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Luis Arraez for Pablo López

February 11, 2023
Graveyard count. Six-feet-under count.
0-2 and it’s not even something you earned. A teammate took those strikes; you were just watching in the dugout, minding your own business. He earned them, and then he played at being hurt. Now the skipper is making eyes at you. Eyes that say: go to the rack, find yours.
Dead man’s count.
You hit the steps and you’re cold. Stiff. Swing the weighted bat. Look out and the one on the hill is that guy. Throws 100, 101, 102. The best in the game, Diaz. At the year’s end he’ll have 118 strikeouts on the books in 62 innings. 17.1 K/9, if you’re quick on the math. Tough. Tough.
And it's the bottom of the ninth, of course. One run game, of course. One out.
0-2 count, though. Guy throws 100 mph like it's nothing. Just pray he doesn’t buzz you inside, or you might turn out real dead. Dead-dead.
First pitch comes: 99 mph. Miracle, the bat finds it. Foul ball. Count unchanged, still 0-2.
Second pitch : 99 again. Harder foul, more of the bat. Still 0-2. Still feels like 105, 106.
Third: 100 mph, drifts outside. That late life the announcers like to go nostalgic on, but you track it. Hold up. Fourth: upstairs this time, still 99. Somehow the count has come even. Somehow you're halfway to filling up the hole. Undertaker is mightily pissed off. All that work undone.
That guy on the mound pumps another in at 99. You foul it back. Sixth pitch, he humps it harder and overthrows it, lets that tail tail inside.
From 0-2, the count is now full.
What’s he going to do?
Pitch eight, he finally, finally, finally gives you something that doesn’t fizz through the air, something that doesn’t rip molecules of oxygen as it spins towards the plate. But you’re sitting on red, sitting on 100, and you're so far out in front with the bat it’s a miracle you can get any wood to find the baseball. You manage it all the same, the softest of soft touches. A save-your-life foul.
Pitch nine Diaz comes back with another of those world-warping fastball, cut the fabric of space and time. But damned if he isn't tired now, just wanting all of it done. Wants the body buried and the dirt laid over, and he overthrows it. You toss your bat, walk down to first like Lazarus jigging out of the tomb.
*            *            *
Who is Luis Arraez?
Luis Arraez was last season’s batting champ. In a season of deflated offense, he hit .316, with a .375 on-base percentage (7th in the AL). His Weighted Runs Created Plus, a fancied-up version of OPS+, was 131, good enough for 19th in the league. He was just a point behind Vlad Guerrero Jr., who is known to hit a little bit.
Arraez is a contact hitter in the mold of Ichiro or Gwynn or Carew: a hard-to-strikeout, contact-first batter who drew more walks (50) than strikeouts (43) last year. He is also a versatile defensive player, who has circled the infield, capably handling time at shortstop, third, second, and first. A little outfield, too.
As a hitter, Arraez is a lot like Tony Gwynn. They have the same profile: left-handed, swing-first, line-drive hitters with a good sense of the strike zone, but hitters who are more focused more on getting the ball in play than drawing a walk.
 Let’s look at Arraez and Gwynn through their respective Age-25 seasons:
Tony Gwynn
Luis Arraez
Well…that is mighty close.
Arraez will turn twenty-six at the season’s opening, and his career track record suggests an upward trajectory: his OPS last season was a career best, and it happened in a season where he amassed more plate appearance than ever before.
And many contact players tend to have later-than-expected peaks. Tony Gwynn had something of a late peak. Brett Butler took a good while to figure things out, and then he scored 826 runs over eight seasons. Roberto Clemente had the same profile as Arraez a young player, and then he added power. Craig Biggio didn’t start to really hit until he was twenty-seven. Paul Molitor took a while, as did Richie Ashburn. Rod Carew had a couple batting titles at Arraez’s age, but he was mostly a singles hitter, with his best years ahead of him. Many, many players with strong contact skills have their best years after twenty-six, because it takes them a little while to figure out how to build on their base skill.
So that’s Arrraez: a young contact-first hitter in the mold of Tony Gwynn or Rod Carew, who emerged as one of the better hitters in the game last season. He is also plus-defensive player across the infield with three years of team control before he hits free agency.
*            *            *
A few weeks ago, the  Minnesota Twins traded Arraez to the Marlins, for starter Pablo López and a few prospects.
The two players are countrymen, both Venezuelans. That’s not important, but I thought I’d mention it.
*            *            *
So Pablo López. Let’s consider him.
Pablo López strikes out a fair number of hitters. Last year, he struck out 174 hitters in 180 innings, a rate that was good enough to rate 8th in the National League among qualified starting pitchers.
That sounds impressive, doesn’t it? He finished eighth in the NL is strikeouts-per-nine. He must be elite.
Well, no. He was eighth among qualified starters. There were only 22 pitchers in the league who tossed the requisite 162 innings. If you just went by starters who threw 100+ innings, he’d rank 29th. He strikes out a decent number of hitters, but he is not an elite strikeout pitcher.
2022 was López’s fifth year in the majors, and it was the first time he has ever crossed 120 innings pitched, so it is difficult to claim that he’s a particularly durable pitcher.
He has decent control, and his ERA last season was 3.75. That also looks okay, but suffers on investigation. A 3.75 ERA might be impressive for a lefty pitching in the Bronx, but it’s not an elite mark for a pitcher who makes half his starts in an extremely pitcher-friendly park, in a season when offense declined around baseball. Over his career, López has a 3.45 ERA in Miami, but a 4.54 ERA on the road.
Contract-wise, he has two more years of team control before he will be a free agent.
López is a pitcher whose track record is encouraging, but not yet elite. His raw statistics are aided significantly from pitching in a ballpark that limits homeruns, and he is further aided by having his first full season coincide with a year when offense declined overall.
Here’s a quiz: find López from this table of three pitchers, 2018-2022:
He’s the middle guy, right between Zach Eflin and Ross Stripling.
