Contact Kingmaker: Arraez to the Throne
This past Thursday, in a marathon game, Luis Arraez hit three-for-seven. Unfortunately for Arraez, this lowered his batting average to .449. In his first 67 Plate Appearances in Major League Baseball, Arraez is hitting .411/.493/.518 with 1 HR, 1 SB, and a 10:4 BB:K ratio. No, that’s not a typo: He’s walked more than twice as much as he has struck out. In just 20 games, Arraez has already earned 0.8 WAR, and is having one of the best rookie debuts in recent memory. Which leads us to the obvious question: Uh, who is this guy? A hitting wizard, that’s who.
The Swings and Arraez of Outrageous Fortune
|MLB Rank (out of 421)||1st||4th||81st||178th||5th||36th|
I know, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that over his first 67 major league plate appearances, Arraez has been awesome so far. And of course he’s benefited from luck, because nobody shows up to the majors and produces Ted Williams-esque results without plenty of good fortune. But the point here is that once luck is stripped away, he still looks like a darn good hitter. He doesn’t even need to hit at a double-digit homer pace, and he could still be a top-75 hitter if he can continue to hit over .310.
It’s not just important to get the bat on the ball, but also to make good quality contact, which is why Statcast devised the metric Sweet Spot% (SwSp%), which measures rate of hitting balls at the ideal launch angle, between 8 and 32 degrees. Arraez ranks fourth-best in baseball there with a 45% SwSp%, and his Line Drive rate of 41% leads the majors. Also, interestingly Arraez leads the league in hitting the ball to the opposite field with a 42% Oppo%, which in a era of frequent shifts, may or may not be relevant to his success.
Then again, paraphrasing an early godfather of Sabermetrics “Anything can happen in 60 At-Bats.” Even if his results thus far have been good, is he displaying skills that suggest good odds at continued success? That’s where per-pitch metrics come in handy. He has the second-best contact rate in baseball (93%), and he has the second best swinging strike rate (3.0%) the second-best contact rate in baseball. You may wonder, “Well who is first?” That would be David Fletcher.
So, why should we even care? Sure, Fletcher has been surprisingly solid, but you may wonder why, in a time when 2019 is on pace to demolish the season record for home runs, I’m spilling digital ink on players who probably don’t even have double digit power. The reason for that is that this may very well be the best time in baseball history to be a high-contact hitter. Just by making a ton of contact and letting the “enhanced” balls do the rest, we’ve already seen surprisingly strong seasons not just from Fletcher, but Tommy LaStella and Eric Sogard as well, even though they’re still anything but Statcast darlings. Plus, in a time where the launch angle revolution has led to less contact than ever, let’s face it, it’s always more fun to root for the little guy.
Vying for the Contact Throne
Back in late April, I wrote an article about what seemed to be an imminent breakout of a 25-year-old scrappy utility guy named David Fletcher. I noted at the time that unlike the far more popular Willians Astudillo, this year Fletcher managed to marry his incredibly high contact rate with a low rate of swinging at bad off-the-plate pitches (O-Swing%). Arraez has employed a very similar approach with very early per-pitch rates as Fletcher.
Granted, this comparison is a bit unfair, because Fletcher has sustained these elite contact rates for longer, and when I originally wrote up Fletcher in April, when he had the same sample size as Arraez, he was toting a superior 21% O-Swing%, 97% Contact%, and 98% Z-Contact, with an insane 1.1% Swstr%. But the point remains that Fletcher and Arraez are very similar hitters on an extreme end of the contact spectrum. The thing with extreme stats is that given a larger sample size, they tend to normalize. Over a full season it’s entirely possible his numbers could regress much like Fletcher’s have, and he’d still be a valuable asset. But there are a few aspects about Arraez’s profile that give me hope he can be better than Fletcher.
