Ichiro and Rod Carew's favorite player? How Luis Arraez is making batting average cool again

He hits, and he hits, and he hits, a seemingly endless parade of lashes to left field and peas up the chute and bolts yanked to right, and it all looks so easy, so natural, so elementary to Luis Arraez -- like he's playing a different game than everyone else. Just look at him: hunched over in the batter's box, short and squat, ready to unspool his compact swing -- on pitches north and south, east and west, inside the strike zone and out, fast, slow and in between -- and feather a line drive to some unpatrolled square foot among the 120,000 or so that comprise a baseball field.

He might as well be a time traveler, sent here from a century ago, when batting average was king and home runs were the domain of Babe Ruth and a legion of lesser-thans. Arraez is as anomalous today as Ruth was then. In baseball's all-or-nothing world, he is everything.

Everything that has happened in baseball during its seismic change over the last two decades conspired to rid the game of someone like Arraez -- to overwhelm him with velocity and spin, to defensively position him into oblivion, to prey on his lack of raw power, to punish him for not worshiping at the altar of launch angle. And yet he remains -- and, this year, thrives.

"I love hits," Arraez said, and for someone who makes his living swinging a baseball bat, this sort of statement should not qualify as a surprise, or sound out of place, or register as archaic, except that it's 2022, the league-wide batting average hovers around .240 and one in every three plate appearances ends in a strikeout, walk or home run. The base hit is an anachronism.

This doesn't make much sense to Arraez. He is 25 years old, in his fourth big league season and his ninth in professional baseball, and he's here because of hits. He has compiled them everywhere he's gone: As a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League, where he batted .348 after signing as an amateur out of Venezuela for $40,000; as a 19-year-old in Low-A, where he hit .347; as a 21-year-old across two minor league affiliates, where he returned from a torn ACL that he worried would end his career and needed contact lenses to correct his vision and still managed to post a .310 average; and now in the major leagues, where his .320 career average is the highest for a player with at least 1,000 at-bats over his first four seasons since Ichiro Suzuki (.339) and Albert Pujols (.333) from 2001 to 2004.

"He's not doing it in an age where guys pitch to contact," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He's doing it in an era where the positioning is better. The pitchers' stuff is better. It's more challenging to get hits today than it ever has been. That can be frustrating. It's not easy. And he simplifies it, even though there's nothing simple about it in practice or in theory. There's no easy way to do what he does."

What Arraez does -- and what he's doing better now than ever before -- requires a combination of elite bat-to-ball skills, the ability to hit bad pitches and a maniacal routine that supercharges both.

Hitting always came naturally to Arraez. He started playing competitive baseball at 8 years old and remembers hitting around .800. Though such gaudy numbers continued into his teenage years, he never found himself among the seven- or even six-figure prospects because he resembled a Weeble and scouts had trouble projecting a position for him. He wasn't mobile enough for shortstop, wasn't powerful enough for first base. What he was, though, was an exceptional hitter with uncanny bat control.

Arraez, Baldelli said, has "gifted hand-eye coordination," and his willingness to let balls travel deep in the zone and whack them to the opposite field is unparalleled. His 55 hits to center field and left field this season rank only behind Boston's Rafael Devers. Arraez almost never swings and misses, with the second-lowest swinging strike percentage, on just 3.3% of pitches, next to Cleveland outfielder Steven Kwan.

Perhaps most impressive of all is how his facility for turning pitches outside the rulebook strike zone into positive outcomes. The league average on such batted balls is .167. Arraez is hitting .318 on non-strikes. Even with his knack for turning bad into good, Arraez's ability to control the zone has led to him walking more than he strikes out and leading the American League with a .427 on-base percentage. The Venn diagram of patient hitters who stripe line drives with regularity contains but a handful of names in the middle.

"That's not the goal for a lot of people," Baldelli said. "As much as we want to pretend like it is, it isn't. And even if they think that's the goal, they're not working toward it. He's always working toward the goal of hitting a line drive somewhere. You don't have to defend the whole field for most guys. When Luis Arraez steps to the plate, you have to defend every speck of grass on that field because he's going to keep you honest."

