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Can Randy Arozarena Live Up to the Hype?

After a prolific postseason, the Rays' rookie slugger has the set the bar for himself extraordinarily high.

Not since Albert Pujols in 2001 has anyone dominated baseball without warning the way Randy Arozarena did last postseason. Or maybe, because The Legend of Randy Arozarena could have been written by Bernard Malamud, you prefer to go back to Roy Hobbs.

Traded by St. Louis last year because it had plenty of outfielders they liked better.

Quarantined with COVID-19, gained 15 pounds of muscle cooking rice and cranking out 300 push-ups a day.

Did not start back-to-back games in his first 11 days with the Rays.

Sought no information on opposing pitchers other than how hard they threw. Slugged .831 in the postseason with a record 10 home runs in 20 games.

In the offseason, raced a horse, sold the movie rights to his life story, married, visited with underprivileged children and inmates in Mexico, and hit the weight room to pack on more muscle.

Teammates last October called him “the best player on the planet.” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash called him “the Cuban Mookie Betts.” Rays shortstop Willy Adames called him “the Latin Kevin Hart” because he is so funny.

That Arozarena came from such relative obscurity in an age of prospect hype made his Ruthian postseason all the more legendary. It also makes it more difficult to know whether Arozarena is closer to being the next Pujols or the next Kevin Maas—or the next Zeke Bonura.

No sequel this baseball season will be more fascinating to watch than The Legend of Randy Arozarena, Part II. Teammate Kevin Kiermaier needed only one day of camp to file an advance review.

“Legit,” he says. “As legit as can be. His first [spring] game, line drive up the middle. Probably 110 miles per hour off the bat. He’s made a name for himself and he will be around for a long time. He’s just a freak athlete who lets his abilities do all the talking."

Randy Arozarena swings

“Freak athlete” is not hyperbole. Only three other players last year hit the ball as hard and ran as fast as Arozarena (92.3 mph exit velocity, postseason included; 28.8 feet per second sprint speed): Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Trout, three players with contracts totaling $866.5 million.

Arozarena is a throwback to a simpler game, when hitters were not studying tablets in the dugout, dialing up their launch angle or calibrating pitching machines to mimic the spin rate and spin axis of the opposing starter. When it comes to studying video, he prefers YouTube.

“My goal,” he says through interpreter Manny Navarro, “is to be aggressive and try to make the best contact I can and try to get my hands going as fast as I can. I like to have fun. So I try not to overthink things. I just try to be as aggressive as I can and have fun while doing it.”

Arozarena officially still is a rookie. He has played 42 regular-season games. From Maas to Sam Horn to Mike Jacobs, baseball history is littered with 42-game phenoms who never amounted to much. Of the 77 players to hit 10 or more home runs in their first 42 games, only three reached the Hall of Fame: Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Frank Robinson. Pujols will be a fourth.

Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins hit the most home runs, 18, in his first 42 regular-season games. His slash line through that point (.285/.416/.701) is a bit better to what Arozarena has done (.286/.384/.607). But since that initial burst, Hoskins has faded (.234/.357/.472).

Pitching adjusts to hitting. It always has, but it happens quicker now because of the speed and depth of information. What makes Arozarena so special is that teams game-planned to stop him in the postseason, when scouting reports become even more detailed, and they still could not do it. His postseason opponents included the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers, three of the most tech-smart teams in baseball when it comes to run prevention game-planning.

The key to Arozarena’s hitting is the speed at which he brings his hands to the ball. He destroys fastballs, especially, not just including, high-velocity fastballs. He does so with a flat stroke that has none of the upward loop common in the game today that resulted in a .223 league average against high fastballs last year. Arozarena’s postseason launch angle was eight degrees—far below the league average of 13.0 degrees. This is the most telling stat about the ferocious speed of his hands:

Highest Slugging vs. 95+ MPH (Min. 20 AB, postseason included)

1. Randy Arozarena, Rays: 1.280 SLG

2. Yasmani Grandal, White Sox:  .952 SLG

3. José Abreu, White Sox:  .921 SLG

4. Shohei Ohtani, Angels:  .917 SLG

5. José Ramírez, Cleveland:  .889 SLG

Let that sink in for a minute. Arozarena slugged .328 better than everybody else against elite velocity. The gap between him and the rest of baseball was almost the same as the overall major league slugging average (.407). He slugged higher against fastballs 95 mph and faster than he did against those below 95. Overall, he hit 14 of his 17 home runs off fastballs.

Seeing these numbers, you might conclude that this season pitchers will adjust to Arozarena by throwing him fewer fastballs. You would be a tad late with that observation. The game works much faster than that these days. Pitchers adjusted last year and still had trouble getting him out. Arozarena saw fewer fastballs than any hitter in the majors:

Fewest Pct. of Fastballs (Min. 500 pitches; includes postseason)

1. Randy Arozarena, Rays: 36.4%

2. Matt Joyce, Phillies: 37.0%

3. Dylan Carlson, Cardinals: 39.8%

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4. Stephen Piscotty, A’s: 40.0%

5. Jedd Gyorko, Brewers: 40.9%

An at bat against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in World Series Game 4 last year told you how greatly teams feared Arozarena. With the count full against Arozarena and a runner at first, Jansen was one strike away from closing a 7–6 Dodgers win that would put Los Angeles up three games to one. Walking Arozarena would push the tying run into scoring position and put the winning run on base. Throwing him a signature cut fastball would be risking a walk-off home run.

