Arraez captures American League batting title

October 5th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Luis Arraez had only been in the big leagues for three months in 2019 when Terry Francona, longtime baseball man and manager of a division rival, issued an intentional walk to the youngster in an important situation and decreed after the game that he could already see that Arraez would, one day, win a batting title.

That time is now.

It was clear how badly Arraez wanted this from how the 25-year-old doggedly pushed to the end of the season despite being hampered by a tight and painful left hamstring for much of the second half, hobbling down the line with a noticeable limp as he vowed to finish the season strong -- and on the field. Whether he was on two good legs, one good leg, or somewhere in between, it didn’t matter in ‘22; the hits just kept coming, and coming, and coming.

On Wednesday, all that work, pain and consistency led Arraez to his lifelong goal. He is the American League’s batting champion, alone atop the leaderboard with a .316 average after Minnesota’s 10-1 win over Chicago at Guaranteed Rate Field, with Yankees slugger Aaron Judge ceding the honor to the Twins’ young contact king by sitting in Wednesday’s season finale after setting a new AL home run record on Tuesday. It marks the Twins’ first batting title since 2009 -- and, chances are, it’s the first of many to come for Arraez.

"It feels amazing,” Arraez said. “This is one of my goals. I'm living my dream right now. This is amazing for me because I worked hard for this. I just want to say thanks to my hitting coach, Frank Valdez, and to Nelson Cruz. When I got to the DR, my hitting coach said, 'Hey, let's work hard, and then you've got the batting title.' I did it. I want to give this to him, to Twins fans, to my family, and to every person who supported me. I want to give them this."

Arraez trailed in the race as recently as Sept. 28, but he went 5-for-13 in the ensuing games (missing three of them) to pass Judge and open up a considerable lead. He joins a very exclusive group of Twins to win the AL batting title: Tony Oliva (1964, ‘65, ‘71), Rod Carew (1969, ‘72, ‘73, ‘74, ‘75, ‘77, ‘78), Kirby Puckett (1989) and Joe Mauer (2006, ‘08, ‘09). That’s three Hall of Famers and a potential future Hall of Famer.

He capped off his push for the crown by walking twice and doubling in the final game of the season, doubling out of the reach of White Sox right fielder Gavin Sheets in his final plate appearance in the second inning. When he turned around, he saw all of his teammates cheering for him on the dugout rail; when he was lifted for a pinch-runner, he went through a line of bear hugs.

“Those guys, they give me my support,” Arraez said. “When I hit that ball, and the outfielder didn't take that fly ball, and I see my guys there in the dugout cheering for me, that was amazing."

It only takes a few games of watching Arraez to understand why this felt like a foregone conclusion.

Though Arraez worked to add some selective pop to his game this season, he’s still the throwback hitter he’s always been in the era of pull hitting and launch angle, as though he’s a baseball time traveler lost in the 2020s. When he goes up to the plate, he scans the infield to look for the gaps. His specialty is to dump line drives in front of the outfielders for singles. He rarely swings and misses, and he still has more career walks than strikeouts.

There’s a reason why he’s Ichiro’s favorite left-handed hitter in the modern game, or why his nickname is “La Regadera,” Spanish for “The Sprinkler” -- illustrative of how he peppers all fields with his base hits.

“I think what you’re learning is that it is an approach that can always work, regardless of how you’re being pitched, regardless of the trends in the game that we see everywhere we look, regardless of anything,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Luis Arraez’s ability to hit and his approach at the plate will play.”

It all stems from how Arraez worked on hitting with his dad while growing up. His dad always told him that the hits were in left field -- so he’d always try to hit the ball in that direction. A young Arraez was a switch hitter, but he moved exclusively to hitting left-handed after he signed with the Twins as an international free agent at age 16. He didn’t like how he needed to pull the ball as a right-handed hitter to accomplish his goal of hitting to left field, so he committed to the other side.

Throughout Arraez’s rise through the Twins’ system, he was never among the organization’s most highly ranked prospects, because his hitting tool far eclipsed his athleticism and defensive ability -- but boy, did his hitting tool always stand out, at every level, including the Majors. He leads all active hitters with at least 1,500 plate appearances with his .314 career average.

Of late, he’s worked hard to close that athleticism gap. Last offseason, he joined former teammate Nelson Cruz at the slugger’s compound in the Dominican Republic to strengthen his lower half, both to help his swing and his movements in the field. He was feeling healthy for much of the first half, leading to his first All-Star appearance, and marveled at how much better his body felt as his average sat at .338 at the break.

Still, he barely made it across the finish line of the season -- but rest assured, he’ll be working on that. At less than full strength, Arraez’s skill set was still good enough to net him the batting title. He and the Twins can’t wait to see what more could be in store when he’s able to sustain that first-half performance across a full year.

“It’s not like he had his most extraordinary full season over six months,” Baldelli said. “He had a good Luis Arraez year. He’s hitting .3-whatever he’s hitting. He’s on base at a high 3-clip. He’s capable of even more than what he did over the course of a full year, which I think is a promising thing to say for him and for our team.”