Arraez and Let Us Swing

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Back in mid-April, I took the opportunity to gawk at Luis Arraez’s hot start — he’d gone 24-for-51 in his first 15 games — under the assumption that he’d cool off and stop being so interesting fairly soon. Well, Arraez has cooled off, but not as much as you’d think. On Saturday, the Marlins second baseman went 5-for-5 with three doubles to break out of a slump: He’d gone 1-for-6 with one strikeout across the previous two games. Before that, he’d had multiple hits in his previous three games.

Sunday against Oakland, Arraez added two more hits to bring his seasonal batting line to .392/.445/.485. After that hellacious 15-game start to the season, Arraez has hit .362 in his cooldown period and has struck out just seven times in his past 40 games.

Nothing has really changed about Arraez as a hitter since the last time I wrote about him. He’s still making more contact than anyone else in baseball and spraying soft line drives around the diamond like Carlos Alcaraz in spikes. But over the past week, while Arraez was taping “kick me” signs to opposing pitchers’ backs, we passed two important milestones on the baseball calendar: Memorial Day and the start of the NCAA Tournament. That means we’re no longer in the fluky part of the season, and what you’re seeing might actually be real.

So let’s get down to it: Can Arraez hit .400?

Surely I’m making too big a deal out of this, right? Two months is a pretty big sample, but it can’t be that unusual for someone to be hitting .390 in June. Maybe a generation ago, but no longer. Arraez is the first player in seven years to hit .380 or better in his first 55 games, and just the second in the past 15 seasons:

Here’s A Bunch of Really Good Hitters
Player Team Year BA PA BABIP XBH Final AVG
Luis Arraez MIA 2023 .392 227 .405 16 TBD
Daniel Murphy WSN 2016 .384 226 .397 28 .347
Joe Mauer MIN 2009 .392 240 .398 27 .365
Chipper Jones ATL 2008 .409 246 .411 24 .364
Lance Berkman HOU 2008 .386 238 .394 39 .312
Joe Mauer MIN 2006 .388 235 .410 22 .347
Derrek Lee CHC 2005 .385 245 .403 34 .335
Manny Ramírez BOS 2001 .386 245 .451 32 .301
Nomar Garciaparra BOS 2000 .392 223 .410 27 .372
Todd Helton COL 2000 .405 245 .390 37 .372
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum .380 batting average and 165 plate appearances through 55 games, since 2000

I added the extra-base hits category to underscore a point about how unusual Arraez’s season has been. Most of these great early-season performances have come from players who hit for power — Jones, Ramírez, Helton in Coors, and so on. The only player on that list who really qualifies as a singles hitter is Mauer, and in 15 seasons in the majors, Mauer posted an ISO lower than Arraez’s career high (.104) just three times. Just 16 of Arraez’s first 80 hits have gone for extra bases, and of those, 14 were doubles.

In a way, Arraez’s lack of power makes him more susceptible to swings in BABIP than a normal hitter. When Manny was hitting in the .380s at this point in 2001, he was on pace to hit 56 home runs; 19 of his hits were going to be hits no matter what the defense did. Arraez’s BABIP is… huge! It’s enormous! It’s gigantic! That .405 mark is the second-highest BABIP among 161 qualified hitters, and if it stayed that high all season, it would be remarkable. In the past decade, only Yoán Moncada in 2019 has posted a higher BABIP as a qualified hitter in a 162-game season. The only other hitters to break .390 in that time were Tim Anderson that same season and Avisaíl García in 2017. (So yes, Arraez can hit .400, but only if he gets traded to the late-2010s White Sox.)

Arraez’s expected batting average this season is the fourth-highest among qualified hitters, but it’s only .332. And while Arraez is in the top 10 in batting average on contact (as you’d expect, given how frequently he makes contact), he’s overperforming his xBACON by the fourth-highest margin in baseball as of this writing.

So, the Statcast numbers say he’s going to regress. But I don’t really care, for two reasons. First, Arraez is built to confound expected statistics based on launch angle and exit velocity. We’re into the fifth season of Arraez’s major league career, and in all five of those seasons, he’s combined an absolutely trash hard-hit rate with elite xBA numbers and huge BABIPs. And beyond that, he’s outperformed his xBA in four of his five major league seasons, including this one. If that’s a fluke, it’s a fluke that’s been perpetuated over five years and nearly 1,800 plate appearances.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks about baseball seriously enough to have strong feelings about the shift, you’ve probably either thought “well why don’t hitters just go the other way” or gotten into a fight with someone who thought that. My argument has always been that pitchers these days throw such profane, unwholesome stuff anymore that just getting the bat on the ball is a victory. Directing the baseball in any meaningful way over a season-long sample is just not a skill we can expect hitters — even good major league hitters — to have.

