Luis Arráez is following in Tony Gwynn's footsteps

Comparisons to Tony Gwynn began to follow Luis Arráez when he first established himself in the big leagues, growing more prevalent as the hits piled up and the batting titles followed. Arráez wasn’t as prolific, but his skills and the way he utilized them — consistently spraying baseballs to unoccupied spaces all over the field, barreling pitches regardless of how or where they were thrown — made links to one of history’s most gifted hitters seem inevitable.

Tony Gwynn Jr., the late Hall of Famer’s son, often heard them and largely understood them. But it wasn’t until the night of May 4, while watching Arráez compile four hits in his debut with the same San Diego Padres team his father starred for, that he actually felt them.

“I honestly had goosebumps watching him put together at-bats,” said Gwynn Jr., a retired major league outfielder who serves as an analyst for the Padres’ radio broadcasts. “It took me back to watching film with my dad as he was basically doing the same thing.”

Gwynn was universally celebrated throughout the 1980s and ’90s, but Arráez stands as a polarizing figure in the slug-obsessed, launch-angle-consumed era in which he plays. Some, like the Miami Marlins team that traded him away earlier this month, see a one-dimensional player who doesn’t provide enough speed, power or defensive acumen to build around. Others, like the Padres, who used four prospects to acquire him at a time when trades rarely happen, see the type of offensive mastery that more than makes up for it.

What’s inarguable is that Arráez is the ultimate outlier.

Case in point: The publicly available bat-speed metrics recently unveiled by Statcast feature a graph that places hitters based on their relationship between average bat speed (X-axis) and squared-up rate (Y-axis). All alone on the top left corner, far removed from the other 217 qualified hitters, is Arráez. He has the slowest swing in the sport but also its most efficient, theoretically, because he meets pitches with the sweet spot of his bat more often than anybody else.

Arráez has only 24 home runs in 2,165 career at-bats. But his .324 batting average since his 2019 debut leads the majors, 10 points higher than that of Freddie Freeman, the runner-up. He walks at a below-average clip, but his major league-leading 7.5% strikeout rate is about a third of the MLB average during that stretch, cartoonish in the most strikeout-prone era in baseball history.

He is elite even when he chases: The major league average on pitches outside the rulebook strike zone since the start of the 2023 season is .162. Arráez’s: .297.

“Now with the analytics they focus on home runs, they focus on guys hitting the ball hard but hitting .200,” Arráez said in Spanish. “But in my mind, and with all the work that I do, I stay focused on just doing my job — not try to do too much or try to do what they’re telling me to do. Analysts say my exit velocity is [among] the lowest in the big leagues. Amen. Let them keep saying that. As long as I have my health, I keep doing things to help my team, I’m going to be fine.”

Arráez became the first player to win a batting title in the American and National leagues in consecutive seasons last year. But trade rumors surrounded him from the onset of 2024, his second-to-last season before free agency. As a 27-year-old two-time All-Star with a .324 career batting average, a sterling reputation and a stated desire to remain in South Florida, he was a player the directionless Marlins franchise could build around. But a new front office considered him expendable. A 9-24 start to the season created an opening. And on May 3, five minutes before the first pitch was thrown in Oakland, Marlins manager Skip Schumaker called Arráez into his office.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” Arráez said, “I wasn’t ready to be traded.”

Schumaker told Arráez he’d have to remove him from the lineup because a deal with the Padres was close. He gave him the option of returning to the clubhouse or going into the dugout for one final moment with his teammates. Arráez stayed until the fifth inning, retreated to his hotel room, waited on a call from Padres officials and hopped on a flight at noon the following day to meet his new team.

Arráez didn’t have enough clothes for the additional six days of the Padres’ road trip. He wore his Marlins-colored cleats through stops in Phoenix and Chicago and compiled eight hits in 20 at-bats during that stretch. After the team got back to San Diego, he used the May 9 off day to search for an apartment and spend time with his mom, wife and three daughters, who flew in for a weekend visit, then delivered a walk-off single against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in his home debut the following night. He’s still living out of a hotel room crammed with unopened boxes, but he already feels wanted. Embraced, even.

“They’ve welcomed me here with open arms,” Arráez said. “I feel as if I’ve been here since spring training.”

Arráez was a 4-year-old in Venezuela when Gwynn played the final season of his 20-year career in 2001. When Gwynn died in 2014, Arráez was still a teenager on the Minnesota Twins’ Dominican Summer League team. Hearing comparisons to Gwynn made him curious enough to find old clips of a player who was mostly foreign to him. He began to study his approach to hitting, marveling specifically at Gwynn’s ability to let pitches travel deep into the strike zone before driving them to the opposite field.

Conversations with one of Gwynn’s most important mentors, Twins icon and gifted batsman Rod Carew, brought Arráez more insight. Now similar conversations are taking place with Gwynn’s only son. When the Padres return from their seven-game road trip through Atlanta and Cincinnati, Arráez plans to visit the Gwynn statue that sits just outside of Petco Park. He isn’t necessarily leaning into the comparisons, but he isn’t running from them, either.

“It’s such a great experience when fans embrace you with open arms and tell you that I’m a mini Tony Gwynn, and that I have a lot of traits that remind them of him,” Arráez said. “It’s nice to hear people say things like that.”

Perhaps the quality Gwynn and Arráez share most is self-awareness. “Know thyself” is a line Gwynn Jr. heard his father say repeatedly growing up, one that translated directly to how he approached his profession: He knew his strengths, worked relentlessly to maximize them and never tried to emulate others. Arráez’s new teammates already see the same in him.

“It’s not like he goes up there and just does it,” Padres third baseman Manny Machado said. “He puts a lot of work in the cage, before games, even before BP and stuff like that. He knows his strength, and he works on it.”

Baseball’s evolution has made it harder than ever for someone like Arráez to exist. Pitchers have never thrown harder, data has never been more prevalent, batting averages have hardly ever been lower. But Padres manager Mike Shildt is adamant that Arráez shouldn’t be an anomaly.

He recalled an old San Diego Union-Tribune article that re-ran May 9, on what would have been Gwynn’s 64th birthday. It detailed the amount of time Gwynn spent working on hitting, and it validated something Shildt had long believed: That more players could hit .300, even today, if they worked on the craft of doing so as diligently and as pointedly as Gwynn did. As Arráez does.

“When you have an ability to hit a ball to all the different areas, you’re going to hit,” Shildt said. “And big picture, our industry hasn’t taught that anymore. It’s not valued anymore. It’s not monetized anymore. You can’t quantify this, but it’s a shame how many amateur and lower-level professional players have been excluded from continuing to play because they don’t meet a measurable. They don’t meet an exit velocity or bat speed or launch angle, or all of those things that this game is now basically recruiting and monetizing blindly. They’re just getting hits. And somehow that became out of vogue in our industry in general.”

But those are now someone else’s problems. The Padres will gladly take Arráez, all he his and all he isn’t, and slot him ahead of Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Xander Bogaerts in hopes of riding his singular bat to the playoffs.

Arráez is still six batting titles away from catching Gwynn. He isn’t anywhere near as good a defender or as lethal a baserunner as Gwynn was early in his career, and he needs another decade-plus of similar production — heightened production, actually, given the .345 batting average Gwynn boasted between his ages 27 and 37 seasons — to even approach him as a hitter. But Arráez’s style is the closest we’ve got.

And if there’s one place that can appreciate it, it’s his new one.

“This fan base is going to fall in love with him,” Gwynn Jr. said. “It’s how a lot of them grew up watching baseball.”

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top