One thing Arraez has shown he can do that Fletcher can’t is swing selectivity. While Arraez spits on balls off the plate just like Fletcher, he’s more aggressive when the ball is in the zone with a 60% swing rate when the balls in the zone. This ensures he doesn’t swing at too many bad pitches (see Willians Astudillo) but also doesn’t allow too many strikes looking (See David Fletcher). It’s quite rare to see a hitter arrive in the majors with this level of discipline, especially one who couldn’t legally drink on last season’s Opening Day. This also helps explain why Arraez is capable of putting up a higher walk rate than Fletcher; pitchers know that if they throw in the zone, Arraez will probably swing, and will probably make contact. Which brings us to what happens when contact is made.
|SwSp%||LA||eV (mph)||FB/LD eV (mph)||Barrel%||Hard%||Soft%|
As I mentioned earlier, so far Arraez has not only been great at quantity of contact, but also at maximizing quality. Sure, he’s no Joey Gallo, but he hits the ball harder than Fletcher and at an ideal angle for a high-percentage of hits.
As far as fantasy baseball is concerned, there is one area where Fletcher outperforms Arraez, and that is in running. Arraez isn’t a base-clogger, but he’s squarely league average at 26.9 ft/sec, whereas Fletcher is above average at 27.7 ft/sec. That may not seem like a big difference, but the best base-stealers tied with Arraez are Andrelton Simmons and Rafael Devers, whereas Fletcher is tied with Jonathan Villar and Mookie Betts (although they’re not wowing in SBs this year either). He also doesn’t have a history of running much in the minors, with his 10 SB in 2014 Rookie ball being his highest total. Arraez is a man that just wants to hit.
However, for a relatively short and squat player (he’s no Astudillo) who is not particularly nimble, he’s a surprisingly cromulent defender. He’s been primarily a second baseman but has already played major league games at 2B, 3B, SS and OF, positions he also had plenty of experience cycling around at throughout the minors.
Background: Born With a Silver Slugger Spoon
Arraez has been playing baseball since he was just three years old, as he grew up in Venezuela with a baseball diamond in his backyard, where his father had young Luis practice hitting with a ball tied to a mango tree. His dad tried to teach him to hit right-handed, but he resisted, though this enabled him to be a switch hitter for some time before deciding to only hit lefty early in his career. He represented Venezuela in the Little League World Series in Cuba at just nine years old. Franklin Perez, Luis’s childhood friend and Detroit Tigers pitching prospect once said, “Arráez has always been a good hitter. Luis has always had the same swing, the same desire to play. He is a hitting machine.”
Indeed, although Arraez has never been a top prospect, he has a healthy minor league track record to back him up. Arraez was signed out of Venezuela by the Twins way back in the 2013, when he was just 16 years old while kids his age were watching Vines of the Harlem Shake. And right away, he started hitting .348/.433/.400 with 10 SB and a walk rate (12%) that nearly doubled his K rate (7%). So you may wonder why he was made to repeat the level in 2015. See, the only problem was that he had literally zero home run power, as he didn’t leave the yard at all until 2016, when he hit three homers for High-A before tearing his ACL in 2017. He has yet to top three homers in any year, but what he has done has hit over .300 with a K% under 10% every single year of his minor league career, and in 2018 hit .310/.361/.397 between High-A and Double-A with 32 walks and 44 strikeouts in 406 at-bats. While this was hardly noticed in a prospect world dominated by sluggers like Yordan Alvarez, this preseason, prospect guru John Sickels rated him a B-, noting the aggressive grade is due to belief that power will come despite current lack of much speed or power. He also called him a “professional hitter type with a career .329 average; reliable defender being groomed as super-utility type”.
In Triple-A this year, the now 22-year-old’s high-average, low-power approach continued with a .348/.397/.409 line with 0 HR in 73 ABs, but one number stuck out: His strikeout rate was only 2.7%, which even for Arraez, even for a smallish sample size, was certainly an outlier. It’s not uncommon for scrappy hitter types to hit below a 10% K%, but under 5% is a rarity even for the most polished hitters, and that much contact indicates good outcomes even without power. But not all hitters can carry that kind of success over to the majors, where today’s MLB pitchers throw harder and generate more whiffs than ever before. Take Nicky Lopez for example, whose MLB call-up generated plenty of buzz after hitting .353/.457/.500 with a 15% BB% and 4% K% in Triple-A, immediately earning a spot in the two-hole for the rebuilding Royals. But in the big show, the 25-year-old has only hit .244/.287/.327 with 1 HR and a practically-reversed 5% BB% and 16% K%, with a pedestrian 88% Zone Contact Rate (84% Overall) and a 8% Swinging Strike Rate (SwStr%). Meanwhile Arraez is several years his junior but translating his minors success and then some. It’s still early, but it’s a great early indicator of MLB success.