Arraez would seem to be an exception. Maybe it’s premature to talk about him as a Tony Gwynn– or Ichiro-level of contact hitter in general, but that’s what he’s done for the past two months. Occasionally he’ll get away with one; for instance, the stats on this story won’t be accurate after they re-score Arraez’s game-winning RBI single on Sunday as an error on Aledmys Díaz, who drove every Little League coach in America nuts by reaching for the ball on his backhand instead of getting in front of it.

But just putting the ball in play as much as Arraez does gives him the opportunity to benefit from the merciless caprices of the batted ball.

If I were to look for reasons why Arraez is hitting .392, the first place I’d start would be his strikeout rate, not his BABIP. In 2021, Arraez struck out in an even 10.0% of his plate appearances; he ended up 23 PA short of qualifying for the batting title, but if he had, that would’ve been the third-lowest K% in baseball. This season, he’s striking out half as often as he did in 2021. Arraez’s 5.0% strikeout rate, if he were to keep up that level all season, would be the lowest mark in 15 years and one of the 20 lowest in the Wild Card era. Almost every position player in baseball would hit .300 if they struck out as infrequently as Arraez does.

So on to reason number two why I don’t care that the numbers say Arraez is going to regress: He’s hitting .392 and he’s not George Sisler, of course he’s going to regress. In order to hit .400 in any era, but particularly this one, a hitter has to defy quantitatively-based expectations. We’ve already looked at hitters who found themselves in Arraez’s position — let’s approach the question from the other direction. Here’s how the highest batting average seasons of the divisional era looked in terms of performance at the 55-game mark, and in terms of BABIP:

Top Average Seasons, 1961-Present, After 55 Games
Player Season AVG BABIP AVG/55 BABIP/55
Ichiro Suzuki 2004 .372 .399 .340 .358
Barry Bonds 2002 .370 .330 .349 .290
Nomar Garciaparra 2000 .372 .378 .392 .410
Todd Helton 2000 .372 .357 .405 .390
Larry Walker 1999 .379 .363 .320 .346
Tony Gwynn 1997 .372 .363 .409 .389
Tony Gwynn 1994 .394 .389 .388 .382
Andrés Galarraga 1993 .370 .399 .418 .443
Tony Gwynn 1987 .370 .383 .362 .370
George Brett 1980 .390 .368 .377 .372
Rod Carew 1977 .388 .408 .383 .413
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

There are some interesting lessons to be learned from these numbers. For instance, Galarraga hit .370 in his age-32 season — I didn’t think he was ever that young. My assumption was that he came out of the womb at age 37. But you’ll also see that a comical BABIP is almost a prerequisite for an extremely high batting average. This list features some of the greatest hitters who ever lived, but in these seasons, all of them were outrunning regression to the mean to some extent.

In support of that point: Most of these extreme high-average seasons came in relatively little playing time. Only Ichiro, who set the all-time single-season hits record, and Carew had more than 600 at-bats in their .370 seasons. Garciaparra, Walker, and Brett all missed significant time with injuries. Gwynn had his 1994 season cut short by the strike, of course, and Bonds had just 403 at-bats in 2002 in part because he drew 68 intentional walks. The fewer at-bats, the better chance a hitter has of sustaining the unsustainable.

Which is what will have to happen if Arraez makes a serious run at .400. If the base number is a wild outlier, surely some of the underlying components would be as well. Let’s not sacrifice our imagination at the altar of the bell curve.

So what does Arraez have to do from here on out to hit his goal? Well, so far this season, the Marlins have played 60 games and Arraez has 204 at-bats. That puts him on pace for 551 at-bats; assuming that pace holds, here’s what he’d have to hit for the rest of the year in order to meet certain batting average targets:

Luis Arraez 2023 Batting Average Targets
Total Rest of Season
Target AVG Target Hits Target AVG Target Hits
.410 226 .421 146
.400 221 .406 141
.390 215 .389 135
.380 210 .375 130
.370 204 .357 124
.360 199 .343 119
.350 193 .326 113

Put in these terms, a historic batting average for Arraez looks all too plausible. In order to hit .400 for the season, he’ll need to hit .406 for the rest of the year. But in order to get to .380, which hasn’t been done in the 21st century, he’d only (“only”) need to hit .375 from here on out. The lower end of the chart might not look that impressive by comparison, but consider that nobody has hit .350 in a 162-game season since Josh Hamilton in 2010. In order to end up there, Arraez would only have to hit .326 for the rest of this season. That’s only two points above his career batting average.

Can Arraez hit at least some of these historic batting average markers? Sure. He’s hit just about everything else so far this season.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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Ostensibly Ridiculousmember
11 months ago

I believe xBA only takes into account EV and LA (and maybe runner speed).
It does not take into account horizontal angle, right?