The once-floundering Marlins are the hottest team in the National League, and their offense is being led by the hottest hitter in the game, who’s cultivating talk of MLB history by making an early run at the hallowed mark of .400.
Luis Arraez is now hitting .403 after going 2-for-4 in the Marlins’ 6-1 win over the Royals on Wednesday night, his fifth straight multi-hit game and Miami’s sixth consecutive victory.
Arraez has 14 hits in his past 21 at-bats, starting with a 5-for-5 showing on Saturday — an exceptional run even for the 26-year-old hit machine.
According to ESPN, Arraez became the first player to be hitting at least .400 after his team’s first 62 games since Chipper Jones was at .421 with Atlanta in 2008 and just the sixth since 1950.
“It is an honor when I see that number on the scoreboard, but as I’ve said before, it is not impossible,” Arraez said in Spanish after Tuesday’s game. “Things are going well for me and we are also winning, which is what is most important.”
Arraez is the reigning American League batting champion after hitting .316 last season with the Twins, for whom he debuted with a .334 average in 92 games in 2019.
Arraez was traded in January to the Marlins in exchange for right-hander Pablo Lopez — who has been mediocre in Minnesota — and a pair of minor leaguers.
Given his presence in the AL Central for the past few years, the Yankees are quite aware of Arraez’s skill set.
“He has incredible bat-to-ball skills, and his hands are also incredibly quick,’’ Kyle Higashioka said this week.
Gerrit Cole, who gave up a homer to Arraez last year in Minnesota, praised the left-handed swinger’s ability to “get his bat on the ball and place it. Wherever you pitch him, he can get to it.”
Both Yankees are keeping an eye on Arraez’s pursuit of a number that hasn’t been reached in a full season since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941.
“I’d love to see him get .400,’’ Cole said. “It’s so rare. If you’re a fan of the game, you have to be rooting for him.”
Higashioka said he’s pulling for Arraez.
“I had pretty much written it off as impossible in today’s league,” Higashioka said. “There’s so much information about how to get guys out, you wouldn’t think it could be done. It’s early, but the fact he’s in the mix, that it might be possible, is incredible.”
In 1980, Kansas City’s George Brett was at .400 on Sept. 19 — which was Game 148 for the Royals — and finished at .390.
Tony Gwynn was poised to chase the number in 1994, hitting .394 on Aug. 11 when the season came to an end due to the players’ strike.
Higashioka said as a fan of the “old days,” his favorite players include Mickey Mantle and Williams, the Red Sox legend who wrote the book on hitting.
“Not to rag on that era, because I love it, but there was no computer system or video database about how to get hitters out back then,’’ Higashioka said. “We should be able to figure it out now.”
Additionally, as YES Network noted, Arraez already had faced 115 different pitchers through Tuesday. Williams hit against just 74 pitchers in the entire 1941 season.
Some of Arraez’s advanced metrics are pretty pedestrian. He has an average exit velocity of 88 mph and a hard-hit percentage of 22.2 percent, which ranks in the bottom 2 percent of the league, as well as being a career low, according to Statcast.
So how is he pulling this off?
It’s not due to the shift ban: Arraez faced a shift just 2.2 percent of the time last season.
Arraez just doesn’t swing and miss.
His whiff percentage — his percentage of swings and misses — is 6.8 percent, by far the lowest in the majors. Not surprisingly, his strikeout rate of 4.7 percent is also the best in the sport.
“He pretty much only swings at strikes, and when he swings, he makes contact,” Higashioka said.
That makes for a unique gameplan, according to Higashioka and Cole.
“You want to make him put the ball in play early in the count,’’ Higashioka said. “I hate getting to two strikes against him because he just draws out the at-bat. If he’s gonna put the ball in play, at least let’s be efficient and not kill the pitch count.”
Cole said that as a fly ball pitcher, his goal additionally is to get Arraez to put the ball in play quickly and “ideally hit weak fly balls.”
“There’s more risk when he hits it on the ground because as a left-handed hitter, he gets out of the box so fast,’’ Cole said. “It’s not comfortable facing a guy like that.”
Cole and Higashioka picked different notable hitters to compare to the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Arraez. Cole went with the Reds’ Joey Votto “in his prime,” as well as Ichiro.
“When you faced Ichiro at his best, you almost wanted to just throw it over the heart of the plate, change speeds and hope for the best,” Cole said.
Higashioka likened Arraez to the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman because they have “insanely quick hands.”
And Higashioka, as much as he’s hoping for the infielder’s success, is pleased he’s doing it in the NL.
“He was always one of the toughest guys to face in that Minnesota lineup,’’ Higashioka said.
The Yankees will face the Marlins in Miami for three games in August. The Marlins close the schedule with six of their final 12 games against the Mets: Sept. 18-20 at Citi Field and Sept. 26-28 in Miami.
