For the last decade, players, fans, owners, and the media have become obsessed with “fixing” baseball. Some of these complaints have been unfairly placed on “analytics,” which has become a catch-all term for anything not understood by older generations. But the rise of Three True Outcome baseball has fundamentally changed the game, and not by making it necessarily as pleasing to the eye as it once was. That’s why players like Arraez have remained almost as important as winning. He provides unique, aesthetic entertainment value.
When Luis Arraez stepped up to the plate, it wasn’t just the excitement that he might score another hit and put the Twins in the potential place of winning. It was the question of how he might do it. Arraez would essentially perform something akin to a TikTok dance of quick moves, funny glances, and incredible gestures. His little swings were hardly the elegance of big boppers, but like strange little darts to foul balls that would surprise when he made contact. Whenever he poked one into foul territory or even took a critical ball just off the plate, he would jump up and down with excitement. There was a reason veterans like Rod Carew and Ichiro Suzuki quickly saw the potential for a batting title champ. He seemed transported from their era of baseball.
Any look at Baseball Reference or FanGraphs will show something different of course: Arraez made plenty of contact but ultimately was not worth the same as players like Buxton or Correa. Part of that came from his lack of defensive skill—though he notably was cited as a Gold Glove finalist after moving to first base—but also because the way statistics have changed our understanding of value. To put it in context, incoming Twin Joey Gallo produced more WAR hitting under .200 but with 38 homers in his 2021 season than Arraez did in 2022. Singles aren’t worth much when the home run ball is the only thing that matters.
But this has been the precise problem in baseball that many are trying to fix. Whether it’s high strikeouts, low BABIP, or just the exceedingly long pace of play, baseball is in need of some fixes. When Theo Epstein, who revolutionized both the Red Sox and the Cubs into World Series winners, joined the MLB Commissioner’s Office in 2021, he joked in part it was to reverse trends he had helped create. Does it matter what the game looks like if it isn’t particularly fun to watch anymore? The new rules coming in place this year are responding to exactly that.
For some, and in the eyes of a recent book on the Astros by Evan Drelich, Winning Fixes Everything. And for a lot of Twins fans, a playoff win is the only thing that will fix the problem. But the reason Arraez was so special for so many fans was not necessarily about his on-field production. He represented an entire aesthetic experience that has been dwindling in baseball (his Wario-like twin Willians Astudillo was similar though lacked an ability to make it to first, making Arraez a bit better of a balance). His plate appearances became appointment viewing because you were about to see something that few other hitters might do. He has always seemed determined to buck the trend of what baseball is supposed to look like, waving his finger at pitchers he refused to hit. Losing Arraez’s ballet at the plate will sting no matter how many swings Lopez gets on his change-up.
Years ago, former baseball writer Sam Miller explained why we watch baseball in what became a bit of insider lore on the sport:
The point of it is not to decide who is the best team. The illusion that that is what we’re doing has long been a powerful draw to sports…the point is to entertain people and make them forget that we are all dying right in front of each other — that this is just this horrible, rotten slog to rigor mortis, that we are going to lose everybody we know, that we are going to lose everything we have and the only way to distract ourselves is by separating our day into distractions.
That might seem a little drastic, but part of the point for us to ask us to actually define the entertainment of baseball, in which we demand so much from people that we will never meet in our lives doing something none of us could do even to a sliver of a percentile as better. I understand for many Twins fans, watching the best baseball team possible is the point. But for many of us who cherished Luis Arraez, the point was in part, to see them having as much fun as we did. I know I won’t be the only Twins fan checking in at Marlins games this season.