Randy Arozarena’s Remarkable Run Continueson October 19, 2020 at 5:00 pm

Randy Arozarena’s Remarkable Run Continues

On a Rays team that’s long on talent but short on household names, Randy Arozarena has carved out an identity with a postseason for the ages. The 25-year-old left fielder, who has just 99 regular season plate appearances in his brief career, became the first rookie position player to win a League Championship Series MVP award via his four-homer, nine-hit performance against the Astros. He now has seven homers in this postseason, one short of a record, not to mention a prominent place on the leaderboards of a few other categories.

Arozarena’s final homer of the ALCS was a two-run first-inning shot off Lance McCullers Jr. in Game 7, giving the Rays a lead that they would not relinquish. That followed his game-tying solo homer off Framber Valdez in the fourth inning of Game 1, his two-run shot off Zack Greinke in the fourth inning of Game 4, and his solo dinger off Enoli Paredes in the fifth inning of Game 5. Here’s the supercut:

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For the series, Arozarena collected five other hits as well, and batted .321/.367/.786 while driving in six runs. In winning LCS MVP honors, he joined the OriolesMike Boddicker (1983 ALCS), the MarlinsLivan Hernandez (1997 NCS), and the CardinalsMichael Wacha (2013 NLCS) — all pitchers — as the only rookies to win the award; Hernandez also won the World Series MVP award, lest Arozarena need to set another goal. They don’t give Division Series MVP awards, but his .421/.476/.895 showing with three home runs against the Yankees, and for that matter his .500/.556/1.000 performance in the Wild Card Series against the Blue Jays, might have garnered him additional hardware. The dude is en fuego, hitting a combined .382/.433/.855 through 60 postseason plate appearances, with 11 of his 21 hits going for extra bases (three doubles, one triple, seven homers). He’s tied for fourth in homers in a single postseason:

With the exception Bob Robertson of the 1971 Pirates and Lenny Dykstra of the 1993 Phillies, both of whom are in that six-homer horde, all of the players above benefited from postseason formats of at least three rounds, though some of them, including Ken Griffey Jr. of the 1995 Mariners, Jim Thome of the ’98 Indians, Stanton, and Beltran were on teams that got bumped off en route to the World Series. A one-man wrecking crew can do only so much.

Arozarena has a shot at climbing to the top of that list, and perhaps an even better shot at topping the total bases leaderboard:

Even including the 0-for-4 he put up with the Cardinals in last year’s postseason, Arozarena’s career .797 slugging percentage in the postseason is second only to Colby Rasmus‘ 1.038, which was done in just 35 PA to Arozarena’s 65. Odds are that will regress even if his totals increase, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

All of the other players on both of those lists were well-established in the majors if not necessarily well known; the only other rookie to crack either leaderboard was Evan Longoria, who’s among those not pictured in the six-homer bunch from the first table. He had just finished a 2008 season that would garner him the AL Rookie of the Year award. Arozarena, remarkably, will still have Rookie of the Year eligibility next year.

If you’re unfamiliar with his back story, it’s worth a review. Born in Arroyos de Mantua, a small city on the northwest coast of Cuba, on February 28, 1995, Arozarena tore up Cuba’s 18U league in 2013, and earned a spot on the junior national team (Yoan Moncada was a teammate). After similarly tearing up a 23U league, he spent his age-18 and -19 seasons playing second base and the outfield for Pinar del Rio of Cuba’s Serie Nacional, notably hitting .291/.412/.419 as a 19-year-old in 2014-15, at which point Baseball America ranked him as the number nine prospect in Cuba. Via the New York Times‘ James Wagner, he soured on Cuba after his father died suddenly from an allergic reaction to shellfish in 2014 and he was left off Pinar del Rio’s roster for the 2015 Caribbean Series in Puerto Rico out of fears that he would defect, which he ended up doing anyway in June 2015. He established residency in Mexico and attended the academy of the Toros de Tijuana before the Cardinals signed him for $1.25 million in August 2016.

I found it fascinating to trace Arozarena’s evolution as a prospect through Eric Longenhagen’s writeups and grades. When he landed on the Cardinals’ Top Prospects list at number 16 in 2017, Longenhagen described him as “an explosive physical specimen without a clear position,” a 40 Future Value utility type whose hit tool and game power were suspect, with future grades of 45 and 40, respectively. That overall grade held even as he shed the utility tag and landed in the outfield. The grade on the hit tool improved to 55, with Longenhagen writing for the Cardinals’ 2018 list, “Arozarena’s combination of bat speed and hand-eye coordination should enable him to be an above-average hitter… He’s limited to the outfield corners and may not hit for enough power to profile as an everyday corner bat once big-league pitchers learn to stay away from him.” By 2019, he had the unenviable label of a “tweener,” lacking the speed and instincts for center field or the power to play a corner. “His likely role is that of the lesser platoon, defensive replacement, pinch-running variety,” wrote Longenhagen.

