Red Sox, Twins youth key to spring training
If you are a Twins fan and see the team’s 22-year-old left-handed hitting phenom Luis Arraez crouching low over the plate with his bat held in a way that brings back memories of one of the greatest pure hitters in history, you are not out of your mind.
The young Venezuelan second baseman whose rookie season in 2019 produced the greatest rate of contact for a player’s first full season since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, has been under the close watch of Twins legend Rod Carew. It’s no coincidence that his mannerisms at the plate closely resemble the Hall of Famer who won seven batting titles.
Arraez is also watched closely in the spring by Tony Oliva, a three-time batting champion who was the last player to win a batting title as a rookie until Ichiro.
Arraez did not have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title last year but in 92 games, his .334 batting average was second in the American League to Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox.
It is undoubtedly unfair to compare the great accomplishments of a young hitter like Arraez to such mammoths as Carew and Oliva but it is also impossible to ignore the similarities.
“I’m watching him,” Carew said of Arraez. “We’re friends. He’s working, trying to improve.”
Arraez did not hit .334 last year in a bubble. He was a career .331 hitter in the minors despite being slowed down by a knee injury.
In a full season, his .334 batting average last year would have ranked among the top 10 of all hitters over the past five years. Carew said he has told Arraez “don’t take last year for granted.”
Carew said Arraez succeeds in part because “he hits the ball to all fields. I told him from the start, use two lines to hit. Use the left field line, use the right field line. He listens. He’s a good kid.”
It’s not just the batting average that sets Arraez apart from nearly every other hitter in baseball. He does not strike out. In his debut season, Arraez struck out just 29 times in 326 at-bats while walking 36 times. This was a skill Carew developed later in his career, never striking out more than he walked in his final 12 seasons. But Arraez has already mastered this art in a time when hitters are whiffing more than ever.
“I don’t like to strike out,” Arraez said.
Arraez is a throwback. His 11.2 at-bats for every strikeout last season would rank as one of the five best in baseball over the past five years if it qualified for a whole season. He also sported a .399 on-base percentage.
“He’s seeing the ball,” Carew said. “He’s tracking the ball. He’s not guessing.”
With the power of hitters like Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Miguel Sano behind him, Arraez knows his job is to just get on base and let those mashers do the rest. In his first 16 at-bats this sprint, Arraez has two singles, two walks and two strikeouts.
“I don’t want to hit the bad pitch,” Arraez said. “There are a lot of people behind me with power. If I go to first base, I will score every time.”
Arraez said he talks to Carew and Oliva every time he sees them, soaking up their knowledge.
“I told him to stay out of the air. You get more hits that way,” Carew said. “I used the whole field. I could have swung and hit for more home runs. I wanted consistency.”
Consistency is what Carew was known for, making 18 All-Star teams over 19 seasons. His seven batting titles are surpassed only by Ty Cobb, Tony Gwynn and Honus Wagner. Carew almost reached batting perfection in 1977 when he hit .388, the highest in baseball since Ted Williams did it in 1957. “It wasn’t something I was shooting for. It just happened,” he said. Carew was born in Panama and immigrated to New York City as a teenager. He rooted for Dodgers greats Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, as well as Williams and Hank Aaron.
Arraez could become a great one. His dad Ernesto taught him to be a switch-hitter but Arraez found himself more comfortable hitting left-handed after he signed professionally with the Twins at the age of 16 and left Venezuela to play in the Dominican Republic.
“I love to hit the other way,” Arraez said. “I want to put the ball in play. I hit the ball to centerfield.” If he sees a hole between the shortstop and third baseman, he will attack it just as Carew, Gwynn and Wade Boggs mastered that art before him. His sharp eyesight and quick hands give him an advantage.
“If I want to hit the ball away, I hit the ball away,” Arraez said.
Red Sox prospects
The Boston Red Sox have two young players getting a lot of attention this spring. Jarren Duran, a 23-year-old outfielder is hitting .417 in 12 at-bats as of March 2. He has three singles, a triple, a home run and two walks.
Chaim Bloom, the chief baseball officer for the Boston Red Sox, has been impressed. He uses words like “explosiveness” to describe Duran’s game.
“It’s a pleasure to watch him through his first few games of spring training,” Bloom said. “I knew what kind of ability he had.”
Duran has shown flashes of brilliance in the minors. He batted .357 in his first season of A-ball. In Class-A advanced Salem last year, he hit .387 in 50 games with a .456 on-base percentage. Duran did not do as well on the climb to Double-A Portland, where he hit for a .250 average in 82 games but his results so far have shown that the earlier indicators are for real. He swatted a home run off the Pirates top young pitcher Mitch Keller last week.
“Spring training results are something you take with a grain of salt,” Bloom said. “He is a really dynamic player and he is showing off on both sides of the ball.”
The Red Sox won’t rush him to the majors. “He still has development but it shows you the talent he has,” said Bloom of Duran’s hot spring start. “He has the ability to impact the game in a special way.”
Bloom won’t say for now when he thinks Duran could be called up this season. “There is a purpose to the development guys go through. We’re doing guys a disservice if we rush them. We want to make sure they are fully ready.”
Though the Red Sox surely can’t say it now for it would be premature, but Duran’s ability to hit for average, show some power and his blazing speed make him an ideal fit to help ease the pain of trading away their former MVP Mookie Betts. While Duran has not yet shown a lot of power, neither did Betts until later in his stay with Boston. Duran is also bigger than Betts at 6’2 (Betts is listed at 5’9) and could easily develop that power. Duran’s 46 stolen bases last season and eight triples speak to how much speed he has.
Another young player for Boston fans to keep an eye on this spring is pitcher Bryan Mata, a native of Venezuela who looked up to fellow countryman Felix Hernandez growing up.
The 20-year-old right-hander started against the Phillies last week, striking out two while allowing two hits and a walk over two scoreless innings. He was sharper in the second inning when he notched two strikeouts. He was able to get some bad swings on his changeup, curveball and slider.
Mata has not been mentioned as a competitor for the fifth rotation spot the Red Sox have open currently but if he is successful in the minors, he could get a call up this season at some point.
After his outing, Mata said through his translator that he had “a lot of confidence” in the outing. He said his changeup is his best pitch.