Zach Eflin and Ross Stripling aren’t anyone’s idea of aces, but they’re getting paid next year. Stripling, fresh off a career best 134.1 innings pitched last year, signed for 2/$25 million with the Giants. And Eflin – who tallied an elfish 75.2 IP last year – became the highest-paid free agent the Rays have ever signed, netting a 3/$40 deal this offseason.
So that’s who Pablo López is: a middle-rotation starter with upside and some limited evidence that he can handle a full season of work.
*            *            *
I read a little bit of coverage about this trade, and the overwhelming consensus was that the Twins won the trade. Ben Clemens at FanGraphs said that the Twins won a trade had to happen, given the return of Carlos Correa and Minnesota’s need for starting pitching. Emma Baccellieri at Sports Illustrated was baffled by the Marlins decision to swap a big trade chip for another single hitter to add to their very powerless offense.
 I concede the first point: Arraez does not have an obvious place on the Twins, and Pablo López does. The Twins aim to contend, and it is a reasonable conclusion that López gets them closer to contending than Arraez would.
I am less convinced of the Marlins-have-too-many-singles-hitters argument. Certainly, the Marlins have a lot of contact hitters, and very few power hitters. But plenty of teams havewon with that kind of lineup. The Cardinals reached three World Series in the 1980’s built around banjo hitters and turning the double play. The Royals went to consecutive contests in the 2000’s without anyone in their lineup hitting even 23 dingers.
Pulling the camera back further, the picture gets even fuzzier. Pablo López might turn into an ace pitcher, but he’s very likely going to be what he’s been all along: a decent starting pitcher who can keep a team in a game.
Luis Arraez’s projection is just much stronger. He’s close to Tony Gwynn. He’s actually a bit better than Rod Carew:
Tony Gwynn
Luis Arraez
Rod Carew
A hitter is a hitter, even if they don’t have power. Luis Arraez will never hit 20 homeruns in a season, but he can hit. He’s a good baseball player, who could be a great one.
*            *            *
So what do I make of all of this?
As I see it, the Arraez-for- López trade is a convergence of two trends in baseball as it exists currently. On the one hand, you have a trend where teams are willing to shell out significant contracts on the chance of decent starting pitching. On the other hand, you have baseball teams abandoning any reliance on high-average contact hitters who don’t hit homeruns as a cog to an efficient offense.
Starting with that second trend: I think most of us who have followed baseball over the past few decades have sensed a shift away from punchy contact hitters, and a shift towards the sluggardly-but-sluggish Adam Dunn prototypes. We’ve sensed this, but Bill has generously given us numbers to illustrate the fact:
It is also – as Bill noted recently – a skill that is disappearing in today’s game.
If you skipped that essay, I encourage you to go back and read it. Bill observed – in the same way that I can observe that people with more than two cats tend to be a little strange – that there has been a marked shift in the ratio of ‘contributors’ and ‘selfish’ players. And unlike my theory on cats, Bill put actual numbers to the claim:
"In the 19th century, the ratio of contributing players to selfish players was 339 to 9, or 37 to 1.
From 1900 to 1919, the ratio was 515 to 15, or 34 to 1.
From 1920 to 1939, the ratio was 440 to 28, or 16 to 1.
From 1940 to 1959, the ratio was 390 to 79, or 5 to 1.
From 1960 to 1980, the ratio was 375 to 211, or 1.78 to 1.
From 1980 to 1999, the ratio was 394 to 301, or 1.31 to 1.
From 2000 to 2019, the ratio was 322 to 529, or .61 to 1, or 1.64 to 1 going the other direction."
This is just staggeringly interesting, useful information. This has all kinds of ramifications about how teams win and how the sport has evolved, and it lays out in easy-to-understand terms. The population of contact hitters that Bill categorizes at ‘contributors’ have declined precipitously, while the population of the selfish sluggers has increased. The ratio has essentially flipped in the years I’ve followed the game.
Most of us have sensed this, but it is useful to have a number to apply to the trend. The game now strongly favors all-or-nothing power hitters, over contact-first players like Luis Arraez.
On the other hand, baseball has become obsessed with hard-throwing starting pitchers who cannotstay healthy. If a pitcher has one passable year, they are suddenly a hot commodity. Pablo López stayed healthy and had a passable ERA throwing in an echoing ballpark, and somehow, he’s a great trading chip.
*            *            *
I haven't paid much attention to the Florida Marlins organization. But this trade – and the conclusions people have made about this trade – have me suddenly very interested in the organization.
Let’s say you’re the GM of a poor baseball team that resides in a pitcher’s park. And let’s say that you are trying to be competitive in a league where strikeout rates are high and starting pitchers rarely scrap past 160 inning. What would be the best way to optimize that situation?
I think the best way to optimize that situation would be to draft a ton of starting pitchers, give them the chance to throw major league innings in a park that keeps their ERA down, and answer the phone when the other GM’s start calling.
Isn’t that exactly what the Marlins have been doing?
And let’s say that you – the GM - notice that the market for hitters is skewed massively towards the sluggardly sluggers, with no one giving a damn about pesky little singles hitters who can play their way around the diamond.
Who would you target? Who would you try to acquire, especially given that your team plays in a pitcher’s park, and your organization is committed to developing young arms to sell off as lottery tickets to the richer GM’s?
I know who I’d target: I’d target Luis Arraez. Who gives a damn about a power hitter in Miami? No one can get it out of that park anyway.
The more I’ve thought about this trade, the more I’ve come around to the conclusion that it is not merely a good trade for the Marlins, but a trade that hints at an undercurrent of genius at play. The Marlins netted this generation’s Tony Gwynn, and they did it for the price of a mid-rotation arm who is so far more icing than cake. Just as impressively, they’ve convinced most of us who think too hardabout baseball that they were the losers in the trade.
It’s a nice trick, but I’m not fooled. I don’t think the Marlins team will contend in 2023, but they’re following a line that’s very interesting. They’re going to be worth paying attention to this year.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at 

COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

excellent article. Loved it. The Twins are fools.
2:46 PM Mar 2nd
Dave, I have to at least in part agree with with gendlerj said earlier. While I loved watching Luis hit and certainly wish for a return toward the halcyon days of Tony Gwynn type hitters rather than Rob Deer, Arraez really doesn't have a position other than hitter. He has a history of knee problems, and has never been a really good defensive player other than last year at first base. The Twins are betting that his legs aren't going to age well and he will become essentially a DH. Not that there's anything wrong with that...Paul Molitor really became Paul Molitor after he quit trying to play the infield and wasn't injured for significant chunks of the season. Hopefully this is one of those trades that works out for both teams.
8:26 PM Feb 22nd

You are certainly right that following the same playbook as everyone else is not necessarily the way to go. Even if everyone is doing the same general thing, some will do it much better than others, and there will still be 100-win champions and 60-win bottom-feeders. So if you can't do the trendy thing well, why not try something else?

Also, I wouldn't be so sure that Arraez won't ever hit 20 home runs. It is not uncommon for a player to develop his power stroke in his mid-20s or later.

Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, for example, showed no extra-base pop early in their careers but then found it. Whitaker had just 12 home runs in his first four full seasons, then hit 14 in his Age 25 campaign and was in double-digits every year but one for the rest of his career, with a high of 28 and a career total of 244.

Trammell had only 26 home runs in his first five full seasons, then hit 14 in his Age 25 year and had a bunch more seasons in double-digits, with a high of 28 and a career total of 185.

I like this trade for the Marlins. A young everyday player who hits and gets on base for a mediocre pitcher who might throw 15 or 20 games' worth of undistinguished innings a year? Not necessarily a robbery, but I think the Marlins likely left the scene with more in their pockets.
5:39 PM Feb 22nd
Hey Dave, nice piece.