His minor league numbers do suggest that his majors debut may be getting lucky in one regard: line drives. That’s not really surprising, as Arraez’s current rate of 38% line leads the MLB so regression seems obvious, but it’s worth noting that the highest LD% he posted in a full minors season was 28% in 2018 and it was 18% before his call-up this year. If he converts some of those line drives to fly balls, his profile would look surprisingly similar to Tommy La Stella. That’s probably not such a bad thing.
Most teams could really use a player like Arraez, capable of playing good defense at multiple positions while also being strong offensively. Unfortunately, he is on the Minnesota Twins, who already have at least two players who fit that bill in Marwin Gonzalez and Willians Astudillo. And that’s not even counting Ehire Adrianza, the utility infielder who was doing quite well before his injury resulted in Arraez’s call-up in the first place. Now with Byron Buxton and Marwin just being activated from the IL, the Twins infield is more clogged than a Dutch Klompen dance. Nelson Cruz is taking up the DH spot, while Jonathan Schoop and Jorge Polanco providing strong production up the middle (Polanco moreso), it’s rather hard to find room for Arraez in the lineup and on the field. Seeing as Marwin’s 2019 production is looking much more like his disappointing 2018 than his excellent 2017, it’s possible Arraez flat out overtakes Gonzalez as the primary utility guy, but he’d still likely cede at least some playing time to Marwin and Astudillo. Miguel Sano could be the one to lose more playing time if he can’t correct his 40% K% rate that negates the value of his power. Or perhaps the one in the hot seat is Schoop, who took a whole season to amass 0.9 WAR, since he is mediocre defensively, has a terrible walk rate and is suddenly slumping.
Now that July is upon us and the trade deadline looms, the answer may involve Arraez being dealt to another team… but I doubt it. Sure, the Twins know that his trade value is quite high and they still have some notable weaknesses in their rotation and bullpen after missing out on Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel. However, a contending team should think twice about trading such a hot hitter, and it’s possible the Twins brass believes in Arraez enough that they’ll trade other pieces to make room. Or perhaps they just send Arraez back down to the minors to ensure he continues to play until they work something out, especially seeing as he does still have three options remaining. Ultimately we won’t know until it happens.
But although it may mean nothing, this past Sunday Arraez was not only still in the lineup, but in the leadoff slot. And when you think about it, it makes total sense. He’s arguably the only hitter in the Twins’ lineup with with both high batting average ability and high on-base ability to have the best odds of giving their sluggers someone to drive in. While the odds of a still virtually unknown player hitting at the top of the order for one of the most feared lineups in baseball seems unlikely, the payoff if it continues could be huge.
Arraez is still only owned in just 1.2% of ESPN leagues, less than the ownership of players like Eric Thames, David Bote, and Tommy Edman. Even with the uncertainty of his playing time situation, I believe the playoff contender will follow the production so Arraez will continue to play if he keeps hitting. And based on his combination of elite contact, elite discipline and good contact quality, I think that’s a smart bet. Arraez a surefire add in 18-team leagues in which he is still unowned, and a strong speculative pickup in 15-team leagues. I’ll even go so far to say that going forward, if he can garner regular playing time atop the Minnesota lineup, he’s a viable 12-team stream for AVG and OBP as well, especially as he just gained OF eligibility. In the future he could continue to build a little bit more power by trading off grounders for more fly balls (see Tommy La Stella), and there should continue to be plenty more hits in the 22-year old’s future on his quest to rule the contact kingdom.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)