Tampa Bay’s Not-So-Secret Weapon

If you follow baseball, you probably have a rough understanding of the way Tampa Bay builds their roster. They assemble a ton of complementary pieces, put them in the best position to succeed, and build an offense that seems like more than the sum of its parts. Just as importantly, they do it without any true superstars.

In 2018, they finished with baseball’s ninth-best offense when Tommy Pham went incandescent for the last two months of the year. The best hitter on the team who made at least 400 plate appearances was C.J. Cron, and his 123 wRC+ won’t blow anyone’s socks off. In 2019, they had the 11th-best offense led by Austin Meadows with a 142 wRC+. This year, they finished with the eighth-best offense, with Brandon Lowe the headliner. Many pieces, no truly gamebreaking talents; it’s starting to feel like the Rays way.

None of those players, however, have actually been the best hitter in Tampa Bay this year. Pham is plying his trade for the Padres, Meadows was injured and ineffective, and while Lowe is a borderline MVP candidate after a great season, he’s not who I want to talk about today. The best hitter on the top seed in the American League is — well, crap, it’s Brian O’Grady, who batted .400/.400/.600 in five plate appearances. After him, though, it’s Randy Arozarena, who hit .281/.384/.641 in a still-tiny 76 plate appearance sample for a 176 wRC+.

The Rays seem to believe the hype. In the first game of the Wild Card round, Arozarena batted third in the lineup. In the second game, with the platoon advantage against Hyun Jin Ryu 류현진, he batted second. Tampa Bay is treating Arozarena like one of the best hitters on the team. Let’s take a quick look at how this can be the case for a player who wasn’t even in the Tampa Bay system or on any Top 100 prospect lists before this year.

As the joke goes, Tampa Bay never loses a trade. Arozarena was the main part of Tampa Bay’s return when they traded Matthew Liberatore to the Cardinals in the offseason, and at the time, I theorized that they must have seen him as a long-term starter and undervalued asset. They can’t always be right, though, and many neutral observers thought that this trade might be a rare loss for them.

Arozarena had the start of his season delayed for undisclosed reasons, and spent a month at the team’s alternate site getting up to speed. He joined the team on August 30, ostensibly mainly to bat against lefties, and proceeded to hit everyone, regardless of handedness, for the remainder of the season.

Coming into the year, there was reason to question Arozarena’s power. He hit only five homers in a 311 PA stint with Triple-A Memphis in 2018, and while he managed 12 in a similar sample in 2019, that was the year that the major league ball went to Triple-A and turned the PCL into home run heaven. Arozarena doesn’t have the frame you’d expect for a thumper, and he hits a lot of grounders; it’s not exactly a traditional power hitter profile.

This year, Arozarena has made those concerns look silly. He clobbered seven homers in his month in the majors, good for a top 10 ISO mark in all of baseball. Statcast’s batted ball tracking backed it up; he barreled up 14% of the balls he put into play, the same mark as literally Joey Gallo on the season. 44.2% of his batted balls left his bat above 95 mph, and he also got the ball off the ground more often; his 46.5% groundball rate, while still high, was more “slightly elevated” than peak Eric Hosmer.

Watch him bat, and you’ll be astounded how much power he generates. His leg kick, if it can even be called that, is more of a timing mechanism than anything else, and his whole body remains quiet, to my eyes, throughout the swing:

That’s a pretty clean way to hit a baseball nearly 400 feet the opposite way — Statcast estimated it at 394. It’s one of three homers he hit to the right side of the field. Pitch him in, and he’s capable of keeping his hands in and pulling the ball, as he did here on his hardest-struck ball of the year:

With that swing, Arozarena can’t rely on golfing low balls high enough to generate extra base power. He relies on swinging at the right pitches, and he’s been nothing short of excellent on that front this year:

This map shows how often he swings in each region of the plate, and it’s exactly what you want to see from someone with Arozarena’s swing plane. He’s generally good about avoiding the bottom of the strike zone, where grounders live. He also seems to be adapting to what he sees. You might notice that he’s willing to swing at pitches away, both high and low. That’s likely because pitchers are completely avoiding the inside part of the plate against him this year:

In fact, there’s essentially nothing to quarrel with when it comes to Arozarena’s production on contact this year. His xwOBACON — mmm, delicious bacon — a statistic that uses launch angle and exit velocity of batted balls to approximate production, is in the 92nd percentile among all hitters, a smidge ahead of fellow Cuban rookie Luis Robert, who has deservedly drawn Rookie of the Year consideration for his all-fields power.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to keep hitting a home run once every 11 plate appearances; he isn’t peak Barry Bonds. It does mean, however, that he’s doing all the things that make hitters succeed: hitting the ball hard, and getting it in the air often enough to turn that hard contact into doubles and dingers.

