La Velle E. Neal III
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Luis Arraez had appeared as a pinch hitter in four of the Twins' first 12 games of the season while getting starts at first base, second and third. But the Twins were 4-8 after those 12 games. Byron Buxton injured his knee. Miguel Sano got off to a horrible start and later suffered a knee injury.

It gave Twins manager Rocco Baldelli no other choice. He needed Arraez's bat in the starting lineup as much as possible.

And it has been Arraez to the rescue.

The Twins are 19-5 over their last 24 games. Arraez went 2-for-4 on Tuesday with a double to right in their 2-0 win over Detroit, raising his batting average to .370 during that period. He's become an indispensable member of the lineup as the Twins have charged into first place in the AL Central Division. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify for the league leaders, Arraez would be tied for the third-highest batting average in baseball.

He's done so by taking his hitting to another level. He's achieved that two ways.

One is that he's in the best shape of his young career. There are concerns that Arraez, 25, will have to work out even harder to stay in shape, or he'll risk injuries or be limited defensively. That should not be a problem this season; he looks capable of playing anywhere in the infield.

The other development is that he spent a month hitting for former teammate Nelson Cruz at his complex in the Dominican Republic.

"I think the offseason work that he put in allowed him to kind of refine what he already had," Baldelli said. "I think he was already one of the more talented hitters in our game in a lot of ways. But I think there are probably just a few select parts of his games and at-bats that I think he was able to spend some time on and work. He spent some time with one of the best hitters, you know, of our generation and a friend of his.

"So I think when you talk about sacrifice and what you're willing to do to kind of continue to work and get to the next level of your career, you know, spending an offseason of just putting in that work, is one thing to talk about it. It's another thing to go out there and do it and Louie has done it. I think we're seeing a difference."

Arraez's at-bats are high quality. His strikeout percentage of 10.0 last season was a career high. This season, he's at a career-low 6.2%. His walk percentage of a whopping 15.4% this season is superior to his 9.0% last season. By comparison, Joe Mauer never had a strikeout rate below 7.9% or a walk rate above 14.0% in any season of his career.

Luis Arraez and Nelson Cruz prepared for a spring training workout in 2021.
Luis Arraez and Nelson Cruz prepared for a spring training workout in 2021.

Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

Arraez is a shift-busting hitting savant. He's not chasing bad pitches, and strikeouts aren't always his fault. On Sunday, as the Twins rallied from a 6-0 deficit in the final two innings at Kansas City to win 7-6, Arraez's seven-pitch at-bat in the eighth against Josh Staumont ended with a called third strike. Home plate umpire Jeremy Riggs was having a rough day. During that at-bat, all three pitches called strikes by Riggs were off the plate.

That was Arraez's first strikeout in 41 plate appearances. Come back and rake another day.

Arraez has batted in the nine hole only once this season. All other times he's batted first, second or third. Baldelli would be best served keeping Arraez in the top third of the order, preferably second, where he can drive in Byron Buxton when he's on base or serve as a catalyst for Jorge Polanco and Carlos Correa. With Sano on the 60-day injured list, Arraez can play at first base while keeping that elite swing in the batting order.

This is the best version of Luis Arraez yet. And he's as important to the Twins' cause as any of the All-Stars or Platinum Glove award winners batting around him in the order.