After a 2018 season spent yo-yo-ing between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis, and struggling at the higher level, Arozarena hit well at both levels in 2019, including a sizzling .358/.435/.593 in his return to Memphis. He made his major league debut on August 14 of that year, starting in center field against the Royals and collecting singles off Kevin McCarthy and Ian Kennedy; though he played just two more games before being sent down, he returned for a September cup of coffee highlighted by a homer off the DiamondbacksMerrill Kelly, and came off the bench in five postseason games as a pinch hitter and defensive replacement.

All told, it was a big enough season for Arozarena to crack Longenhagen’s Top 100 Prospects list — the only such list he made — as a 50 FV prospect thanks to slight improvements in his run and field tools. By the time he landed there, however, he was a Ray, traded alongside Jose Martinez and a supplemental first-round pick on January 9 in exchange for prospects Matthew Liberatore and Edgardo Rodriguez, plus a supplemental second-round pick. “His quality of contact is very good, he’s a plus corner outfielder who can pass in center field, and he’s a great baserunner, as well as an intense, high-effort player who pro scouts love watching,” wrote Longenhagen.

Despite a strong showing this spring, Arozarena was optioned to Triple-A Durham due to the Rays’ outfield logjam, though that ended up being a moot point due to the pandemic. He missed all of summer camp after testing positive for COVID-19, and didn’t make his season debut until August 30, but he used his time in quarantine well, teaching himself to cook and adding 15 pounds of muscle with an exercise regimen that included 300 pushups a day. “I was eating healthy and I was controlling what I was eating,” he said in early September. “Aside from gaining mass, I also gained strength. I feel good playing at this weight (197 pounds over a 5-foot, 11-inch frame).”

That conversation came after Arozarena had homered four times in his first five games, only two of which were starts. He wound up batting .281/.382/.641 (176 wRC+) with seven homers in the regular season, a performance that prompted yet another reconsideration by Longenhagen, who based upon his improvement in maximum exit velocity from 109 mph last year to 113 mph this year — a bump from a 45/50 grade on the raw power to a 60 — had upgraded him to a 55 FV prospect, enough to move him up to number 42 on The Board.

Even with that increase in maximum exit velocity, Arozarena’s Statcast numbers from the regular season don’t jump off the page, but it’s worth noting that they’re based upon just 43 batted ball events, a small enough sample to be short of the point of stabilization (50 batted balls for both exit velo and barrel rate, per Russell Carleton), so perhaps not quite representative. As such, I think the numbers are worth another look given the added sample size — another 40 batted ball events — of his postseason:

Arozarena hits a lot of groundballs, and while he has 93rd-percentile sprint speed, he collected just one infield hit in the regular season and one in the postseason. His average launch angle is rather low for a guy with an absurdly high rate of home runs per batted ball:

That’s everybody with at least five homers in the 2020 season, including the postseason, with Arozarena represented by the yellow dot. The only player with a higher home run rate per batted ball, the red dot to the right and above Arozarena, is the Red Sox’s Bobby Dalbec, who had eight homers from among just 41 batted balls — truly small-sample territory — while the two dots just below him, with home run rates of 15.2%, are of Edwin Rios (brown) and Giancarlo Stanton (light blue), both of whom had exactly 10 homers and 66 batted balls. The other player of interest, the purple dot, is Nelson Cruz, who homered 16 times (12.1% rate) with just an 8.8 degree average launch angle and a 46.6% groundball rate. It’s an interesting group of players who have considerable raw power, even if they don’t always get to it; Dalbec and Rios both get 70 grades in that department, while Cruz and Stanton are guys who have won home run titles and hit for jaw-dropping distances. That’s not to say Arozarena is going to sustain that kind of home run rate, but he can be a slugger even with the groundballs mixed in.

The good news is that we’re about to get anywhere from four to seven more games to watch Arozarena in the World Series against the Dodgers, and it will be worth noting how they pitch him. The guy can manhandle fastballs; including the postseason, he’s produced a .512 xwOBA on four-seamers, a .580 mark on four-seamers 95 mph and higher, and a .543 mark on sinkers, which is particularly worth noting given how sinker-heavy the Dodgers’ bullpen is. That said, he managed just a .307 xwOBA against cutters, relevant not only to Kenley Jansen but also Dustin May, Walker Buehler, and Blake Treinen. His xwOBAs are similarly modest against curves (.318), sliders (.287) and changeups (.271). If the Dodgers want to keep him under control, they’ll have to throw him something besides heat. He’s more than amply shown he can handle that.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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