Stern: The best ballplayer nobody's talking enough about

Luis Arraez
Photo credit Megan Briggs / Stringer / Getty Images

While some sports superstars draw massive attention with easily recognizable traits and attributes, others become silent assassins that aren't nearly as well known. And current MLB batting leader Luis Arraez, currently hitting .398 for the Marlins, is quietly having a season for the ages. Shohei Ohtani's highlight reel home runs are shown daily on ESPN, but Arraez's dominance at the plate is seemingly flying well under the radar, despite accomplishing historic feats.

Surely, what Ohtani has achieved both on the mound and in the batter's box, is mesmerizing. But not every piece that mentions the Angels' superstar has to be a "Sho-Time" opportunity. While Arraez isn't a pitcher, his dominance at the plate is unlike anything we've seen in recent memory. He's hitting .417 on balls in play with a .450 on base percentage (68 games), all while striking out a career-low 5.3-percent of the time.

With front offices obsessing over the home run and launch angle, hitting for a high average with little power is that much more impressive. Arraez's focus on using the whole ballpark, paired with his ability to not just guess where a pitch is thrown, but to also aim it in the perfect spot, is nothing short of remarkable. He's one of a few players in the modern game who's had success offensively while not becoming overly oriented toward the most desirable result.

"It feels like every other day, he gets five hits," Miami manager Skip Shumaker told reporters after Arraez's five-hit game on Monday, his third of the season.
"Any time you're mentioned with Ty Cobb, I think that's pretty special. They're hard hits, too, and against good pitchers. The way he's doing it up the middle, when we need it also, it's not just a blowout game or not a blowout game. It's pretty special."

What's the best part about Arraez's emergence? The unpredictable nature of it. He batted .316 last season and .294 in 2021. So, he wasn't off-the-radar, in terms of players who could find consistency at the dish. But no fan or analyst could've anticipated that any player, let alone a lesser-known middle infielder in his fifth MLB season, would have such a breakout performance. Not when flirting with a .400 average has become more of a fantasy than a possibility.

Luis Arraez
Photo credit Jason Miller / Stringer / Getty Images

To put Arraez's offensive breakout into perspective, baseball's 2022 batting champion, Jeff McNeil, hit .326. Excluding the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, the highest average a hitter has recorded in the last 10 years came from DJ LeMahieu (.348 in 2016). Both averages are significantly below the .400 mark, which demonstrates how challenging it is to reach the threshold. "I just believe in myself, I trust myself, and I just come in here and play hard," Arraez explained to reporters on Monday.

Baseball has always been the sport that embraces failure. Players who get a hit one out of three times are considered brilliant, while pitchers with an ERA at or below three are considered elite. With many pitchers throwing close to 100 miles-per-hour, collecting hits has never been more challenging.

Finding a ballplayer who got a hit in every other at-bat felt like an unrealistic expectation, given the game's difficulty. Getting a rare talent who can put a .400 average on the back of his baseball card seems like the closest thing we’ll see. It couldn't be more fitting that the player riding this magic carpet through the first part of the 2023 campaign is doing so on his terms, while reinventing the way big leaguers can, and should, view hitting.

With a $6.1 million salary this season, Arraez is one of the best investments money can buy. He's currently tied with Dodgers superstar Freddie Freeman with a 3.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is the eighth-highest mark in baseball. While Freeman has 13 home runs, compared to Arraez's two, it's hard to justify him having a contract that pays more than four times as much money, at $27 million. Freeman's power numbers, consistency, and defense rank him among baseball's best. But the pay differences here speak to how players who hit for high averages with less power have become devalued.

In a sport enamored with advanced analytics and rule changes, baseball has delivered a modern hero. By debunking the conventional model for success at the plate, Arraez has produced improbable results for the up-and-coming Marlins. And while it's abundantly clear that he's the hero baseball deserves, the feedback and reception he receives at the end of the year will determine how many players try and emulate Arraez's approach.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Megan Briggs / Stringer / Getty Images