To keep improving, Arozarena goes data diving

February 21st, 2023

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Recently, approached the Rays' coaching staff with an unusual request -- for him. He wanted to see scouting reports.

That’s far from uncommon on the famously data-driven Rays, who for years have blended advanced metrics into every facet of their operation. But as he emerged from surprise playoff hero to 2021 American League Rookie of the Year and into one of Tampa Bay’s best players, Arozarena remained an outlier in that regard. He eschewed data, preferring to stay in the moment and let his natural ability take over.

Sometimes, he told teammates, he didn’t even want to know the opposing pitcher’s name.

Those days, early this spring at least, appear over.

“I just want to be a little bit more present during the game time, be a little bit more smart during the game situations,” Arozarena said, through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Obviously, I want to get my numbers better than last year. But just at the start of the game, I want to be a little more [prepared].”

Consider that music to the Rays' ears, after they watched long cold spells cut into the special things Arozarena did accomplish in 2022. When the dust settled, Arozarena achieved the first 20-homer, 30-steal and 40-double season in franchise history, and when he was hot, Tampa Bay’s lineup churned. But when he was cold, he was really cold: posting a sub-.700 OPS in April, June and September/October. Evening out that streaky nature could go a long way toward keeping the Rays' offense clicking on all cylinders more consistently going forward.

“Who wouldn't sign up for his last two-and-a-half seasons at the big league level?” manager Kevin Cash said. “He’s very driven to continue to find that consistency throughout the year. He’ll go for a month and he’s the best player in baseball, and then maybe goes quiet a little bit.

"But in fairness to Randy, at the end of the year, you look up and he’s putting together some pretty special statistics. We’d be thrilled if he does it again. And if he continues to get better, that’s fine, too.”

Arozarena’s new thirst for information spares no limit. His goal for 2023 is to improve his decision-making in all facets of the game.

“Any decisions on the bases, at bat, on defense,” he said. “Anything that I can do to hopefully help this team.”

This altered approach is only one reason the Rays believe Arozarena is poised for a big year. He also seems bound to benefit from MLB’s rule changes for 2023, especially the limit on pitcher pickoff attempts and the increase in base size. New restrictions meant to incentivize the running game should make things less dicey on the bases for Arozarena, who has been caught stealing 22 times in the past two seasons, including an MLB-most 12 times in 44 chances in '22.

He also made 13 non-stealing outs on the bases last season, third most in the Majors.

“The last couple of seasons, I’ve been able to learn from some of the mistakes I’ve made,” Arozarena said. “And that’s something that I want to focus on this season.”

Said Cash: “If Randy is critiquing himself, he's also done a lot of things that have bailed us out, whether it's making a great play, stealing a base or knocking the ball out of the ballpark. So sometimes, you take some of the rough edges with young players and take their talent.”

As far as decisions go, Arozarena has already made a big off-the-field one -- choosing to play for Team Mexico in the upcoming World Baseball Classic. The 28-year old settled in Mexico after defecting from Cuba and played in the Mexican League before signing with the Cardinals in 2016. His mother still resides in the country.

“Playing for Cuba would have been ideal, but a lot of the guys who have escaped, they don’t treat us very well,” he said. “It’s always been a dream to play in the Classic, ever since I was a kid. … I still have a lot of Mexican friends over there, so it was a very easy decision.”