If there’s something to nitpick in Arozarena’s 2020 — and honestly, I’m not sure there is — it’s a ballooning strikeout rate without a matching rise in walks. Arozarena swung and missed at 14.9% of the pitches he saw this year, by far a career high. He displayed customary patience outside the strike zone, chasing only 26.8% of the time, but simply made a lot less contact than in his career before this year when he did swing.

That’s not a terrible thing on pitches outside the strike zone, because contact on a bad pitch — generally a breaking ball below the zone — isn’t likely to result in the kind of results Arozarena is looking for. It does, however, suggest a susceptibility to breaking stuff in the zone; he whiffed on 45.5% of the breaking pitches he swung at this year, and five of the 17 he swung at in the strike zone.

In an absolutely minuscule postseason sample, he hasn’t had any trouble hitting bendy stuff. All three of his whiffs have been on fastballs, and when he faced Ryu, he tattooed an in-zone curveball for a double:

The Yankees are well-equipped to attack Arozarena’s weak points. Adam Ottavino is tailor-made to attack him; he’s a righty who can fill the zone with sliders. Masahiro Tanaka is much the same; he has a wide array of secondary pitches and no desire to challenge someone with a fastball and lose. Gerrit Cole is Gerrit Cole.

The Rays could pivot away from Arozarena against tough righties; they can roll out an outfield of Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brett Phillips if they want to overload on lefties. They’re certainly not above benching players who are performing well if they think it will give them an advantage.

At the moment, however, I don’t think they will. The Rays might have built a reputation for mixing and matching in the past few years, but to me, that’s simply an artifact of the hand they’ve been dealt. Tampa Bay isn’t about being cute for cuteness’s sake; the point of the whole exercise is to win baseball games as efficiently as possible.

In the past few years, that meant hiding the weaknesses of one-note hitters. In these playoffs, however, it’s hard to imagine how optimal behavior could mean anything other than letting your white-hot, precocious outfielder play as much as possible. The Rays will need to squeeze out all the juice they can from their lineup to beat the Yankees. Right now, it looks like a lot of that juice comes from playing Arozarena every day and waiting for the extra-base hits to roll in.





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I like how at virtually every other website I visited the lead story was about Jose Martinez and at Fangraphs the writers and commenters were all “nope, Arozarena is the prize.”

He’s going to get 500+ PAs next year and be somewhere in between good and great in right field. and Renfroe and Martinez are going to get non-tendered. He, along with Lowe, are likely everyday players going forward (jury still out on Meadows, but I think he’s potentially a third).

bglick4
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bglick4

Yes. As a fan of another AL east I’m required to hate them, but I don’t feel it in my heart. They compile and analyze both statistical and scouting data phenomenally well. I can’t help but admire this.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

To be fair, unless Xavier Edwards turns into someone pretty awesome they probably lost the trade where they got rid of Pham and Cronenworth, and somehow lost both Wil Myers trades, and they have had a lot of trouble developing their own draft picks. There is a tendency to attribute a certain amount of infallibility to the Rays front office, when the reality is that they tend to win more than they lose.

Anon
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Anon

Hadn’t really noticed it before but you are exactly right about the draft. I believe starting with the 2008 draft their best picks have been Kiermaier with 27.2 bWAR and Snell with 11.4 bWAR. Nobody else has more than 6 bWAR (and that’s with any team, not just the Rays). Obviously B Lowe is off to a great start to his career and is at 5.6 bWAR right now

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

They’ve gotten incredibly good at picking off guys from other teams who are just about ready to contribute, which masks the fact that their own picks (and for the most part, their own international signings) have not been very good. I didn’t mention the international signings part because I expect Wander Franco and Vidal Brujan are going to blow that part of the narrative apart…but they haven’t been great on that front, either.