In the trade value simulator, Salas makes this overwhelmingly a win for the Twins, although, interestingly, they were probably the most stacked team in baseball with young SS with Brooks Lee and Royce Lewis. Salas is well behind them. Get him a first baseman's glove.​
7:15 AM Feb 19th
I live in Minneapolis, and I hated to see the trade. Arraez was the hitter who gave fans the most confidence he would get a hit in a high leverage spot, whether or not that is correct. However, I think the
Twins disagree strongly with you on your description of his defense. He has had knee problems for several years, so his range at 2nd is limited. I thought he played 1st more than adequately last year, but he is approximately 5'10" with the resulting concerns about being relatively short at 1st base. Even with many outfield injuries last year, they did not send him back into left field.

The Twins are betting that several other left-handed hitters will help replace him. None, however, have his skill at getting base hits and none will come close to his OBP.
8:12 PM Feb 15th
I thought about mentioning Salas, but I didn't want to muddy the waters too much. This was one of those articles were I spun the wheels too much trying to figure out what I wanted to say.

Salas is a Top-100 prospect, though towards the bottom of that list. He's still 19, showed speed and pop in A-ball last year. Projects to be a middle-infielder, and he's a switch hitter. He's another Venezuelan, actually, like Arraez and Lopez.

It's an interesting question to know how to consider young prospects like that, when you're evaluating a trade about two players who are in the peak of their careers. Arraez and Lopez were exchanged with the expectation that they'd be impact players now; it'll take a while before we know what kind of an impact Salas will have, and where he'll be when it happens. For all we know, he might get swapped a couple more times before he can buy a beer at a bar, and then we'll forget that he was the throw-in for this deal.
1:55 PM Feb 12th
A couple of points about the trade:

1. The Twins didn't get just Lopez--they also received Jose Salas, who was the Marlins' #7 prospect (second among position players) in last year's Baseball Prospectus Futures Guide. If he turns into Arraez with some power down the road, the Twins clearly won the deal.

2. Most of the Marlins' top prospects are pitchers. Trading Lopez opens up a spot for one of them.

8:17 AM Feb 12th
Enjoyed the article, Dave, Thanks.

Thanks, because this supports something I've mentioned a time or two. If everybody is playing a certain kind of baseball and they are better at it than you are, why keep playing their game? Expanding on that, if the underlying reason that you are not as good at that game is because you aren't as rich as they are, well...that just emphasizes that you need to find a different way.
5:37 PM Feb 11th
Not to nitpick on Richie Ashburn (who is one of my favorite players), but he followed up a strong rookie season with a .284/.343/.349 line, good enough for an 88 OPS+. Through his Age-25 season, his OPS+ was 107. He has stretches of being a decent hitter, but he didn't find his handle on it until later in his career. Ashburn's best seasons as a hitter were 1955 (when he was 28 years old) and 1958 (31 years old).

Molitor is interesting: he had some strong years as a young player, but he also had a four-year stretch between 1983-1986 (when he was 26-29 years old) when his OPS+ was 107. There was a real question whether he was going to wash out, and then he posted a 140 OPS+ for the better part of his thirties and went into the Hall the first year on the ballot.
5:18 PM Feb 11th
I think power is a great commodity, but there’s always a need for a high average hitter who can deal with strike-throwing pitchers who won’t give away walks. Especially if they bring patience or a little power or speed. OPS is great, but you have to understand the components, not treat low-average power guys and high OBP singles hitters as equivalent. Bill’s analysis was brilliant, and echoed my longtime view that balance is what wins.

This deal should favor the Fish. We don’t know that it will, but kudos to them for seeing an opportunity to steal a rare threat at a young age.
4:35 PM Feb 11th
Rod Carew was having a breakout season at age 24 and was injured, basically missing the rest of the season. He played well the next two seasons but lost a lot of power. Recently I have come to the belief that he was still recovering from his injury. He did win the batting title the second year, but as Bill James showed in an article, it was a weak batting championship.

Carew had a breakout season at age 27. For the next years his OPS plus was in the 140 to 150 range, except 1977 when it was 178.

I do agree with your point. I am sad the Twins made this trade and this article explains why?
4:11 PM Feb 11th
Interesting angle on this trade and its implications. I just want to nitpick one thing you said: "Paul Molitor took a while, as did Richie Ashburn."

Ashburn hit .333 as a 21-year-old rookie in 1948. His on-base percentage was .410. So I don't think he really fits that characterization.

It doesn't affect the article, but as I said, I just wanted to mention that.
12:07 PM Feb 11th
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