Luis Arraez Was Born in a Flame

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

For the purposes of researching this article, I went through Baseball Savant and watched several of Luis Arraez’s hits from the 2023 season. You can tell what kind of a heater he’s on by how the broadcast booth reacts when he gets a hit. Marlins play-by-play man Paul Severino, declaring that Arraez was in the midst of yet another multi-hit game, would chuckle as the ball touched outfield grass. On one occasion, Phillies announcer John Kruk muttered, “Jesus!” as Arraez dropped a triple down the right field line.

Arraez is so hot it’s entered the realm of the absurd. Through 15 games, he’s 24-for-51, mostly on singles that army crawl past bewildered infielders or fall softly in front of outfielders. As of Monday afternoon, he has yet to hit a ball with an exit velocity of 100 mph or greater. Ryan Mountcastle, who’s hitting .217 to Arraez’s .471, has 25 such batted balls.

The obvious thing to do in this situation would be to point out all the ways Arraez is getting lucky. He’s a fringy runner with a ninth-percentile (ninth-percentile!) hard-hit rate and a BABIP of .500, and so on and so forth. And ordinarily, I am the kind of relentless downer who goes around ruining other people’s good time. (Hope you enjoyed those wonderful shrimp tacos you had for lunch; the sea is full of microplastics and you’re going to die someday.) But I’m declaring Arraez’s hot start to be a negativity-free zone.

So let’s get to it. Is Arraez some kind of a wizard, or is he just getting lucky? The answer is yes.

Arraez’s high average shouldn’t surprise anyone; he did just win a batting title, after all. But he hit .316 last year, the lowest average by a batting champion since Tony Gwynn hit .313 in 1988. (I also had completely forgotten that Yuli Gurriel won the batting title in 2021. The Marlins certainly have a type.) Speaking of Gwynn, this is the hallowed leaderboard Arraez is going after: The chase for .370. That hasn’t been accomplished in 19 years, and only nine players (including Gwynn three times) have done it over a full season in the expansion era:

Top Single-Season Averages in Expansion Era
Player Season AVG
Tony Gwynn 1994 .394
George Brett 1980 .390
Rod Carew 1977 .388
Larry Walker 1999 .379
Ichiro Suzuki 2004 .372
Nomar Garciaparra 2000 .372
Todd Helton 2000 .372
Tony Gwynn 1997 .372
Barry Bonds 2002 .370
Andrés Galarraga 1993 .370
Tony Gwynn 1987 .370

Now it’s early, but Arraez is still tickling .500. In fact, if you want to find a player who was hitting .471 or better on April 16, you’d have to go all the way back to… last year, when Owen Miller led the league with a .560 batting average. Okay. Well, the season started a week late thanks to the lockout. In 2021, Brandon Nimmo and Yermín Mercedes (wow, a Remember That Guy from just two years ago) were both over .471 through April 16, but before that it hadn’t happened since Adrian Gonzalez and DJ LeMahieu were both over .500 at this point in 2015.

How does Arraez do it? Well, at the risk of sending John Smoltz into a life-threatening state of ecstasy, it’s not about how hard he hits it, it’s about where he hits it. If one were to try to make sense of Arraez’s hot start, the obvious place to look is in the shift ban — after all, it was designed to increase the league-wide BABIP.

But it’s not clear why Arraez in particular would benefit. For each qualified hitter, I took the three batted-ball buckets — pull, center, and opposite field — and calculated who had the smallest difference between his most and least bountiful batted-ball direction.

Through Sunday’s games, the player with the most even spray chart is Yordan Alvarez, who hit 35.1% of balls to the opposite field, and 32.4% each to pull and center, a difference of just 2.7 percentage points. Now Alvarez is only a spray hitter in the sense that he sprays rockets all over the diamond, visiting his wrath indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. He’s about the last guy in the league you’d comp to Arraez, or Ichiro, or Gwynn.

What’s happening here, in addition to a small sample size, is the fact that Alvarez pulls the ball when he hits it low, and tends to hit it in the air to the opposite field, and the two cancel each other out:

Yordan Alvarez’s Spray Chart by Batted Ball Type
Batted Ball Type Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Groundballs and Line Drives 50.2 38.7 11.1
Fly Balls 22.6 41.1 36.3
Groundballs and Line Drives 40.0 40.0 20.0
Fly Balls 23.5 23.5 52.9

If Alvarez hits the ball in the air to the opposite field, good for him, because the left field fence at his home ballpark is like 120 feet from home plate. But it shouldn’t influence an infield shift. So I recalculated that leaderboard for grounders and line drives only — balls an infielder would be able to catch without some kind of hot air balloon. Ji Hwan Bae is first, Arraez 32nd, and Alvarez 35th out of 185 batters. (Steven Kwan is second, while Bo Bichette is 16th. File that away for later.)

