Luis Arraez Doesn’t Even Slump Normally

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I’ll level with you at the start of this: I never quite bought into what Luis Arraez was doing. When he won the batting title last year, I was skeptical. When he was traded from Minnesota to Miami before the season, I loved the Twins’ side of the deal. When he was flirting with a .400 batting average at the All-Star break, I relegated him to Honorable Mention status on our top 50 trade value list. He just perpetually flummoxed me, slapping singles while I kept thinking he couldn’t possibly keep it up.

Arraez has been downright putrid of late. He’s been below replacement level since the start of August. He’s batting .262 with a .282 OBP in that span, which is hard to fathom for a guy who is still only striking out 6.7% of the time. This isn’t a victory lap article, though. It won’t last. It can’t last. I don’t believe in this version of Arraez any more than I believed in the .400 hitter from June.

In trying to solve this mystery, I let other people guide me. Honestly, I’m not the person to figure out what Arraez is doing wrong, because I never quite understood what he was doing right. So instead, I read a bunch of articles about the good times. Then I looked to see whether Arraez had stopped doing the things that had so recently made him special.

My favorite explanations, both linked in that pile of articles above, are Davy Andrews’ observation that while Arraez doesn’t hit the ball hard very often, he hits it with medium exit velocity consistently, and Robert Orr’s point that he hits the ball at valuable launch angles with absolutely elite frequency. In plain English, the man hits soft line drives like no one else.

That sounds like a real, actionable skill. It explains a lot of the weirdness around Arraez’s profile – he consistently runs low hard-hit rates but huge line drive rates, and posts gaudy BABIPs without anything to speak of in the slugging department. And indeed, he was doing that more than ever earlier this year. In the first half of the season, 29% of his batted balls were line drives, the highest mark in the league. His launch angle standard deviation was elite as well; depending on how you define a minimum batted ball threshold, he was somewhere between first and fourth in the majors by that metric.

Obviously then, his last 40 or so days have been bad because he stopped hitting line drives, right? Well, no. Since the start of August, which I’m going to use as an arbitrary cutoff point for the rest of this article, he’s still running a gaudy line drive rate, 26.7% to be exact. But he’s only BABIP’ing .265, a far cry from his .398 mark in the first half. And his launch angle standard deviation hasn’t increased by much either; he’s fifth in that metric even as he slumps. His sweet spot rate, the percentage of his batted balls that are lofted between eight and 32 degrees, is nearly unchanged. In other words, all the “does he hit soft line drives” tests are lighting up green.

But there’s something hidden in this data. I’ve actually written about this specific thing in the past. “Sweet spots” aren’t created equal. If you hit the ball softly, you want to hit the ball between 10 and 24 degrees. If you hit it hard, you want to get it in the air more, something like 20 to 35 degrees. Arraez obviously lives in the soft contact zone. It looks like this:

If we re-calibrate his data based on softly hit sweet spot rate, things change a bit. In the first half of the year, he had a 28% soft-hit sweet spot rate. Since August 1, he’s down to 23%. That doesn’t sound like a lot, and honestly, it’s not a lot. But think of it this way. Arraez has 13 softly hit balls in the 25-32 degree dead zone where it sounds like productive contact but isn’t. Those balls have gone for a .231 BABIP, as compared to .560 on his 10-24 degree batted balls. He’s hitting those weak fly balls more often, by a mile, than he did in the first half.

It sounds weird. Same sweet spot rate, similar line drive rate, similar launch angle standard deviation, but much worse batted ball quality? But it’s the real deal. His results are down, and they should be down, because if you’re going to flip softly hit balls all over the park, you can’t afford to have them hang up in the air for too long. Someone might catch them.

You could put this another way if you wanted to. There are always going to be plenty of non-line-drive hits, even if you’re Luis Arraez. His have shifted from grounders to fly balls. There’s a key difference between grounders and fly balls, and it’s the reason that the so-called launch angle revolution swept baseball. When you hit a grounder, it’s of course better to hit it harder. But it matters less than you’d think. Here’s groundball production bucketed by 2-mph exit velocity bands in 2023. The difference between hitting one at 80 and 100 miles an hour is around 170 points of wOBA, which might sound like a lot until you see the graph that comes after this one:

Meanwhile, here’s fly ball production with the same buckets added to that graph:

So yes, fly balls are better because they can turn into homers. But that’s only true if you hit the ball hard enough that you have a chance to leave the yard, and Arraez mostly doesn’t. He’s hit only 4% of his batted balls 100 mph or more this year, and that counts some scalded grounders and low line drives. Fly balls are also better if you completely mishit them, because they often fall in front of charging outfielders, but Arraez basically never mishits the ball. The benefits of fly balls are basically nonexistent for him, while the costs are quite real; those results on mid-velocity fly balls are truly abysmal.