Jolly Good Show
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Jolly Good Show

This is the problem that Oakland has too. Good at trading for players, but generally poor at drafting them.

Anon
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Anon

The A’s have quite a few more guys than the Rays with 6+ WAR since 2008:
Tyson Ross 7.5
Sonny Gray 18.8
Treinen 8.0
Addison Russell 10.7
Matt Olson 13.3
Max Muncy 9.6
Chapman 20.8
(They also drafted Aaron Judge and his 20.1 WAR but never signed him)

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

This is a product of the tanking era IMO. I think TB is in the right time at the right place. Most people who not paying up for talent are giving away decent players. That is the inefficiency of the current climate.

pudieron89
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pudieron89

It was a mostly frustrating decade developmentally, notable successes being Cy Blake Snell & Brandon Lowe.

Mike Brosseau was undrafted but was developed into a solid role player. Willy Adames was an acquisition that got more development in the Rays system than in the Tigers’; at the time of the trade where he and Drew Smyly were the main return for David Price, many said the Rays did poorly, but with the benefit of hindsight seems like that was incorrect.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I am not convinced Adames is a development success story just yet, but if they flip him before the rest of the league figures out he’s playing over his head then the Rays will likely come out winners no matter what happens.

carter
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carter

I see a potential star in Adames. When I watch him bat I just keep thinking there is another level that he hasn’t quite gotten to yet. It looked like he was there, but then slumped incredibly hard to end the season striking out over 40% of the time. Apparently he cannot see well, and he tried something like getting glasses and it actually hurt him? I am not sure the exact story, but I’d imagine fixing his eyes in the offseason is a top priority.

With that said, Rays seem to be masters in trading guys just before they start to suck, so if the Rays trade him I’d be inclined to believe you.

pudieron89
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pudieron89

OTOH they might trade him coming off a good season to clear the way for Franco. I hope they don’t, but doesn’t really matter what I hope.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

My favorite thing to point out is that they were ready to throw away Cronenworth’s real skill set to have him be a mediocre middle reliever. They were more concerned with creating a two-way player than cultivating what Crony was.

carter
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carter

Padres say Cronenworth will pitch next year too. I’d imagine that has some value. Not like a guy who comes in out of the bullpen, but a guy that can take the random inning here and there when they are getting beaten by a lot, or winning by a lot. I’ve long thought that more position players should pitch when ahead also, i.e if your team is up by 8 runs or something in the 8th or 9th. Now if you have a guy who is actually good enough to pitch, then you can use him in other spots as well. Universal DH (which apparently isn’t as final as we thought it was) makes that slightly less important though.

danwithopp
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danwithopp

Martinez was already jettisoned to the Cubs, where he got on base once in 22 PAs. He’ll be scrounging for a spring training invite in the offseason.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Indeed. He’s nearly out of baseball. Renfroe will get another chance with someone at a relatively after he’s non-tendered with a team with a terrible situation in RF, because there are enough of them, but Martinez doesn’t really play a position.

hahiggins
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hahiggins

Calling Meadows “potentially” an everyday player seems like…pretty down on a guy who was All-Star level in 2019.

carter
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carter

He was one of the worst players in the MLB this year. Negative war, etc

carter
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carter

With that said, a lot of the worst players had been decent before. Usually that’s the case, which is why they get plenty of rope when struggling.

carter
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carter

He was tied for the 13th worst player. He had injuries, etc. But I am not entirely convinced he is this star people thought he was.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Martinez was at the time the prize. I am not seeing Arozarena’s lofty prospect status reflected in a quick search of FG content. I just re-read the article that I think you are referencing and they use terms like “tweener”, “we don’t know much” and “potential average regular”. I can’t read that article and reach the conclusion that Arozarena was the prize. The article also declares STL to be the winners of the trade. But yeah, FG is right and everyone else is wrong.

shampain
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shampain

No, Arozarena was always the prize, as was obvious to anyone who knew anything about the players involved. Martinez had essentially zero trade value, much less that of a top-100 pitching prospect with an excellent pedigree.