projecting a position for him. He wasn’t mobile enough for shortstop, wasn’t powerful enough for first base. What he was, however, was an exceptional hitter with uncanny bat control.

Arraez, Baldelli said, has “gifted hand-eye coordination,” and his willingness to let balls travel deep into the area and send them into the opposite court is unparalleled. His 55 hits to center and left field this season rank only behind Boston’s Rafael Devers. Arraez almost never swings and misses, with the second-lowest hitting percentage, on just 3.3 percent of throws, next to Cleveland outfielder Steven Kwan.

Perhaps most impressive is how easily he turns throws outside the regulation strike zone into positive results. The league average on those batted balls is .167. Arraez is hitting .318 on non-strikes. Even with his knack for turning bad into good, Arraez’s ability to control the zone saw him walk more than he hit and lead the American League in .427 on-base percentage. The Venn diagram of patient hitters who strike out line drives with regularity only has a handful of names in the middle.

“That’s not a lot of people’s goal,” Baldelli said. “Even if we want to pretend that’s the case, it’s not. And even if they think that’s the goal, they’re not working on it. He’s always working with the goal of hitting a line somewhere. You don’t. “I don’t have to defend the whole court for most guys. When Luis Arraez gets to home plate, you have to defend every grain of grass on that pitch because he’s going to keep you honest.”

However, this success is new. Arraez attributes it to a self-optimizing tour last winter. He joined former teammate Nelson Cruz in the Dominican Republic in hopes of transforming his body and strengthening his legs. During their first practice, Arraez threw up. He adapted quickly and fell into a new schedule: hit 9am-noon, mash up a protein shake, lift weights, eat, take a nap, come back around sunset for more hits, sleep , repeat.

“[Cruz] work hard every day, no matter what,” Arraez said. “Having a bad day today?” Tomorrow is another day. I have two bad days, I go 0 for 8 — but tomorrow is another day. He taught me a lot about how I can live my life. How can I play hard. How I can do my routine every day. I’ve never worked the way I work now.”

Its seasonal patterns are not as intense. Every morning, Arraez wakes up, hugs his daughters Emma, ​​4, and Esther, 2, and watches videos – some from a recent vintage, some from 2016, when he won the batting title of the Midwest League. He goes to the stadium, lifts and then he hits, and he hits, and he hits.

“It reminds me a lot of the Michael Brantley routine,” Twins shortstop Carlos Correa said, comparing Arraez to his former teammate, the Astros veteran widely considered the epitome of a professional hitter and owner. a lifetime average of 0.298. “It’s a lot of starting work and drills. It’s line-to-line work. I’m not trying to lift it. Just try to hit line shots to the head of the shortstop . And it plays.”

Appraisers are struggling to find a suitable comparable for Arraez. He is Brantley but smaller. Jose Ramirez minus the power. Suzuki without the speed. For so long he has been seen through the prism of what he lacks that it is time to recognize what he adds.

Just as baseball cultivated a generation of players to hit the ball hard through the air, it should celebrate those for whom strikeouts represent embarrassment and hits — of all kinds — embody success. Which begs the question: if what Arraez is doing is so good for the game, why aren’t there more players like him?

Arraez’s season shows there’s room for hitters who aren’t obsessed with outing speed and whose emphasis on contact defines their baseball being. But they’re not going to replicate his success. There is no secret sauce to creating players of his ilk. Even though he works, Arraez admits that sometimes hitters are just born.

That’s why his fan club is populated not only by those who can appreciate what an extremely gifted hitter looks like, but also by those whose plate supremacy propelled them to the Hall of Fame. His biggest boosters include Twins legend Rod Carew, winner of seven batting titles, owner of a .328 lifetime average and, as Arraez recently learned, Suzuki, who made Arraez his favorite left-handed hitter. in baseball today. Neither Carew nor Suzuki praise willy-nilly. Their seals of approval say as much as Arraez’s numbers.

“He’s a great player,” Correa said. “He wants to be known. He wants people to know how good he really is.”

Swing by swing, they’re starting to recognize it, whether it’s via multi-hit games — his 24 this season ranks first behind Seattle first baseman Ty France for most of the league — or big hits , like his recent home run. a change from Gerrit Cole. They admire the perfectionism they see when Arraez talks himself down after swinging and missing. They sense the pleasure Arraez exudes, the same kind Baldelli noticed during spring training in his first season as Twins manager in 2019.

“It was about the relentless approach he took in everything he did, but also about a joy factor that he takes with him wherever he goes,” Baldelli said. “That’s what he brings when he walks into the stadium every day, and when he walks out you get the same human being.”

That’s ever-present with Arraez — he landed at first base this season after spending previous seasons at second and in the outfield, and he relishes the challenge of being undersized in the field — but clearest when he talks about hitting. He is a student and practitioner. Being the best is his only satisfying option.

“I want to win the batting title this year,” Arraez said.

With that, the accolades will come: reputation juice, All-Star appearance, money. The game comes and goes and at some point – next year when is the change likely to be banned? – will bring the batting average back to a leading position.

Arraez is just ahead of the curve. Fewer strikeouts. More balls in play. Line workouts. Skilled drummer. There is a place for that in modern baseball, a central place worthy of reverence. For all-or-nothing fanatics, take it. The rest of us will get Luis Arraez and be grateful.

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