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Luis Arráez’s Throwback Skillset No Longer Valued in Modern MLB

June 7th, 2024

Exhibit A in the hitting malaise that’s infected Major League Baseball this season is Luis Arráez of the San Diego Padres.

The league as a whole is hitting at a near-record low of .240. Arráez, meanwhile, is stroking along at .374 since coming to San Diego in a May 4 trade with the Miami Marlins.

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He leads the National League by a wide margin with a .335 batting average. Jurickson Profar, his San Diego teammate, trails him by 12 points, and Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers is 17 points behind him.

It’s still early in the season, but Arráez has a chance to win his third consecutive batting title playing for his third team in three seasons, which is unprecedented.

“Baseball doesn’t value what he does anymore,” Los Angeles Angels manager Ron Washington said. “And you know why? Because he doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark. It’s just ridiculous. This guy can hit, can outright hit.”

To Washington’s point, Arráez has only hit one homer and 17 RBIs this season hitting leadoff in the Miami and San Diego lineups. He’s walked 11 times and struck out 16 times in a league-leading 260 at bats. The walks are replaced by 87 hits, which leads MLB. He’s a contact hitter who uses all fields, the anthesis of the modern hitter built out of analytics.

“I don’t care about hitting homers,” Arráez said. “My game is to get on base and score a lot of runs. Baseball is hard. That’s why everybody is hitting .240 right now. They try to hit a lot of homers. That’s not me. That’s not what I do.”

Guys get paid to hit the long ball. Consequently, Arráez is making $10.6 million this season, well below Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, who is earning $40 million a season to hit for average and power.

Playing for the Minnesota Twins in 2022, Arráez spoiled Judge’s run at the American League Triple Crown, beating him for the league’s top batting average, .316 to .311. That was the year Judge hit 62 homers to break Roger Maris’ AL record and drove in 131 runs. Arráez’s performance earned him a trip to Miami where, last year, he batted .354 to lead the NL.

Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said he highly values what Arráez does. “I’d take a guy like him in my lineup in a minute,” he said.

Lovullo seems to be the exception to the rule despite the fact that Arráez may be the best bargain in baseball. In the deal with the Padres, the Marlins are paying almost his entire salary this season, save for $588,744, the prorated portion of the league minimum of $740,000 at the time of the trade.

He’s arbitration-eligible again next season before becoming a free agent in 2026, so the Padres have him for another year unless they trade him this offseason.

MLB is in a steep offensive decline. If the overall league batting average for the 30 teams remains at .240, it will be the lowest since players batted .237 in 1968, the so-called year of the pitcher, when the leaguewide ERA was 2.98. It is 3.96 now.

The last time leaguewide hitting was this anemic, MLB lowered the mound from 15 to 10 inches after that 1968 season. Despite a myriad of rule changes during the past few seasons, there doesn’t seem to be any answer to the problem now.

Managers and baseball people interviewed over the past few weeks feel prospects aren’t being taught how to hit in the minor leagues, and thus by the time they reach the bigs, it’s too late to make major adjustments.

Instead, prospects are guided by launch angle—how to swing the bat in an upward trajectory—and exit velocity, i.e. how hard a ball is hit even if it’s an out. That leads to the penchant of hitting homers, taking walks and striking out.

“In the game of baseball things trickle up from the amateur level,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said. “It’s a monetization of the game with coaches teaching to get these numbers that are rewarded. It was at least a decade ago when I started noticing the decline of hits in favor of home runs and walks.”

“The industry changed,” Miami manager Skip Schumaker said. “They pay for slugging.”

There’s little value placed on hitting a single, although a single and a walk produce the same thing—a runner on first base. Of course, unless the bases are loaded, notching a single with runners on base has much greater value than a walk because it can produce runs. But that’s old-school thinking, according to Tony Gwynn Jr. The intensity pitchers throw on every pitch nowadays is part of it, but not all of it.

“Even if pitchers didn’t try to add more velocity,” Gwynn Jr. said, “pitching at the top of the zone for swing paths that are down there, those upper cuts because of launch angle wouldn’t be successful at 92 miles-per-hour up there. Hitters can’t get to the ball.”

Exhibit B is Corbin Carroll, who hit .285 for the Arizona Diamondbacks last year and was voted NL Rookie of the Year. This season he’s been struggling like a lot of once-competent hitters with a .201 batting average despite three hits Thursday night at San Diego in 4-3 D-backs win. Pitchers have found Carroll’s weak spot as a left-handed hitter: high and tight fastballs.

Carroll has tried to adjust by leveling out his swing, but that hasn’t worked. He’s being choked by that pitch, and he continues to try and beat it.

Lovullo has the answer. “Just don’t swing,” he said. Easier said than done.

Gwynn, now a radio voice for the Padres, played in MLB in the wake of his famous father, who led the NL in hitting eight times, all for San Diego, on the way to 3,141 hits in his 20-year career and a spot in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Arráez and the late Gwynn Sr.—both left-handed hitters—have been compared incessantly since Arráez’s arrival in San Diego; the two have comparable numbers for the first few years of their careers. It remains to be seen whether Arráez can maintain Gwynn’s pace.

Gwynn retired in 2001 with a .338 career batting average, the highest since Ted Williams called it quits at .344 in 1960. Gwynn earned $47.2 million from the Padres in that era. Comparably, Barry Bonds, the all-time leader with 762 homers, was paid $188.3 million by the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants in his 22 seasons from 1986-2007.

It begs this question: If Arráez isn’t valued now, how would Gwynn be appreciated by baseball ops types in this era? And for that matter, what about fellow Hall of Famers Rod Carew, Wade Boggs and George Brett, whose hitting for average was a huge part of their arsenal?

Add soon-to-be Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, who’s on the writer’s ballot for the first time this year, to that group. Ichiro had two batting titles and 117 homers, and is considered a shoo-in for the Class of 2025 when voting begins later in the year. Would he even be Ichiro in today’s game?

“I’d hope we would’ve found some way of valuing them,” said Giants manager Bob Melvin, a backup catcher during Gwynn’s era from 1982-2001, when steroids produced a multitude of power hitters.

Perhaps, but not likely. Gwynn, Carew and Boggs combined for 20 batting titles, but only 345 homers.

Gwynn publicly called himself a “Punch and Judy” hitter and appropriately was seated for Hall of Fame-only dinners in Cooperstown, N.Y., with other such light power hitters as shortstop Ozzie Smith (28 homers) and the late pitcher Bob Gibson (24 homers). Gwynn actually thought his 135 career homers might keep him out of the Hall. Nonetheless, he was elected in 2007 on the first ballot along with Cal Ripken Jr.; Gwynn earned 97.6% of the vote.

“That’s what got me thinking maybe we need to pay attention a little more,” Gwynn Jr. said. “At that time in baseball history, that kind of hitting may not have been valued as much as it should have been, but it was sure valued a lot higher than it is now.”

It makes one wonder what the future Hall chances are for Arráez if he keeps up this pace. He has 25 career homers early in his sixth season; Gwynn had 33 during the same period.

But that’s the future. As for now, even Arráez knows he’s undervalued.

“People say Arráez can’t play defense, he can’t hit for power,” he said. “But that’s not a big thing to me. I come to the ballpark every day and play hard and do the little things to win. That’s why I’m here in San Diego.”

He’d like to stay, but recent history may dictate how that will go.

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