Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we look at the year that was for Christian Arroyo.
2020 in one sentence
Christian Arroyo was a late arrival, both to the organization and to the major-league roster, but he left a real impression and quickly became the everyday second baseman by the end of the year.
The Red Sox made a lot of waiver claim and scrap-heap pickups this summer, but the majority of those came on the pitching side. Arroyo was the rare position player in that group, and he is arguably atop the list. A former top prospect from the Giants and Rays, he had struggled to get a footing in the majors before this season, and while the sample this past summer was only 54 plate appearances, there were positive signs. Chief among them was his quality of contact. Arroyo was hitting everything hard, with a 41 percent hard-hit rate according to Baseball Savant. Again, the size of the sample forces us to take every number with the biggest grain of salt you’ve ever seen, but just going by the ol’ eye test leads us to the same conclusion. He was squaring a whole lot up, never quite looked overmatched at the plate, and was particularly excellent when pitchers allowed him to get his arms extended.
Specifically, Arroyo was able to feat on fastballs, which he saw over two-thirds of the time, again per Baseball Savant. While he averaged just 80 miles per hour in exit velocity against offspeed and breaking pitches, that number was all the way up to 94 mph on fastballs. Every batter is better against fastballs, of course, but with Arroyo he was significantly better despite them taking up such a large percentage of the offerings he saw. Generally speaking, I don’t love looking at things like batting average against certain pitches because these things don’t work in a vacuum and every pitch works off the previous ones. That said, with Arroyo seeing such a high fastball rate it seems worth noting he did hit .286 against the pitch.
I also thought the former first round pick looked good at second base, which was not really something I was totally sold on before seeing him. Arroyo had come up more as a third baseman, and he always struck me as a tweener-type who had a middle infielder-type bat but couldn’t play in the middle infield. Now, second base certainly is not the premium position it once was as shifting allows teams to more easily hide players at this position, but I thought Arroyo made the plays he should have and had some quick reactions laterally that allowed him to rob a few base hits. Again, I hate to keep bringing this up but the sample isn’t really big enough to say he’s a lock to be above-average here moving forward. That said, I thought the tools were certainly there.
Although Arroyo made a strong first impression, to the point where Jerry Remy said multiple times he should be the everyday second baseman in 2021 (more on that in a minute), he still actually finished with a below-average 94 wRC+. Granted, that came with a .250 batting average on balls in play, which is tough to square with his hard-hit rate discussed above, but he also struggled to make contact on a consistent basis. I talked above about his success against fastballs, which was certainly true when he made contact. It should be mentioned, though, that he swung through 28 percent of pitches at which he swung. Overall, per FanGraphs, he whiffed on 12 percent of pitches he saw, a full percentage point higher than the league-average rate. His 20 percent strikeout rate is actually solid (and a little better than average) in today’s era, but the whiff rates, both on the pitch he sees most of the time and overall, suggest that number would rise in a more representative sample.
Going back to the pitches he saw, Arroyo can also expect to see a whole lot more non-fastballs moving forward. While he had those solid numbers against fastballs and squared up plenty of them, he struggled mightily against anything else. I mentioned the low exit velocity, and against breaking balls in particular he rolled everything over on the mound. Against offspeed pitches, he just couldn’t make contact, whiffing over 36 percent of the time. Those two types of offerings combined for just 30 percent of the pitches Arroyo saw in 2020. Expect that number to increase by at least 20 percentage points moving forward.
There’s also some warning signs with respect to his aforementioned batting average on balls in play mentioned above. Some of that is certainly bad luck given his hard-hit rate and the small sample, but it’s also worth noting he hit a lot on the ground. Not too long ago, grounders weren’t a bad way to get on base. In the era of shifting and advanced positioning (Arroyo doesn’t get shifted per se, but even without true shifts more sophisticated positioning can bring down BABIP) that is less true. Arroyo, according to Baseball Savant, hit nearly half of his balls in play on the ground. With the way he hits the ball and the solid power he possesses, he’s someone that should be trying to lift the ball a bit more.
The Big Question
Looking Ahead to 2021
As I said, Remy is on Team Arroyo at second base for next season. I am not sold on that myself. I certainly think, between his pedigree and what we saw in the small sample this year, that he has earned a roster spot and should be a bench player in 2021. Starting him would seem to be asking for trouble, though. There are too many red flags for me, between the contact rate, the grounders, and the fact that he didn’t really see a diverse pitch mix. I would prefer a steadier, safer option at second base, but also recognize that there are other positions — i.e. starting pitching, relief pitching, center field — that will take precedence this winter. I wouldn’t be shocked if he did indeed start the year as the everyday second baseman, but I would be fairly surprised if he ended the year in that role.