Arraez is hip to be square (as a hitter)

May 20th, 2024

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Padres infielder comes in last -- last! -- in bat speed of 221 qualified hitters on Statcast’s new bat-tracking data leaderboard, because he swings the slowest stick of anyone in the land. At just 62.5 mph, he’s 10 mph below the Major League average, and nearly 20 mph behind the fastest bats atop the leaderboard. He started a swing when you started reading this paragraph. It’s not finished yet.

Of course, Arraez is also the two-time defending batting average champion. He was being referred to as “the 21st-century Tony Gwynn” even before the May 4 trade that brought him to Gwynn’s Padres -- a team for whom he’s struck out just twice in the 10 games since he’s joined them. “Dude is a wizard,” San Diego outfielder Jackson Merrill told the Union-Tribune, in awe of his new teammate’s bat control.

The takeaway here is easy, then: Another new Statcast metric, another way that advanced stats don’t respect the best bat-to-ball hitter of his generation, right? Just like how his Baseball Savant page is full of blue (i.e., bad), because he doesn’t hit the ball hard, or run fast, or field well, right?

Not exactly. This group of metrics also comes with a way to quantify what you already probably knew: No one in baseball squares up a ball as well as Arraez does. He might “only” be a one-tool player, but it’s the tool that matters the most of any of them, and he might well be the best in the world at it.

Allow us, then, to show you the Statcast leaderboard that Arraez is at the top of. Bask in the knowledge that you already knew that no one squared up the ball like Arraez did, and now the numbers completely support you in that. This is where Statcast doesn’t hate Luis Arraez. It’s where it absolutely loves him. (Stats used in this story were as of Friday morning)

Squared-up rate leaders (per swing), 2024

44% -- Arraez
40% -- Nicky Lopez
39% -- Nolan Schanuel
39% -- Mookie Betts
37% -- Jung Hoo Lee
37% -- Juan Soto
37% -- Brendan Donovan
37% -- Nico Hoerner

There should be two takeaways from that leaderboard, really. The first is: Here’s a way to put some love on the contact hitters of the game, and Arraez is the best of them. The second isn’t related to Arraez at all, but is impossible to skip past: Soto is a contact hitter with a top-10 bat speed.

What does that mean? Exactly what you think it does.

In order for a ball to be ‘squared up,’ a hitter must attain at least 80% of the possible exit velocity available to that swing, given the speed of the swing and, to a lesser extent, the pitch. You can’t do that off the tip of the bat. You can’t do it if you’re jammed on the hands. You can really only do it if you’re getting the fat part of the bat onto the ball -- even if, as in Arraez’s case, that’s without elite swing speed. (The version of squared-up that does require excellent swing speed is called “Blasts,” and that’s currently led by William Contreras, ahead of Soto and Shohei Ohtani.)

For Arraez, what it means is that he’s getting the most out of his limited bat speed, and by the laws of physics, that essentially requires making contact with the sweet spot of the bat. Ninety-six different times this year, Arraez has made contact with a ball that Statcast defines as at least 80% squared-up. While that raw total rotates on a daily basis with Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien as the most in the game, it’s the most on a rate basis, which is to say: When Arraez chooses to swing, he is more likely than anyone to square it up.

Arraez doesn’t have the fastest swing; he has the slowest. He doesn’t have the longest swing; he has the shortest. He doesn’t run well (30th percentile in speed), or field well (1st percentile in Outs Above Average), and he certainly doesn’t hit the ball hard.

He just does this one thing, over and over and over, so well, better than absolutely anyone else alive, squaring up the ball on nearly half of his swings, better than any other hitter. Arraez is a one-tool player. That’s not an insult. It’s a compliment.