Still, this amount of success is new. Arraez attributes it to a self-optimization tour last winter. He joined his former teammate Nelson Cruz in the Dominican Republic in hopes of transforming his body and strengthening his legs. During their first workout, Arraez threw up. He soon adapted and fell into a new schedule: Hit from 9 a.m. to noon, crush a protein shake, lift weights, eat, take a nap, return near sundown for more hitting, sleep, repeat.

"[Cruz] works hard every day, no matter what," Arraez said. "You've got a bad day today? Tomorrow is another day. I've got two bad days, I go 0 for 8 -- but tomorrow's another day. He taught me a lot about how I can live my life. How I can play hard. How I can do my routine every day. I never worked like I'm working right now."

His in-season habits aren't quite as strenuous. Every morning, Arraez wakes up, kisses his daughters Emma, 4, and Esther, 2, and watches video -- some of recent vintage, others of 2016, when he won the Midwest League batting title. He goes to the ballpark, lifts and then he hits, and he hits, and he hits.

"It reminds me a lot of Michael Brantley's routine," said Twins shortstop Carlos Correa, comparing Arraez to his former teammate, the Astros veteran widely regarded as the epitome of a professional hitter and owner of a .298 lifetime average. "It's a lot of tee work and drills. It's working line to line. Not trying to lift it. Just try to hit line drives at the shortstop's head. And it plays."

Evaluators struggle to find a proper comparable for Arraez. He's Brantley but smaller. Jose Ramirez minus the power. Suzuki without the speed. For so long, he's been seen through the lens of what he lacks that it's time to acknowledge what he adds.

Just as baseball cultivated a generation of players to hit the ball hard in the air, it should celebrate those for whom strikeouts represent embarrassment and hits -- of any variety -- embody success. Which begs the question: If what Arraez does is so good for the game, why aren't there more players like him?

Arraez's season shows there is room for hitters who don't obsess over exit velocity, and whose emphasis on contact defines their baseball being. But they're not going to replicate his success. There is no secret sauce to create players of his ilk. As much as he works, Arraez concedes that sometimes, hitters are simply born.

It's why his fan club is populated not only by those who can appreciate what a supremely skilled hitter looks like but those whose supremacy at the plate landed them in the Hall of Fame. His biggest boosters include Twins legend Rod Carew, winner of seven batting titles, owner of a .328 lifetime average and, as Arraez recently learned, Suzuki, who copped to Arraez being his favorite left-handed hitter in baseball today. Neither Carew nor Suzuki lavishes praise willy-nilly. Their stamps of approval say as much as Arraez's numbers.

"He's a great player," Correa said. "He wants to be known. He wants people to know how good he really is."

Swing by swing, they're beginning to recognize it, whether it's via multi-hit games -- his 24 this season rank one behind Seattle first baseman Ty France for most in the league -- or big hits, like his recent home run off a Gerrit Cole changeup. They admire the perfectionism they see when Arraez talks to himself after he swings and misses. They sense the delight Arraez radiates, the same sort Baldelli noticed during spring training of his first season as Twins manager in 2019.

"It was about the relentless approach that he took to everything that he did, but also with a joy factor that he takes everywhere he goes," Baldelli said. "It's what he brings when he walks in the ballpark every day, and when he walks out, you're getting the same human being."

It's ever-present with Arraez -- he has landed at first base this season after spending previous seasons at second and in the outfield, and he loves the challenge of being undersized in the field -- but clearest when he's talking about hitting. He's student and practitioner. Being the best is his only satisfactory option.

"I want to win the batting title this year," Arraez said.

With that, the accolades will come: the reputational juice, the All-Star appearance, the money. The game ebbs and flows and at some point -- next year, when the shift is likely to be outlawed? -- will return batting average to a position of prominence.

Arraez is just ahead of the curve. Fewer strikeouts. More balls in play. Line drives. Skilled batsmanship. There is a place for that in modern baseball, a front-and-center spot worthy of veneration. For the zealots who want all or nothing, take it. The rest of us will get Luis Arraez and be thankful for it.