Offense is down significantly across MLB this year, due to a number of reasons that include the unjuiced baseball, ever-increasing pitcher velocities, the use of baseball-storing humidors by all 30 teams, spring training getting shortened by the lockout and unusually cold early. -season weather. Opinions vary on which of the reasons have had the largest impact, but the end result is undeniable.
American League teams have averaged just 3.9 runs per game, the lowest total since 1972, the season before MLB boosted offense by creating the designated hitter. AL-wide scoring is down 14 percent compared to 2021 and 19 percent compared to 2019. Homers have vanished, declining by 24 percent compared to 2021 and 33 percent compared to 2019. It’s become a new dead ball era.
The league-wide batting average is just .234, the second-lowest mark in AL history ahead of only 1968, commonly known as The Year of the Pitcher, after which MLB lowered the mound to increase offense. It’s been roughly 30 years since it was harder to hit a homer and about 50 years since it was harder to get a hit, period.
All of which brings us to Twins line-drive machine Luis Arraez, who seems to be enjoying himself just fine in the new dead ball era.
Arraez has never had a season with more than four home runs, in the majors or the minors, so the sudden disappearance of long balls merely evens the playing field by causing the rest of the league to play a game more resembling his own. So far the rest of the league isn’t particularly good at it, as evidenced by the .234 batting average, but Arraez is absolutely thriving.
Arraez is hitting .336 with a .437 on-base percentage and more than twice as many walks (18) as strikeouts (8) in 33 games. He has MLB’s lowest strikeout rate, two full percentage points ahead of any other hitter, whiffing in just 6.3 percent of his plate appearances at a time when the league-wide mark is 22.3 percent. He has MLB’s best strikeout-to-walk ratio by an even wider margin.
He’s on fire since returning from the COVID-19 injured list on May 12, going 14-for-33 (.412) with nine walks versus just two strikeouts in 10 games, getting on base at a .545 clip. Arraez had three singles in Sunday’s dramatic, comeback win in Kansas City, and the Royals needed help from the home-plate umpire to get him out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning. He’s locked in.
3 Arraez_21 called his own number last night
– Minnesota Twins (wTwins) May 22, 2022
His raw numbers (.336 AVG, .848 OPS) look very similar to his rookie season (.334 AVG, .838 OPS), suggesting this is nothing new for Arraez. And it’s not, really. He’s playing the same game he always has, but the difference is the MLB-wide run-scoring environment has undergone a drastic change, leaving contact-driven singles hitters like Arraez looking even better by comparison.
Arraez’s .848 OPS is 172 points better than the AL average this season. As a rookie in 2019, his .838 OPS was 76 points better than the league average. His raw stats may look the same, but the context in which they were produced has changed so much that Arraez’s performance can be seen in a new light. He has a 155 OPS + this season, compared to 124 in 2019 and 118 for his career.
Arraez has never hit many long fly balls, so the fact that a deadened baseball is leading to warning-track outs instead of three-run homers has very little effect on his game. And while many hitters are struggling to make consistent contact against a never-ending procession of relievers with high-90s fastballs, Arraez’s plate discipline, strike-zone control and contact rates are better than ever.
He was born to play in this environment, perhaps more so than any other hitter in baseball today.
One thing that has changed for Arraez is his role. Primarily a second baseman in the minors, Arraez debuted there for the Twins in mid-2019 but has moved down the defensive spectrum since then, sliding from second base to third base to left field to first base, where he’s seen most of his action since. Miguel Sanó’s knee injury last month.
As a singles hitter generously listed at 5-foot-10, he looks very out of place at a position that’s long been home to hulking sluggers, but Arraez’s production has no such issues. He’s outhitting the average AL first baseman by 158 points of OPS and he’s looked perfectly capable there defensively despite learning a new position on the fly.
Today was a good day! I celebrated my third anniversary in MLB and got my 300th career hit. Thank God for all your blessings pic.twitter.com/ayo5S9o6ZR
– Luis Arraez (Arraez_21) May 19, 2022
Arraez has also been platooned quite a bit this season, much to the dismay of fans who want to see him in the lineup as much as possible. At first glance it’s odd that a career .316 hitter isn’t an everyday player – and to be clear, there’s certainly a reasonable argument to be made that Arraez warrants more playing time – but there is a logical explanation for his part-time role .
Arraez is a career .334 hitter with an .830 OPS against right-handed pitchers, so naturally he starts every time the Twins face a righty. However, he’s a career .256 hitter with a .654 OPS against left-handed pitchers – including a lowly .295 slugging percentage and zero homers – so the Twins often bench Arraez when facing lefties, stacking the lineup with as many righty bats as possible. .
Citing his overall numbers as a reason Arraez deserves to play every day can be misleading because they’re aided by the Twins shielding him versus many left-handers who would otherwise diminish his overall numbers. Arraez has faced a right-hander in 75 percent of his career plate appearances, meaning the Twins have put him in unfavorable lefty-on-lefty matchups just a quarter of the time.
For context, consider that fellow left-handed hitter Joe Mauer faced lefties in 32 percent of his career plate appearances, or about 30 percent more lefty-on-lefty matchups than Arraez. Justin Morneau also faced 32 percent lefties in his career, while other prominent left-handed Twins hitters such as Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler, Corey Koskie and Denard Span are in the 28-30 percent range.
That might not seem like a huge difference, but it does change how a hitter’s overall numbers are perceived. Arraez is a lifetime .316 hitter while facing 75 percent righties and 25 percent lefties. If instead, he’d faced a 68/32 split like Mauer or Morneau, his career batting average would fall to .307. Obviously a .307 average is still great, but it shows the impact of role and matchups.
Arraez is a phenomenal hitter against righties and a mediocre hitter against lefties, and that’s why the Twins play him every game versus righties and part-time versus lefties. It’s also worth noting that manager Rocco Baldelli has often found high-leverage spots to deploy Arraez as a pinch hitter on days when he’s not in the starting lineup, turning him into a valuable weapon off the bench.
There’s nothing wrong with being a role player, especially when you’re as great at filling the role as Arraez. And at a time when the entire league is starved for offense, power is no longer as plentiful and contact versus flame-throwing arms is at a premium, Arraez’s old-school skill set is back in style, and in some ways, it’s never been more valuable. Baseball finally got on Arraez’s level.
(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff / Getty Images)