The MLB is the most quantifiable of all professional sports leagues. With the advancement of analytics and sabermetrics, almost every action on a baseball field can be assigned a value.
You can establish a leaderboard of which Center Fielder is the most effective when running to catch a ball to their back right (It’s Michael A. Taylor if you were curious) just as easily as you can establish who hits the shortest home runs by feet on average. (Myles Straw for this one) With the ability to quantify every action comes unique opportunities in data not provided in other sports.
And with that, you get anomalies. With anomalies, you get Minnesota Twins utility man Luis Arraez.
Arraez has appeared in three seasons for Minnesota, making his debut back in 2019. He has never played more than 130 games in an MLB season yet, handicapped by the shortened 2020 season as well as a variety of injuries in the 2021 campaign, but what he has done in his time in the big leagues deserves greater attention.
At first glance, his slash line, .313/.374/.403 reads as a mildly impressive one, that of a rather solid contact hitter. He’s outpaced the league average in OPS all three years, and that’s reflected in his career wRC+ of 113 per Fangraphs. All of that is certainly remarkably unremarkable.
Absolutely all of that has been done before and done better. What IS special about this utility player is the fascinating way in which he goes about being an above-average hitter. Luis Arraez is one of the most interesting players in baseball because his Baseball Savant profile looks like this.
Luis Arraez Hates Striking Out:
If you come away from this article with one piece of information, let it be this. Luis Arraez hates striking out. His SO% in the majors is an astounding 9.0%, which is only made to look more impressive when you look at the average numbers of everyone else. The MLB as a whole posted a collective SO% of 23.2% in 2021, meaning that during the span of Arraez’s career he has struck out 255% less than the average player in this past season.
Typically players who strikeout in the single-digit rates tend to walk minimally as well, reducing both of those numbers by way of lots of weak contact, but Arraez breaks the mold there too. He walks slightly above average, roughly 2% more than the typical player. Because of Arraez’s elite contact ability combined with a relatively solid eye, he’s approaching Juan Soto territory. When I say that I don’t mean in terms of talent, as clearly the gap between the two is massive, but instead in BB/K ratio.
Soto, known for his plate discipline, was the only player in the MLB to post a number north of one last year. He blew it out of the water too, with an astonishing 1.56 BB/K. Arraez only posted 479 PA in 2021, thus not reaching qualified status on the leaderboard, but if you adjust the range to BB/K ratio with a qualifier of at least 450 PA, Arraez comes in at second with a .90. Along with Arraez in the top five are Juan Soto, Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Santana, and Jose Ramirez. Among those four names, three of them (Soto, Santana, Ramirez rank within the top 10% of the league in walk rate, while Arraez is distantly behind, coming in the top 48%.
When you look at Arraez throughout his full career, the numbers are even more intriguing. Through 966 career PA Arraez has walked 87 times and struck out 88, good for a BB/K ratio of .99, an outstanding start to an intriguing career.
How He Does It:
What you’re looking at is Luis Arraez’s swing profile (right) as compared to the league average (left) based on the location of a pitch. What you’ll notice is that Arraez’s ability to lay off pitches outside off the plate (he’s a lefty) is miles ahead of league average. With the exception of outside at the knees where he swings 43% of the time (likely the location of chase pitches on two-strike counts), Arraez doesn’t lift the bat off his shoulder if he sees the pitch towing the strike zone outside.
What’s worth noting is that Arraez barely swings above league average in many pitch locations, instead of picking and choosing certain spots that work to his benefit. When he swings, he doesn’t miss. Among all players with at least 250 PA, Arraez is second only to the Angels’ David Fletcher in terms of Whiff%, with a 10.7%. If Arraez is swinging at something, he isn’t chasing ever. High Whiff% correlates with high K%, so it’s a fair estimate to make that Arraez’s ability to consistently make contact when he chooses to swing is what keeps his SO numbers so low.
The Twins utility guy is never one to try and do too much with a pitch, proven by 6 HR in the entirety of his career, and instead is a master in redirecting pitches. His batted ball data backs that up as well, directing the majority of balls hit in his career into either the central or opposite third of the field as opposed to pulling contact.
What that leads to is unpredictability for opposing teams and an inability to gameplan for Arraez’s offensive profile. In the 2021 season teams shifted against LHH 52.6% of the time, yet in the case of Arraez, that number drops dramatically down to 5.2%. Although the same size is limited, the shift does prove to be effective against Arraez on account of a lower wOBA when shifted on as opposed to non-shift situations, his ability to not develop a defined batted ball profile leaves opposing teams questioning how to game-plan for him.
It Isn’t Luck if You’re Good:
It’s important to recognize the relationship between shifting and BABIP to understand what makes Arraez effective too. These graphs (credit to baseballcloud.blog) showcase the league average BABIP over the last few seasons, and the relationship between shifts and BABIP becomes clear. The more shifting becomes the norm, the lower BABIP (especially groundball BABIP) decreases.
I’ll give you one guess about who is hitting at minimum .30 points above league average BABIP and a maximum of .50 in his three career seasons, a question that shouldn’t be too hard to answer. Arraez utilizes defensive positioning to his advantage, relying not on hard contact to get on base, but instead on, in the simplest terms “hitting it where they’re not”.
Arraez never hits the ball hard, never barrels it up, but always puts it into play and has a significantly better chance than most lefties to do something with weak contact. Not a single category of pitch does Arraez manage to even produce an average exit velocity above 90 MPH, but he just keeps getting on base.
If you look at David Fletcher’s profile on BaseballSavant you’ll notice that he brings a relatively similar profile to the table. Limited exit velo, no barrels, no whiffs, no K’s. He and Arraez are in that sense the same, two contact-driven infielders who rely on producing the bloop portion of the “bloop and a blast” adage.
What separates them is chase rate, something that proves to be so important that Arraez produces a BA nearly .20 points higher than Fletcher on a yearly basis with the only difference in their profiles being a 40% gap in chase rate. Arraez combines advanced plate discipline with elite contact skills to consistently produce.
One of the More Interesting Players:
This next line may come off as sounding “anti-analytics” which is assuredly not the point of this, but it remains true all the same. Luis Arraez succeeds at a high level albeit under the radar nearly entirely in spite of what modern conventions expect of a hitter. He never hits the ball hard, rarely elevates it, never pulls it. He’s the closest thing you can find to a mid-20th-century leadoff hitter in the modern MLB, and I’m convinced that’s what makes his game so fascinating. He’s not going to win any awards for his package of skills and will never produce enough power to OPS above .800 for a full season, but take a look at his 3.4 bWAR in 2021 which factors out to a 5.16 WAR/650 and you may have the makings of a player to keep your eye on for the 2022 season.
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images