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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Padres find heir to the legacies of Gwynn & Carew



Luis Arráez, now with the San Diego Padres, has won batting titles with the Minnesota Twins (2022) and Miami Marlins (2023). (X/twitter.com)

By Dennis Lin / The Athletic


Luis Arráez arrived in the majors in May 2019, entering a blowout of the Seattle Mariners as a defensive replacement. Three innings later, he doubled for his first hit with the Minnesota Twins. When he kept hitting, comparisons with a pair of Hall of Famers followed.


“One of my friends called me Little Tony Gwynn,” Arráez said. “And then, especially the fans from Minnesota called me Little Rod Carew. That’s amazing for me.”


Those connections feel as relevant as ever. Last month, hours after being traded by the Miami Marlins, Arráez made his debut for the San Diego Padres, the franchise that built a statue of Gwynn. Arráez, the only player to win a batting title in the American and National leagues across consecutive seasons, doubled in his first at-bat. He collected three more hits that day. And he later learned that Carew, his mentor, was once a mentor to Gwynn.


“Tony and I were great friends,” Carew said in a recent phone interview.


Now, the knowledge of that relationship is inspiring a spiritual successor.


“It’s big, big for me,” Arráez said.


When Gwynn made his debut for the Padres in 1982, he and Carew resided in different stratospheres. Gwynn was a rookie not far removed from a two-sport career at San Diego State. Carew, a Twins great who had joined the California Angels, was playing in his 16th consecutive All-Star season.


But in a fellow left-handed hitter, Gwynn saw a blueprint.


“He patterned his game after him early in his career, for sure,” said Padres broadcaster Tony Gwynn Jr., whose father died in 2014 at age 54. “He was like, ‘That’s who I can be.’

Gwynn won a batting title in his third season, just as Carew did. The two men ultimately combined for 15 batting titles — eight for Gwynn, seven for Carew — cementing their legacies as two of the best pure hitters in baseball history.


Along the way, they went from strangers to regular conversation partners. They bonded over lunches in Southern California and hospital visits to young cancer patients.


“The great thing I think that we had is the quietness about us and the way we approached hitting,” said Carew, 78. “It wasn’t a do-or-die thing for us. I’ve told many people this: God blessed us with the ability to do something that nobody else can do. And do we give those secrets away?”


He laughed.


“But, you know, that’s what it’s like,” Carew said. “I feel that Tony was a great hitter. He could do things a lot of guys couldn’t do, and I feel the same way about myself.”


In a sport that has increasingly valued power production over contact ability, Carew seldom felt that way about anyone else after Gwynn’s retirement. Then, during a 2016 visit to the Twins’ affiliate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Carew met a teenager who finished that season hitting .347. A few years later, they reconnected during major league spring training.


Carew began to share his secrets.


“He’s like my grandfather,” Arráez said. “He’s taught me a lot of good things, especially for the game.”


Some of Carew’s secrets are more lost art than encrypted code. The leaguewide batting average this season is .240, the worst mark since 1968 — the year before the mound was lowered to 10 inches and the strike zone was reduced to its modern size. Arráez, a career .326 hitter, swears by such antiquated practices as using the whole field and letting the ball travel.


Arráez, a leadoff man, is among a dwindling collection of players who pay little attention to metrics such as launch angle and exit velocity. He owns the slowest average swing in the majors but also the highest squared-up rate. He has only 25 career home runs but more than 65 games of three or more hits.


“I got power, too, but it’s not my game,” said Arráez, 27. “My game is just getting base hits and getting on base.”


For teammates and coaches, his seeming ability to do so at will is a constant source of amazement.


“I think if more guys could do it, they would,” said pitcher Dylan Cease, who faced Arráez when they both played in the AL Central. “Like, anyone would love to hit .340. But there’s one that can do it.”


“You don’t do much,” hitting coach Víctor Rodríguez said of his approach to instructing Arráez. “That’s the best coaching with guys like that. Not coaching them at all, because they know what they’re doing.”


Since Arráez joined the team May 4, the Padres have been leading the majors in batting average (above .270) and were ranked second in on-base percentage. Arráez has batted .351 in 35 games.


“I try to stay out of his way,” said Carew, who has not spoken with his protege as often since the Twins traded Arráez last year. “I want him to feel that he has accomplished a lot of this by being a good student and learning and understanding what it takes to get up there and be a good hitter.”


Yet, Arráez, a two-time All-Star, remains a polarizing figure in this era. He does not possess mammoth power or play a premium position. He is not a speedster, and although he has held his own at first base with San Diego, the metrics cast him as one of the weakest defenders in the league. FanGraphs values his contributions this season at a mere 0.8 wins above replacement, the kind of dissonance that can lead to pointed observations about the state of the industry.


“It’s a shame how many amateur and lower-level professional hitters have been excluded from continuing to play because they don’t meet a measurable,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said recently. “They don’t meet an exit velocity or a bat speed or a launch angle or any of those things that this game is now basically recruiting and monetizing blindly. They’re just getting hits. And somehow that became out of vogue in our industry in general.”


When watching Arráez go about his daily work, certain flashes of recognition come to Gwynn’s son. The habit of scanning the defense before digging into the left-handed batter’s box. The patented opposite-field stroke. The casual conversations about hitting that take place around the ballpark.


“When I watch Luis, I can see the ’82-to-’91 version of my dad,” Gwynn said. “And I can see the clips I’ve seen of Rod. I can see a lot of those in him.”


For Arráez, it is a thrill to be likened to both Hall of Famers. As an overlooked amateur player in Venezuela, Arráez once thought he was destined to become a physical education teacher. Years later, he found himself receiving special attention each spring from Carew and Tony Oliva, another Twins great.


No one nowadays pays tribute to Carew and Gwynn the way Arráez does. This season, he could become the first major leaguer in the modern era to win batting titles for three different teams.


“It’s fun to talk to somebody who has the foundation that he has,” Gwynn’s son said. “The basics are the basics I grew up with.”

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