Even all of these changes can’t completely explain Arraez’s huge swoon. Statcast’s expected metrics take exactly what I’m talking about into account, and they think he should be hitting .340 when he puts the ball in play since August 1, instead of the .281 he’s actually managed. He’s underperformed by as much as he outperformed Statcast numbers in the first half, coincidentally enough.

I don’t want to spend the entire article telling you to read Davy Andrews, but he has another piece that’s relevant here. When he looked at outfield depth earlier this year, he noted that opposing teams play their outfielders very shallow against Arraez. They’ve moved even closer since then. That’s just smart positioning, and Arraez is playing right into it by hitting more soft fly balls.

It goes farther than that, in fact. Defenses have been pinching the third baseman (two feet closer in the last month) and pushing every other infielder back. That’s a natural reaction to Arraez’s batted ball mix. When he hits the ball up the middle, he’s slow enough and makes middling enough contact that fielders can hang back somewhat and still throw him out in time. Meanwhile, he hits enough flares that the added distance helps infielders turn at least a few into outs. His weakest groundball contact comes to the third base side, so third base is a logical place to shade an infielder closer to home. This might just be a case of the NL East needing to adjust to him; in past years, he faced a ton of pinched third basemen with relaxed middle infielders.

It’s certainly not easy to defend Arraez. He sprays the ball all over the place, and soft line drives are just a tough batted ball type to stop. But his opponents are adjusting to minimize his skills just a little bit, and he’s simultaneously hitting the ball in the air more frequently, which plays right into their plans. He’s also been getting unlucky, of course. That’s just how it works when you make a living by hitting the ball near but not at fielders. Sometimes they catch it unexpectedly:

I didn’t come away from this investigation thinking Arraez is irrevocably broken or anything. But I did come away marveling at the degree of difficulty his offensive game carries. The things that make Arraez great operate on tiny margins. For a lot of hitters, moving your average launch angle around slightly while still hitting the ball just as hard and just as consistently is no big deal. But Arraez operates in a Goldilocks zone. When he hits the ball too low, it’s all grounders and no satisfaction. When he hits the ball too high, the flared singles turn into lazy pop outs. Only when it’s juuuuuuust right does he turn into Luis Arraez, singles monster.

If he’s operating without a net, he’s doing a good job of it. Even with this recent extended slump, Arraez comfortably leads both leagues in batting average. He only has one skill, but he’s so good at that skill that he’s a 3-WAR player with no defensive or baserunning value. Honestly, that’s more impressive than the raw numbers to me. No one else can do what he does. No one else really comes close. Quibbling over whether he can keep doing that or how valuable it is to do it misses the wonder of the situation. Sure, future wins and current usefulness and all that matter. But Arraez has to be perfect to put up his singular batting lines, and he did just that for the better part of this season. His recent downturn only emphasizes how incredible his early-season form was.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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8 months ago

This is a great article. It’s good because it shows that (1) the difference between the right combination launch angle and EV and the wrong one is very small and (2) if you hit the ball softly the difference between success and failure is even smaller than that.

This article reminded me a bit of Eric Hosmer in this way. Eric Hosmer hit the ball hard but didn’t have the bat control to keep doing those things and hit the ball at the right launch angle to optimize it. Eric Hosmer had good seasons and bad seasons that were mostly BABIP driven. The reason why it fluctuated from year to year is that it relied on him hitting line drives. Line drives are good batted ball outcomes usually. But it is hard to hit line drives consistently. Guys like Votto can do it at will; guys like Hosmer go through entire seasons where they can do it and other seasons where they can’t. Arraez is probably closer to Votto than Hosmer in terms of controlling his launch angle but he hits it so softly that the margin of error is tiny.