Randy Arozarena, the Perfect Ray, Has Taken Over October

How did Tampa Bay's rookie outfielder come out of nowhere? He didn't.
Author:
Publish date:

On the morning of Oct. 9, as he has done so often since long before he became a star, Randy Arozarena called his mentor. Arozarena’s Rays would meet the Yankees in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the American League Division Series that evening.

“So, Gerrit Cole is on the mound tonight,” said Guillermo Armenta, who has helped Arozarena blossom from a skinny Cuban prospect in borrowed cleats into the breakout star of the postseason.

The line went quiet for an instant. “Who?” came the reply.

Gerrit Cole, Randy. The best pitcher in baseball. The guy off whom you hit a home run and two singles four days ago.

“Ohhh,” said Arozarena. “O.K., O.K., O.K., I remember him.”

Randy Arozarena cover

Many baseball fans did not know Arozarena’s name back then, either. But he has captivated the nation with a run that's propelled the Rays to the World Series. Arozarena is hitting .382 and slugging .855 in the playoffs. His seven home runs tie him for fourth in a single postseason, one behind Barry Bonds (2002), Nelson Cruz (’11) and Carlos Beltrán (’04). Five of those have either given the Rays the tie or put them ahead.

He is hitting .500 on fastballs in the playoffs, so pitchers have begun trying to pound him with offspeed stuff. Unfortunately for them, he is hitting .314 on offspeed stuff.

Arozarena, 25, has one of those impossibly storybook origin stories: defection from Cuba in a small boat at 20, years in the Mexican minor leagues, stint in the Cardinals’ farm system, stardom. It has left many people wondering: How did this guy come out of nowhere like that?

The answer: He didn’t.

“Any of the guys who played in Memphis last year, we saw this for like, six weeks straight,” says Kramer Robertson, who played with him for the Double A Memphis Redbirds and Triple A Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals in 2019.

“What he’s doing now,” says Telvin Nash, who played with him for the Mayos de Navajoa in Mexican winter ball in 2019–20. “That’s no surprise to guys that have seen him play.”

“It’s crazy how that sounds,” says John Nogowski, who played with him for the Double A Memphis Redbirds and Triple A Springfield (Mo.) Cardinals from 2017 through ’19. “The dude just broke the record for postseason home runs. And we’re sitting here telling you, ‘Yeah, no, I’m not terribly surprised.’”

“I’ve been calling it since 2017,” says Andrew Knizner, who played with him in Double A, Triple A and the majors. “I’ve always said, He’s the best player on any field he steps on. And look at him now.”

***

Armenta still has the report he filed to MLB’s electronic Baseball Information System (eBIS) in 2016. “Confident actions,” he wrote of Arozarena’s baseball instinct. “Knows how to play.” Of his aggressiveness, he added, “Very determined.” Arozarena was an above-average hitter with occasional pull power, impact speed and good defense, he wrote. He summed him up: “Great Cuban prospect in free agency. Athletic body, with physical projection and will get stronger. Quick and explosive swing with hard contact, ball jumps off bat [and he] generate[s] bat speed. Top of order type with basestealer potential. Playable defensive skills.”

“Good report,” Armenta says now, a smile in his voice.

After Arozarena landed in Mexico in 2015, hoping to establish residency there so he would become eligible to sign with an MLB team, he met Armenta. After three days of working together, Armenta says, Arozarena ran the 60-yard dash in 6.9 seconds, about average for a major leaguer. Eight months later, when Armenta filed that report, he timed Arozarena at 6.38.

Armenta worked both as a scout for MLB and as the head of player development for the Mexican League’s Toros de Tijuana. He persuaded Arozarena to join their academy, which had sent some 50 prospects to major league organizations.

There Arozarena added power to his game. He starred for the Toros’ minor league team, the Toritos, leading the league in batting average and stolen bases.

Everyone has an Arozarena legend, and this is Armenta’s: He joked one day that a team would sign Arozarena if he could walk from home plate to first base on his hands. He did not realize Arozarena had spent a few months at the Cuban gymnastics academy as a child. He did it easily.

“I said, ‘Wow,’” says Armenta. “‘This is incredible.’”

Randy Arozarena swings

Arozarena agreed to a $1.25 million deal with the Cardinals in August 2016, but the short-season leagues were finished for the year, so he got only a few at bats in the fall instructional league. He also caught on with the winter-ball Mayos, for whom he would play for three years. He was already famous there by the time Quincy Latimore arrived that October. “We’ve got this kid with crazy bat speed,” the English-speaking players told Latimore. Arozarena lived up to the hype.

This is Latimore’s Arozarena legend: In the late innings of a close game against the Charros de Jalisco, Arozarena faced Robert Stock, now with the Red Sox. Stock was “throwing smoke,” Latimore recalls, 97 and 98 mph fastballs. “He throws Randy a fastball. He fouls it straight back. We’re thinking, You better throw him something different. He gets another fastball, and he crushes it over the wall.”

Nash played for the Mayos the next year. “He was the best player I’ve ever seen,” says Nash. This is his Arozarena legend: “I saw him pretty much make a catcher throw him what he wanted,” he says. Arozarena liked to flail feebly at a slider his teammates knew he could demolish. When the catcher called it again, he would put it in the seats. He would smile at the dugout as he rounded the bases.

“There’s only one other person I know of that said they did that,” says Nash. “That was Manny Ramírez.”

Arozarena inspired similar gossip Stateside. He hit eight home runs in 70 games for the High A Palm Beach Cardinals, in a league that tends to suppress power. Nogowski heard rumors of a Cuban monster.

“Then Randy showed up” in Springfield, he says. “He was about 160 pounds soaking wet. … Just the exact player that you’re seeing right now.”