Jansen took the safe route—and for him an unprecedented one. Jansen chose to throw Arozarena two straight full-count sliders. Arozarena fouled off the first one. The second one had no conviction behind it. It bounced in front of the plate for ball four. In 11 major league seasons Jansen has thrown only 21 full-count sliders. This was the first time in his career Jansen threw them back-to-back, and it was the first time he threw a second full-count slider to the same hitter ever—regardless of whether it was the same at bat or even the same year. It was an admission by the Dodgers that they could not be sure their closer could keep Arozarena from going yard.

Jansen’s bailout cost him. Arozarena scored the winning run—fabulously, of course—on the Brett Phillips single that ignited a cascade of pratfalls. Halfway home from third, Arozarena stumbled face-forward, but tucked his shoulder, rolled like a stuntman, popped to his feet, took a jab toward third, redirected toward home and slid headfirst with the winning run, pounding it 10 times with his open right hand as if adding the final flourish to a TikTok dance.

What you saw from Arozarena last postseason had not been seen since the steroid-filled days of Barry Bonds. Pitchers avoided throwing him fastballs over the plate as much as possible. In the rare cases when they did throw one, Arozarena hammered it.

Arozarena saw only three fastballs in the strike zone per game last postseason (60 in 20 games). He whacked them for 11 hits, including seven home runs, a .524 batting average and a 1.524 slugging percentage. That deserves a second take: The man saw only three fastballs in the zone each game and still was ready enough to pounce on seven of them for home runs.

“Then and even now I ask him, ‘Hey, man, do you realize what you just did?’ ” teammate Manuel Margot said through Navarro interpreting. “What he did was incredible. It surprised everyone.”

Says Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi, also through an interpreter, “It was very surprising that as a young player he came into the league and took over like that, especially in the playoffs. I kind of want to do that for myself, but I wasn’t able to. Obviously, he shined through. Maybe he can show me [how].”

A large part of the Arozarena legend stems from his claim of adding strength with all those push-ups and bowls of rice while in quarantine. Once he reported to the team’s alternate site, Arozarena started turning heads. Reports reached Cash that Arozarena was tearing up the camp and was ready for the majors. Cash needed almost two weeks to give him regular playing time—that’s how unexpected his breakout was to the team that knew him best.

“I believe it took a lot of concentration and a lot of hard work,” Arozarena says, “especially after what happened to me earlier in the year with testing positive for [COVID-19] and not being there for a month. So the preparation I had going into the season and taking it into the postseason was something very special.

“It’s something I’ll never forget, that month. Not necessarily my individual results, which I am very happy with, but helping my team advance into the playoffs and eventually into the World Series.”

Asked about his push-ups, he says, “Being stuck in a hotel there wasn’t much I could do except eat and do a little of the push-ups. I incorporated that as well as using the weight room a lot more in my offseason regimen.”

Randy Arozarena falls

His unofficial training program also included racing a horse in Mexico.

“It was actually something I used to do a long time ago, even before I left Cuba to come play,” Arozarena says. “I had friends with horses and I’d race against them. Fast forward to the offseason. I had a friend in Mexico named Alejandro who had a horse and they started to talk a little trash and I said I can beat them. I said in a 25-meter race I think I have a chance. So one thing led to another and we got to racing.

“I won. We’ve got videos to prove it.”

While in Mexico, Arozarena was arrested in November following a dispute with the mother of his daughter. He was released two days later with no charges filed. Arozarena has characterized the dispute as a “miscommunication” during an argument.

Arozarena never again will know anonymity as a ballplayer. He was too good too soon to wear such a cloak again. No matter what the sequel brings, Arozarena already has written a baseball legend, one that resembles the one of Zeke Bonura.

Bonura was 25 years old and somewhat of an unknown “freak athlete” himself when he debuted for the 1934 Chicago White Sox. (Arozarena was 24 for his debut in 2019.) At six feet and 210 pounds, Bonura had been known since high school as “Zeke” as an abbreviated form of “Physique.” His father was a fruit merchant in New Orleans. Zeke played basketball and threw the javelin at Loyola University of New Orleans, where the school had no baseball team. He spent four years in the minors. When he arrived at White Sox camp in 1934 the press reported he had “the biggest legs in baseball.”

The first 42 games of Bonura’s career (.291/.364/.606) look nearly identical to the first 42 of Arozarena’s career (.286/.384/.607). Zeke, to borrow from Kiermaier, turned out to be legit. He was a career .307 hitter with 639 RBI in his first six seasons. At age 32, he was drafted into World War II duty. He served in the army through 1945, effectively ending his baseball career.

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Like Arozarena, big Zeke was memorable also because of the fun he exuded. Like Arozarena, fans were drawn to him. Kind and good-natured, he was once voted the most popular player in Chicago. As a rookie he saw a street vendor hawking large balloons. “Aw, I wish I could buy one and bring it home to my sister,” he said. “Why don’t you?” a teammate asked. “It’s too big to fit in my suitcase,” Zeke said.

Arozarena is a modern day Bonura, at least when it comes to his having fun on a baseball field.

“My confidence has always been high,” Arozarena says. “I like to play with a lot of confidence, and having the support of my teammates behind me pushes me even more. I like to go on the field with 100% positivity and 100% confidence every single day and having my teammates back me up helps that.”

“I’ve always said if you’re having fun the game is going to be a lot better to you.”

It will be written and said many times this season that Arozarena faces the “pressure” to follow up his legendary October with a big rookie season. That will come as news to Arozarena, a hitter whose power, despite the cute push-up narrative, comes from two sources: hands that are among the fastest in the game and the belief that you can play baseball as if racing a horse—for the fun of it.