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One Big Question: Can Christian Arroyo be an an above average batter?

To stand out among a collection of utility infielders, Arroyo has to be better at the plate.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. We are checking in with Christian Arroyo today.

Christian Arroyo is one of the many players vying for the starting second base role for the Red Sox in 2021. After the team signed Enrique Hernández, it added another variable to an already unclear situation. However, for today we’re not hear to discuss the other potential second base starters.

We’re here to talk about Arroyo, who had a solid showing through the last few weeks of the 2020 season for the Red Sox. After Boston claimed him off of waivers from Cleveland in mid-August, Arroyo played in 14 games, adding a steady hand on defense and providing nearly league average offensive production (94 wRC+). The problem is, nearly league average isn’t what any team is looking for from a starter. For Arroyo to become an everyday player, he’ll need to become an above average hitter. Can he do it?

If we use historical evidence, the answer is no. Arroyo has a career wRC+ of 73, which is 27 percent below league average. He has finished with an above average wRC+ just once in his four partial MLB seasons, but the 107 mark he produced in 2018 with the Rays was across only 59 plate appearances. That brings us to one flaw in the historical evidence category. Arroyo hasn’t gotten all that much playing time at the MLB level despite making his debut in 2017. To date, Arroyo has a grand total of 305 career plate appearances, including a career-high 135 in 2017 with the Giants.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Unfortunately, this creates a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Arroyo needs more playing time to prove he can hit better, but because he hasn’t hit all that well when he has played it is difficult to give him more opportunities. At just 25 years old, Arroyo still has time to develop into an above average hitter, but to do so, he’ll have to address some of the weaknesses he’s exhibited thus far.

The most striking of those shortcomings is his ability to get on base. Arroyo has a career .283 on-base percentage (and a career .219 batting average). Last year, his OBP dipped below .300, while his walk rate sat at 7.4%. That’s easy to identify and may seem obvious for someone with the type of wRC+ Arroyo has usually produced. But if he was a premier power hitter, he could potentially get away with lower marks in batting average and OBP, although perhaps not to the extremes he has produced during his career. The fact is, though, that Arroyo isn’t an exceptionally powerful hitter, so how can he improve?

A bit more selectivity in his approach would be a good start. There’s certainly an element of chasing involved in Arroyo’s offensive struggles, as his chase rate (30.4 percent) sat a bit above league average last season, according to Baseball Savant. He’s been above 30 percent in each of the last two seasons, and his career-low mark of 22.6 percent occurred when he posted a 107 wRC+ for Tampa Bay. Coincidence? Probably not.

But to boost up that sorry OBP, Arroyo needs to do more than just take a few more pitches outside the zone. He also needs to turn his swings that do make contact into more hits. That’s a pretty simple and obvious answer to the problem, but actually producing such results is the difficult part. Arroyo really wasn’t helped in the luck department last year, with a BABIP of just .250. That was made even more striking because he actually made pretty decent contact most of the time, with 84.6 percent of his batted balls registering as medium or hard contact, according to FanGraphs. Unfortunately, Arroyo didn’t elevate enough of those batted balls, with just 10.3 percent turning into line drives, while 56.4 percent were on the ground, according to Baseball Savant. Interestingly enough, Arroyo did set a career-high in launch angle (7.8 degrees) in 2020, but that was still far below league average (11.9 degrees).

In addition to not producing enough frozen ropes, Arroyo also failed to use the whole field. Now, that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. Some of the best hitters in the league are very pull heavy, but that is usually accompanied by an elite power profile. As mentioned previously, Arroyo is not a slugger, so constantly pulling the ball (and pulling it on the ground a lot of the time) just opens him up to more outs than hits. Arroyo only went to the opposite field 12.8 percent of the time last season, according to Baseball Savant, which was far below the league average of 25.5 percent.

While we’re on this topic of going the other way, its not like Arroyo doesn’t see enough offerings do to do. He also isn’t afraid of swinging at pitches on the outer half of the plate. As you can see in the chart below, the majority of Arroyo’s batted balls were on pitches low and away last season.

Per Baseball Savant

Unfortunately, as the next chart shows, Arroyo didn’t hit those pitches as hard as those in the middle of the plate or up and away.

Now, the second chart does show that he made good contact on some pitches on the outside, but the problem is that the bulk of the balls he made contact with were low and away and not in the upper portion where he produced better contact. So the larger sample of his batted balls were being hit less effectively, which could potentially be solved by pulling the ball less. It might not be a perfect or exactly scientific answer, but it could certainly be a piece of the puzzle.

In addition to making a few changes to what he swings at and how he swings, there are some trends that emerged last year that indicate Arroyo is on a path of progress already. Of course, we have to mention that using the exceptionally small sample of last season, of which Arroyo’s is even more minuscule (54 plate appearances), can always over-inflate (or in the case of the observations above, under-inflate), but Arroyo did cut more than 10 percentage points off of his strikeout rate last year, going from 31.6 percent in 2019 to 20.4 percent in 2020. That corresponded with an eight-point bump in his wRC+, which, remember, floated near average. A continued improvement on that front could be very helpful.

There are a few more tweaks that could help Arroyo improve as a batter and thus improve as a candidate for a starting role this season. However, the primary culprits seem to be his struggles with simply getting on base and getting the ball in the air. Now, Arroyo doesn’t need to be an All Star to make those adjustments or to become a starter, but if he can perform at an above average level on offense consistently, he’s got a much better shot of being in the lineup every day.