'Unbelievable' Arraez thriving in leadoff spot

April 5th, 2021

MILWAUKEE -- took off from first base with the crack of the bat and slid, feet-first, into second base as the throw sailed high. He hooked his right foot backwards to clip the bag and spread his arms wide in the “safe” sign. He saw Rocco Baldelli calling for him to stay there -- not to move.

So, Arraez put his hands on his helmet and struck a leisurely pose, right there, on the infield dirt, for everyone to see.

“I saw Rocco say, 'Stay there.' So I laid down there,” Arraez said.

He might as well take that same attitude and make himself comfortable atop the Twins’ lineup. Ever since his 2019 debut, Arraez has been waiting for a chance to establish himself in the leadoff spot, and after he reached base nine times in three games, including five times in the Twins’ 8-2, series-clinching victory in Milwaukee on Sunday, it’ll be tough for Baldelli to move him back down.

“He makes life very difficult for the opposition, and Luis has shown this from the day we first saw him take an at-bat until now,” Baldelli said. “It’s looked the same. It doesn’t matter who he’s facing. Nothing matters. He has great at-bats. Period.”

Baldelli used Max Kepler in the leadoff spot against right-handed pitchers for the 2019 and ‘20 seasons, but spurred in part by the wishes of late bench coach Mike Bell, Arraez got three nods atop the lineup over the weekend, with Kepler moving down in the order. Arraez responded with a team-leading six hits, two RBIs and one run, reaching base nine times in all.

The on-base ability is one thing, but his plate approach is a natural fit atop any lineup.

Consider, for example, that he saw six pitches in the first plate appearance of Sunday’s game, roping the final one for a single down the left-field line. He then capped a seven-pitch at-bat with a single up the middle in the third, and followed that with seven-pitch walks in both the sixth and seventh innings. All that adds up and pays dividends for the hitters behind him, who get a closer eye at the pitcher’s full arsenal.

It’s no coincidence that he started the Twins’ run-scoring first inning and opened the decisive four-run frame in the sixth.

“When he has those kinds of at-bats, it gets us rolling,” Baldelli said.

He’s having fun with it, too.

How many guys bat flip a walk, anyway? Arraez did it twice on Sunday, flinging his lumber with force towards the dugout after each of his free passes.

He looks at each plate appearance as an all-out fight -- him against the pitcher, one on one. When he throws the bat before he jogs to first base, it’s his expression of triumph.

“I'm fighting, fighting, fighting, and then when I win the at-bat with a walk, I throw my bat,” he said. “I enjoy that."

His teammates enjoy all that, too -- the uncanny hitting ability, the vigorous shakes of his head after taking close pitches, the bat throws, the posing -- and they feed off of that energy.

“He's awesome,” Twins pitcher Michael Pineda said. “Wow. He's unbelievable. He has great energy. Everybody loves to see him just play baseball. I love to see Arraez play baseball. I love it.”

“He has that talent to hit the ball and that is amazing,” Miguel Sanó said. “That's a great, great player."

Arraez’s career slash line now sits at a comfortable .336/.396/.434, and even without a clear home in the field and less natural physical ability than many, he’s made the Twins comfortable by fitting in wherever he’s needed. He's made diving catches in left field, and on Sunday, a diving stop and throw in the eighth inning to retire Avisaíl García.

That’s why Baldelli has given Arraez more leeway than anyone else on the roster -- with the possible exception of Willians Astudillo -- to expand his usage and figure things out along the way. Following the signing of Andrelton Simmons, the Twins felt comfortable moving him into a multipositional role.

And now, he’s making himself at home in the leadoff spot, too.

“The baseball field is his home in a lot of ways, and he’s very comfortable and has a fantastic time playing the game,” Baldelli said. “He’s a young man and he’s humble, but he has a lot of fun when he’s out there -- and he should.”