His talent did not manifest itself fully that season—he hit .252 with three home runs in 51 games—but his personality did. His teammates loved him. He bestowed upon himself the nickname El Jefe, the boss. His English was limited, so he would point at himself, grin and announce, “Me! El Jefe!” He had a penchant for referring to himself in the third person, in both English and in Spanish. He also answered almost any comment in English—Hi Randy or I’m hungry or nice hit—with “Vamos Randy!”

This is Nogowski’s Arozarena legend: In a 2019 game against the Oklahoma City Dodgers, Arozarena singled in his first at bat, doubled in his second and homered in his third. He strode to the plate in the fifth inning looking for a triple to complete the cycle. He lined a ball down the left field line, motored to second for a stand-up double … and kept going. “He was out by, like, 40 feet,” says Nogowski. Somehow he executed a swim move and dove around the tag at third.

Nogowski is cackling as he relates the punch line: “Randy stands up and just gives the arms in the air and [yells], ‘Vamos Randy!’”

There are so many of these moments: The time he hit an infield triple. (The hater in the official scorer’s booth ruled it a three-base error, but everyone who was there that day knows what they saw.) The time he threw a Frisbee 500 feet. The times he played the outfield with someone else’s glove, just for fun. The times he decided something was wrong with his swing and hit bucket after bucket of balls in the cage to get it right while a line formed behind him. “You can’t say anything to him!” Ramón Urías, his roommate last season, says with a laugh. “ ‘I’m the jefe. I’m in charge here.’ ”

The time he decided before a game against the Arkansas Travelers to warm up on the bullpen mound. “He was throwing gas,” says reliever Tyler Bray. Arozarena stood for the national anthem with the relievers. Then, with no traditional preparation, he tugged on his batting helmet and stepped to the plate for his first at bat of the game. Triple, of course.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Nogowski.

Randy Arozarena celebrates

***

In the end, what doomed Arozarena in St. Louis was simply the good scouting that had found him in the first place: The team had too many right-handed-hitting outfield and first base prospects. Arozarena was a stud, but so were Harrison Bader, Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill, who are all on the major league roster. So are Nogowski and Lane Thomas, who are waiting for their chance. The Cardinals were flush enough that they traded Luke Voit to the Yankees and Óscar Mercado to the Indians in 2018. And on Jan. 9, 2020, they traded Arozarena to the Rays.

“Some guys get the opportunity and run with it,” says Latimore. “He's sprinting with it.”

Arozarena has built his legend in the Tampa Bay area. He hit .400 in 12 games before spring training shut down, then tested positive for COVID-19 before Opening Day. He quarantined in his St. Petersburg apartment, eating chicken and rice—the only thing he knew how to cook—and doing 300 push-ups a day until he was cleared to return to workouts in August. He says he gained 15 pounds of muscle and now stands at 5' 11"’, 197. He spent a few weeks at the alternate site in Port Charlotte, then joined the Rays on Aug. 30.

“We made the best trade-deadline [acquisition] in all of baseball by calling him up,” bullpen catcher Misha Dworken told reliever John Curtiss.

“That’s a bold claim,” Curtiss replied. He says now, “He was right.”

Arozarena amazes his teammates daily on the field and tickles them off it. He celebrates home runs with a spin move modeled after Cristiano Ronaldo and big wins with dance-offs. He stomps around in cowboy boots, swiped from teammates, that he calls las Botas de Poder, the Powerful Boots.

“My favorite player is Randy Arozarena,” he told the media in Spanish during the ALCS, and the rest of the Rays tend to agree. Most players spend half an hour in the batting cage before a game, graduating from drills to work off the tee to side tosses to front tosses to full throws, plus several rounds of on-field batting practice. Arozarena takes 10 swings off the tee, takes BP and plays in the game. He rarely watches video. He feels so locked in these days, teammates explain, that he does not want to mess himself up by overthinking.

“Give him a lot of credit for finding the consistency with his swing,” says manager Kevin Cash. “It's very simple. All he really wants to know is, What’s the guy's velo?”

The results are astonishing, but it’s the way Arozarena gets there that has gotten his teammates’ attention. He goes up hunting for a fastball, then recalibrates when he identifies that the pitch is offspeed.

SI Daily Cover

“It's pretty unexplainable to be able to hit the curveball to his pull side for a homer, and then hit 97 to right center, and to be able to do that in the same at bat because he's just adjusting,” says outfielder Brett Phillips. “No one does that. I’ve never seen anyone do that.”

Phillips is perhaps Arozarena’s No. 1 fan. He is Arozarena’s main dance-off competition; The two compete in dance-offs after big wins; Arozarena did a spinning headstand to win the one after the Rays beat Cole in Game 5 of the ALDS. When Phillips learned he would not make the ALCS roster, he appointed himself Keep-It-Simple Coach and, clipboard in hand, provided his teammates with such scouting reports as HIT BALL HARD. He also added reminders: RANDY GOOD PLAYER, RANDY > YOUR FAVORITE PLAYER and an acrostic:

RAKES

ALL

NIGHT

DAY

YEAR

The Rays no longer find his performance surprising. This is infielder Mike Brosseau’s Arozarena legend: “I don’t want to say that he’s called his shot a couple of times,” Brosseau says, “But he’s definitely gone up to the plate showing that he’s gonna do something pretty cool.” As he strides to the plate, or sometimes after he takes a pitch, he will turn to the dugout and smirk. Invariably, Brosseau says, he goes deep. “It’s very ‘Eye of the Tiger’–ish,” he says.

The legend the Rays would most like to tell about Arozarena is the time he helped them win the World Series. They will get their chance on Tuesday, when they will face Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game 1. And leading the way will be Randy Arozarena—whether he knows who is pitching that night or not. 

Read more of SI's Daily Cover stories here