Today’s back page
⚾ VACCARO: New season, same story: Braves are still just better than the Mets
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📱 Join the Inside St. John’s text-message conversation to keep up with all the behind-the-scenes buzz around Rick Pitino’s Red Storm and to get your Johnnies questions answered by reporter Zach Braziller.
The backstop’s here
Francisco Alvarez won the Mets’ regular catching job when Omar Narvaez was sidelined due to a strained calf and Tomas Nido was struggling both at the plate and behind it.
Can he do it again now that Narvaez is back?
Alvarez snapped an 0-for-14 skid by cranking his ninth home run of the season in his first at-bat in Wednesday night’s 7-5 loss to the Braves — a night marked by a blown lead and a Pete Alonso injury scare.
On Sunday, Buck Showalter — perhaps foreshadowing the Mets’ decision on Monday to designate Nido for assignment — had preached patience with the 21-year-old Alvarez.
“Part of having young players… is the process of ups and downs,’’ Showalter said, referring to rookies Brett Baty and Mark Vientos as well as Alvarez.
Of Alvarez’s slump at the plate, Showalter said, “The pitching level is so much better here [in the majors], there’s gonna be those stretches.”
On Wednesday night, Alvarez misplayed a bunt — the ball would have rolled foul — for his third error in the past week. After Alvarez’s gaffe during Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays — he threw the ball into center field trying to pick Matt Chapman off second base — Showalter also was forgiving.
“You’ve got to let him [make mistakes],’’ Showalter said. “If they make a mistake and you put too big a thumb on them, it doesn’t help. You’ve got to let them chase who they are. He’ll learn. He’s a quick learner.”
Narvaez, signed to a one-year, $8 million deal with a $7 million player option for 2024, has been at best an average hitter the previous three seasons, but he is a strong defensive catcher.
And even though Alvarez hits from the right side and Narvaez is a lefty, it may not shape up as a typical platoon. Alvarez is hitting much better against right-handed pitchers (.951 OPS) than against lefties (.418).
Narvaez has a career .751 OPS against right-handers and just a .615 mark versus lefties.
Alvarez could be used as a DH, especially if Vientos, also a right-handed hitter, and the lefty-swinging Daniel Vogelbach continue to struggle.
The GOAT in the USA
A day after the sport of golf was transformed by Saudi Arabia’s petro-gazillions with the PGA Tour’s agreement to merge with LIV, soccer megastar Lionel Messi spurned Saudi payola to sign with … a last-place team in MLS.
Yes, in a coup for America’s lightly relevant league, Messi, the 35-year-old Argentine legend, is on the verge of joining the David Beckham-owned club Inter Miami — the LeBron of soccer is taking his talents to South Beach.
It’s as if LeBron were signing a free-agent deal with little Lille of France’s basketball league.
The move has the potential to transform how American professional soccer is consumed and esteemed at home and abroad.
Messi’s appearances will drive demand for Apple’s exclusive broadcast package of MLS games — Apple and apparel sponsor Adidas are sweetening the pot for Messi to come stateside, as will MLS itself with ownership opportunities. Then there’s ticket demand to see Messi in person, including for Inter Miami’s Aug. 26 visit to Red Bull Arena.
And his presence will help grow the buzz for soccer on the ground in North America with three years until the continent hosts the 2026 World Cup (Argentina are the defending champs).
— Jonathan Lehman
Scenes from a smoke postponement
Weird — and disturbing — scenes at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, when the Yankees and White Sox had their game postponed due to wildfire smoke.
Perhaps the first sign of trouble — apart from the unnaturally orange sky — was the batting cage being taken down, meaning there would be no batting practice.
And unlike other weather-related situations, instead of looking at the radar for a potential storm, people such as Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner were paying attention to air quality numbers.
It came a day after the Yankees’ and the Mets’ Triple-A affiliates in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Syracuse, respectively, postponed their games for the same reason.
The closest thing to actual baseball in The Bronx on Wednesday was Carlos Rodon’s simulated game as the left-hander attempts to come back from the injuries and setbacks that have delayed his Yankees debut.
Rodon looked fine. Not much else did.
Fab Five fallout
The news this week of Jacob deGrom’s impending Tommy John surgery was another installment in how rough a season it has been for the Mets’ one-time rotation of the future.
DeGrom, who signed a five-year, $185 million deal with the Texas Rangers in the offseason, will be out at least until late next year.
Then there’s Noah Syndergaard calling himself “the weakest link” of the Dodgers’ rotation last week. He was torched yet again Wednesday, giving up six runs in three innings to Elly De La Cruz and the Reds to raise his ERA to 7.16.
Matt Harvey retired earlier this year after failing to land a major league job despite pitching well for Team Italy in the WBC.
And Steven Matz has been demoted to the bullpen by the dreadful Cardinals after going 0-6 with a 5.72 ERA in 10 starts.
Even Zack Wheeler is struggling by his standards, carrying a 4.33 ERA for the Phillies after getting knocked around by the Nationals in his most recent start.