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Strategies for defenses to stop Luis Arraez

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How do you prevent Luis Arraez from getting a hit? It’s a question that’s become increasingly difficult to answer, given that the Marlins infielder came into Friday hitting .403 in his first season with Miami, making him one of a very rare set of players to hit .400 through his team’s first 63 games.

The numbers, again entering Friday, are so cartoonish that they’re barely believable. Arraez has 87 hits, yet just 11 strikeouts. He’s got just one home run, yet he’s been intentionally walked five times. He’s offered a swing 416 times and missed his target just 28 times, a league-best 6.7% swing-and-miss rate. He’s even chasing far more than last year. It hasn’t mattered. The hits keep on coming, enough so that his 161 OPS+ is the NL’s best.

While he’s never done quite this before, this isn’t entirely out of character, either, given that Arraez slashed .314/.374/.410 across parts of four seasons with the Twins, who traded him to Miami in February. Whether or not it’s a hot streak or the new normal, it’s far enough into the season that we need to dig into this question a little further: How can you stop him? (And it’s really not about the limitations on shifting, given that Arraez was shifted against all of 2% of the time last season.)

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that teams do stop him; hitting .400 is not hitting 1.000. One hundred and nineteen times, Arraez has hit a ball that became an out. But, as you can see by his batted ball spray chart, he’s not exactly making it easy on them, either, by spraying hits just about all over the place.

So what’s the right approach here? Or, perhaps: Is there one? Let’s run through some ideas.

1) Don’t let him make contact.

Great idea! Even the modern-day Tony Gwynn, if that’s indeed what Arraez will end up being, can’t get a hit when he can’t make contact. It’s also not going to happen. Arraez’s 4.6% strikeout rate is the lowest in baseball and the lowest we’ve seen in decades; if teams could get him to miss, they would. 

Either way, this doesn’t have as large a connection to his batting average as you’d think. Consider it this way: in April, he hit .438 with a 5% strikeout rate, but in May, he hit “only” .330 with a 5% strikeout rate. So far in June, he’s hit a wild .556 with a 4% strikeout rate. Those are wild fluctuations in getting hits without any real change in contact rate. 

So not only does it barely seem possible to miss his bat, it doesn’t correlate that well to allowing hits anyway — which, for Arraez, is entirely about whether that batted ball finds dirt, grass, or a waiting glove. Next idea?

2) Position your outfielders more shallow.

So where are those hits even coming from, anyway? Let’s break it down into hits and outs. The outs are to center and left in the outfield, and to the middle or right side on the infield. The hits are … everywhere, aside from the outfielder’s regular starting points.

Arraez, for all of his obvious gifts, simply does not hit the ball hard, with his 23% hard-hit rate ranking in the 2nd percentile — that is, 98% of qualified hitters have a better hard-hit rate than he does. That’s why he has just a single home run, but it certainly hasn’t prevented him from piling up the base hits, either.

Because he doesn’t hit it hard, he doesn’t hit it far, either. There have been 354 players to hit at least 25 fly balls or line drives, and Arraez’s average distance of 262 feet is 338th. It does make you think, perhaps, the answer is “play shallower,” accepting that on rare occasions he’ll muscle a pitch up enough to get it deep enough for an extra base, but that you’ll benefit from all the singles you might prevent.

But … he’s already being played shallower than most any batter this side of Steven Kwan, and the four teams who have played their center fielders the shallowest against Arraez have all allowed him to hit at least .500 against them — and while that’s not all on hits to center field, it’s hard to make an argument that bringing in the center fielder has really helped. (It’s similar for left field as well, and somewhat inconclusive in right.)

In fact, if you look at the average starting spots for outfielders against Arraez, and split outcomes into what happens when all three play deeper than average as compared to when all three play shallower than average …

… you’ll see there’s not that much difference. Again, that’s for all batted balls, not just ones to the outfield, but if you’re trying to come with an overall strategy, that’s not a good sign, to start.

It might be that better positioning isn’t really possible against Arraez, unless you can go with 14 fielders, or you want to try an extreme no-one-would-ever-actually-try-this infield wall of four regular infielders and three shallow outfielders standing a few feet behind the dirt.

3) How did teams stop him in May?

“Stop,” we say, as though the .330/.380/.390 line he put up was somehow a poor outcome. Still, considering he hit .438 in April, and is at .556 to begin June, it’s certainly better, right? So how did that happen? As we said above, it’s not the strikeouts. It’s not much about positioning. It’s not about elevating, either, as he’s produced a nearly identical launch angle in each of the three months.

It is, a little, about the luck of batted balls finding gloves, or not. Not that you should worry too much about how much he’s overperforming his Statcast expected stats — though he is — but it’s all but impossible to do things like “post the highest Batting Average on Balls In Play in an entire century, yes, even higher than Gwynn or Carew” without a little good fortune going your way, and that doesn’t always last — as the 2022-23 Cleveland lineup can tell you.

That’s not much of a strategy, but it’s not all that, either, because in May, he really did just make lesser contact.

Not that his game is about “hitting it hard and far,” but he did those things less well in May, and that held up no matter how we sliced it — just on flies and liners, or just on hard-hit balls, or just on softly-hit balls, or even in the “expected” stats. In May, Arraez made the same amount of contact, but it didn’t lead to the same kinds of outcomes, beyond just the fluctuations of luck. He was merely very good, instead of an elite outlier.

Yet even here, there’s frustration for the opposition, because there’s no obvious reason here, other than “even the sport’s best bat-to-ball hitter can have a few bad games.” (Again: we’re talking about the month he hit .330 as “the bad one.”) Any changes we see in pitch movement, location, or type are extremely granular, and probably not actually worth highlighting as a reason.

Ultimately, we’re left with this unsatisfying answer …

4) Accept that you probably can’t do much about it.

… which is that seven non-pitcher/catcher fielders are probably not enough to stop Luis Arraez from collecting hits.

He’s going to keep doing this:

… because he does it more often and more consistently than anyone else in the game.

Ultimately, Arraez probably won’t hit .400, if only because he already hasn’t been over the last six weeks (.382 since April 26 ) and projection systems see him as finishing with something like a .360 mark, which would in and of itself be an incredible number. But there’s not exactly an obvious way to stop him, either — aside from simply not pitching to him. You can’t position your fielders in a way that’s optimal to catch his endless short liners. You can’t put the full shift on, not that you did in the past, either. You can’t get him to swing and miss, at least not enough.

All you can do is try to make his life at the plate the tiniest bit more difficult. So far, just about no one has figured out a way to do that.

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