Still, that’s only a couple dozen batted balls at most. These hitters just put together a full season’s worth of data. Sure enough, in 2022 there were 301 players with at least 110 ground balls and line drives. Of those, Bichette had the third-most even spray chart, with Kwan 13th, Arraez 26th, and Alvarez 197th.

Why is Bichette interesting? Because based on this year’s batted ball quality, he ought to be leading the league in average, not Arraez. And that makes sense. Bichette sprays the ball all over the place, making him impossible to shift. He hits the ball hard and usually on or near the ground, which might not always be desirable overall but leads to a higher BABIP than fly balls. Since the start of last season, Bichette is 14th in GB/FB ratio and 16th in line drive rate. And perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s seventh in BABIP.

Bichette is leading the league in xBA by a ton, about 40 points over teammate Matt Chapman and by more than 70 points over Arraez, who sits at 15th. Bichette has the third-highest xBACON in the league, behind Chapman and Jarred Kelenic, and Kelenic’s presence atop the list is instructive.

Intuitively, there’s a balance to be struck between contact rate and quality of contact. If all a hitter wanted to do was simply make contact, most major league players could probably stand up there like a cricket batsman and get wood on the ball most of the time. Of course, anyone who did that would sign up for an endless string of weak grounders and popups, and a batting average that starts with a zero. The balance between bat control and power is essential, and it’s different for every hitter. Kelenic, and to a lesser extent Bichette, lower their highest possible batting average by striking out. Arraez misses less than any batter in baseball. He has the highest contact rate in the league this year, and he had the highest contact rate in the league last year.

Arraez and Kelenic could not be more different as hitters, but they have almost exactly the same xBA:

Who Makes Contact, and What Happens Afterward?
Player BA xBA xBACON K% Whiff%
Luis Arraez 0.471 0.334 0.362 7 8.8
Bo Bichette 0.375 0.418 0.464 9.3 16.6
Jarred Kelenic 0.362 0.337 0.496 28.8 24.7
Steven Kwan 0.258 0.244 0.283 10.1 9.2
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Or, for a more colorful way of expressing that sentiment, consider the following list of active position players with more career walks than strikeouts. Arraez is second among such players in total career plate appearances, trailing only Juan Soto, and the list thins out rapidly after that:

Active Position Players With More Walks than Strikeouts
Rk Player PA BB SO
1 Juan Soto 2741 524 464
2 Luis Arraez 1626 143 135
3 Steven Kwan 717 73 68
4 Vinnie Pasquantino 361 45 42
5 Masataka Yoshida 48 7 4
6 Vinny Capra 7 2 1
7 Elliot Soto 7 1 1
8 Ryan Vilade 7 1 1
9 Mario Feliciano 6 2 1
10 César Salazar 6 1 0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
*Sorted by career plate appearances, through 4/16

Whether Arraez keeps hitting .400 or not, the start to his 2023 season is a monument to the virtues of just putting the ball in play and seeing what happens. It doesn’t always work out, as Kwan — the hitter most similar to Arraez — is discovering. But it’s not just seeing-eye grounders; a softly-hit groundball can often be tougher on an infielder than a well-struck but predictable one-hopper. Among Arraez’s singles: a grounder that handcuffed Francisco Lindor and another that probably should’ve been an error on Pete Alonso, who missed a scoop.

On balls hit between 80 and 95 mph, Arraez has 14 hits, Bichette 13. Nobody else has more than nine. Arraez has 22 hits on batted balls between 80 and 100 mph. Nobody else has more than 17. Can Arraez continue to hit in the high .400s? Joking extreme positivity aside, of course not.

But too many people focus on the second half of Wee Willie Keeler’s famous doctrine of hitting. Nothing goes “where they ain’t” unless it’s hit, and Arraez is better at making contact than anyone else in baseball. Once the ball is in play, anything can happen.

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,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 year ago

He hits the ball averagely hard on EV 89.0, he hits line drives 24%-26%, he doesn’t hit a ton of GB 41%, he doesn’t strike out, and he doesn’t hit any IFFB 3%. Basically, he does nothing to help the defense. If he hit the ball harder and ran faster, he’d be frightening.

1 year ago
Reply to  booond

He’d be 2016-17 Jose Ramirez

Cool Lester Smoothmember
1 year ago
Reply to  booond

Dude literally sprays line drives gap to gap.

Pretty pretty awesome

1 year ago
Reply to  booond

It isn’t that he isn’t hitting the ball hard, he is hitting it solidly but what is a hard hit ball for him isn’t comparable to what Shohei Ohtani does when contact is made.

Balk off
1 year ago
Reply to  booond

I get the point, but I think he’s frightening as he is. It’d be rough as a pitcher to face a guy and know there’s a 50% chance you’re about to go into a stretch, no matter how well you’ve been carving up the rest of the lineup, and there’s almost a 100% chance he’s putting the ball in play. He’s a rhythm destroyer.