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Elite skills set Arraez apart in breakout 2019

'Exceptional player' caught fire after midseason callup to cement starting role
November 5, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS -- Entering the season, who could have thought that Twins fans would be waiting with bated breath to see whether or not Luis Arraez would be healthy enough to play in the American League Division Series? The 22-year-old infielder never had the pedigree of a top prospect during his

MINNEAPOLIS -- Entering the season, who could have thought that Twins fans would be waiting with bated breath to see whether or not Luis Arraez would be healthy enough to play in the American League Division Series?

The 22-year-old infielder never had the pedigree of a top prospect during his rise through the Twins' organization due to his lack of power ability, but his hit tool was undeniable as he hit at least .309 in every Minor League season, and he was quietly added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft last offseason.

Arraez finally got a chance to show off those hitting skills in the Major Leagues when he received his first callup in mid-May -- and boy, did he ever show them off. It took a rash of unforeseen injuries to clear Arraez's path to the Majors, but he crashed the party with seven hits in his first four games, didn't strike out until his eighth game and forced his way into a starting role. He hit .334/.399/.439 in 2019 with more walks (36) than strikeouts (29) and a maturity well beyond his years in his bat-to-ball ability and eye at the plate.

"I know I wasn't expecting for them to call me up as soon as they did," Arraez said. "But they did, and I took advantage of the opportunity. Here we are."

In fact, the Twins placed so much value in Arraez's bat that they even trusted him to learn left field on the fly in order to keep the rookie in the lineup. That's why it was no surprise that it was so important for Minnesota to have Arraez healthy for the ALDS -- and why he will likely be cemented into a starting gig in 2020.

"He was an exceptional player, a player who was essentially on base as much as any player in baseball who offered offensively the type of at-bats that almost no player can offer," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He does things that forces pitchers out of their comfort zone and ultimately doesn't just help in his particular at-bat but helps going forward. I truly believe that. I think he helps the players that are coming after him in that lineup. Every time he steps up to the plate, that pitcher leaves that at-bat in a bad place."

What went right?

In the year of the home run, Arraez was the ultimate throwback player -- a line-drive hitter who avoided strikeouts and made contact at all costs.

As a rookie with minimal experience against more advanced pitching in Triple-A (16 career games), Arraez led the Twins in batting average (.334) and on-base percentage (.399). He posted the ninth-highest batting average by a 22-year-old in the live-ball era, behind names like Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio and ahead of the likes of Bryce Harper, Hank Aaron and Miguel Cabrera.

The underlying numbers also showed off Arraez's elite bat-to-ball ability. Arraez's 7.9 percent swinging-strike rate was the lowest among all Major Leaguers who swung at 500 or more pitches. His 32.3 percent line-drive rate on batted balls was fourth-best in the Majors among hitters who put at least 300 balls in play.

"He's a 22-year-old guy who's been in the big leagues a matter of months and we're shocked when he strikes out," Baldelli said in September. "Let's just think about that for a second. That's nuts. But then he goes back up there and throws another 20 at-bats up there and you almost say, 'I can't believe what I'm watching.' But now I completely believe what I'm watching."

What went wrong?

Very little. Arraez sustained his performance across the entire season -- his worst slash line in a month was .293/.350/.380 -- and when he did get hurt in the final week of the regular season, sustaining a sprained ankle during a Sept. 28 game in Kansas City, he recovered in time to play in the ALDS a week later. What more can you ask for from a rookie?

"There was some sentiment around, empirically, that Arraez was one of our best hitters against the best pitching in the game from the point he was promoted to the big leagues," general manager Thad Levine said after the season. "We were really reluctant to have that type of player sitting on the sidelines in a short [Division] Series."

The only real hole in Arraez's game was on defense, where he was worth minus-8 Defensive Runs Saved at second base, the third-worst mark in the Majors among fielders who logged at least 350 innings at the position in 2019. But he did offer versatility to make up for that, as the Twins moved him around to shortstop, third base and left field according to their needs during the season.

Best moment

Arraez was one of few Twins to excel in the ALDS against the Yankees, during which he overcame pain in his sprained ankle to still go 5-for-11 at the plate with four doubles. But the true highlight of Arraez's rookie season was a walk. Seriously.

The Twins trailed the Mets, 3-2, in a July 16 contest at Target Field. Jonathan Schoop tweaked his side as he fouled off an 0-2 offering from New York closer Edwin Díaz and was removed from the game, forcing Arraez into the unenviable situation of inheriting an 0-2 count as he stepped into the batter's box, cold, against 99-100 mph fastballs with movement.

The rookie immediately fouled off a 99.8 mph fastball, then again on 98.5 mph and 98.9 mph heaters to stay alive. He took a pair of pitches to even the count, and the crowd started to come to life. He fouled off another and took another ball to run the count full, before he even got a piece of a slider to stay in the at-bat. When the 11th pitch of the plate appearance missed up and away, he earned the one-out walk -- and a roaring ovation from his home crowd.

"Pretty incredible," Baldelli said after the game. "You don’t see very many at-bats like that, really against any pitcher, but against a guy like Díaz, you’re certainly not going to see very many."

2020 outlook

With Schoop set to depart the Twins in free agency, Arraez should be Minnesota's Opening Day starter at second base in 2020 -- and likely beyond. During the season, Cleveland manager Terry Francona compared Arraez's ability to that of Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn, and over a full season, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Arraez compete for the American League batting title.

"What Luis' skill set is, I don't want to say he's unmatched in baseball since I've been in baseball, but he's near the top of the scale at some of these things," Baldelli said. "This is compared to some of the best players in the game. If we look at how Luis controls the zone compared to the rest of baseball, I bet he's in the 99th percentile or something pretty close to it. When you see that, that's going to continue. I see no reason why that wouldn't be the same way next year and the year after that, and so on."

Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.